How Should We Deal With the Rising Prison Population?

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Holding onto cell with hands

A report released last week shows that the NSW prison population is at a record high, with many prisons significantly overcrowded.

And it seems that the problem will only worsen as the impact of the new amendments to the Bail Act continues to be felt.

The new laws effectively limit a court’s power to grant bail to those charged with certain serious offences.

This increases the likelihood of many applicants being be refused bail and remanded in custody while they go through the court process – which can take years.

Figures show that the current prison population stands at 11,100 despite the Public Service Association saying that prisons can only safely accommodate 10,800 people.

Data collected by BOSCAR shows that the prison population is set to sharply rise to 12,500 by next month.

The rise in the number of inmates has meant that in some cases, they have been held for extended period of time in police custody or court cells before being transferred to remand centres such as the Silverwater MRRC.

Assistant General Secretary of the Public Service Association Steve Turner has said that inmates are often being lumped together, with some ‘triple-bunked’ into cells that are not designed to hold them.

In July of last year, it was reported that the problem was so severe that some corrections officers were turning new inmates away – sending them back to holding cells at police stations.

Overcrowding poses a number of risks – for one, it creates a dangerous environment for inmates as well as prison staff, who have to deal with an increased risk of assaults.

It also increases the possibility of riots, which may quickly turn violent.

Overcrowding also deprives many inmates of proper services and facilities whilst they wait in police and court cells.

How can we address overcrowding?

The problem of overcrowding has left the government struggling to find a quick-fix, and several proposals are currently being considered.

One obvious solution is to reopen unused prisons.

Grafton prison was closed in July 2012, but has been earmarked as one of the facilities that may be reopened in the future.

At the time of its closure, Grafton had the capacity to house up to 180 inmates and provided jobs for nearly 100 staff.

Another move is the proposed production of ‘portable prison cells’- and the government has already set-aside $10 million for the production of 80 pre-fabricated cells that will each house two inmates.

The cells will be constructed of steel and contain basic facilities such as a desk, stool, shower, toilet and beds, and inmates at the St Helier’s Correctional Centre will help to construct them.

NSW Attorney-General Brad Hazzard has lauded portable cells as offering correctional services ‘flexibility’ to address a fluctuating prison population.

The project has also been praised as being more cost-effective than constructing permanent cells.

Yet another possible answer might be to build more private prisons.

It was reported earlier this week that Mr Hazzard had met with representatives from Serco, the company that currently runs a number of private prisons and immigration detention centres in NSW and across the nation.

However, Hazzard has refused to comment on whether or not more private prisons are being examined as a viable solution, stating that the meeting was ‘confidential.’

The suggestion that they are being considered has been slammed by the opposition Labor party, which has vowed not to authorise more private prisons if elected into government at the next state election.

Rather, Labor contends that it will concentrate its efforts on re-opening disused prison facilities.

Regardless of the approach taken, it will be interesting to see how the government deals with the increase in prison numbers which has been partially brought about by its ‘tough on crime’ stance.

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Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Criminal Law Specialist with 25 years of experience as a Criminal Defence Lawyer. He is the Principal of Sydney Criminal Lawyers®.

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