The Victorian prisoner population has been on the rapid increase since the late 1990s. In July 1998, there were 2,876 adult prisoners in the state’s correctional facilities, whereas in July this year, there was 7,152 inmates, according to Corrections Victoria figures.
This marks a 148 percent increase over a 19-year period. And over recent years, this percentage growth is still on a steep rise.
In July 2012, there were 4,950 inmates in Victorian gaols, which means that over the last five-year period the population has grown by 44 percent. Over that time, the number of female prisoners has increased by 55 percent and males by 43 percent.
A rise in unsentenced prisoners
There’s also been a sharp rise in the rate of Victorian prisoners on remand – those inmates who have been refused bail, and are in detention waiting for the finalisation of their cases. There were 2,262 remandees in July this year, which accounted for 33 percent of the overall prison population.
Since July 2012, the number of unsentenced prisoners in Victorian correctional facilities has risen by 112 percent. Much of this increase is due to the toughening of bail laws under the Bail Amendment Act 2013. And the Andrews government is currently set to tighten these laws further.
In 2015, the recidivism rate in Victoria was 44 percent, meaning that almost half the people in prison return within two years of release. And with many remandees eventually being released with no sentence, this means the system is potentially producing its very own “revolving door prisoners.”
A cycle of disadvantage
A 2015 Victorian Ombudsman report found that a quarter of Victorian prisoners come from just 2 percent of the state’s postcodes, while half the inmates come from 6 percent. And only 14 percent of women behind bars and 6 percent of male prisoners have completed high school.
The average prisoner was unemployed at the time they committed their offence. A majority of female prisoners report a history of abuse, and over 40 percent of female prisoners are released into a state of homelessness.
And this experience is multi-generational. The children of prisoners are six times more likely to be sent to gaol than their peers.
“The profile of Victorian prisoners is clear and consistent: their disadvantaged backgrounds are evident in the demographics and statistics,” Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass wrote in the Investigation into the rehabilitation and reintegration of prisoners in Victoria report.
A prevalence of problematic substance use
The report also found that “the links between problematic substance use and offending are strong.” Over 75 percent of male prisoners and at least 83 percent of women being held in correctional facilities reported previous illicit substance use.
Ms Glass outlined that the high prevalence of alcohol and other drug (AOD) problems amongst inmates is often the direct cause of offending and recidivism, and these issues are also “the source of physical and mental health problems.”
A lack of support
Due to the high levels of reported AOD issues amongst the Victorian prisoner population, coupled with the finding that the majority of inmates are released into the community with little or no formal support, Ms Glass was prompted to launch a further inquiry.
The Victorian Ombudsman said that “for those with AOD addiction,” the lack of post-release support programs “makes relapse all but inevitable – thereby fuelling Victoria’s billion-dollar recidivism merry-go-round.”
Being released back into an unwelcoming community is a critical time for ex-prisoners. Difficulties in finding accommodation and employment are only exacerbated if an individual is suffering from substance use disorder.
A stark reminder of this is the high rate of overdose deaths amongst prisoners upon release into the community. Victorian Coroners Court data reveals that between 2000 and 2010, 120 former inmates died from a drug overdose.
The inquiry found that substance use issues are a major barrier to rehabilitation, both within prison and on release. And a lack of stability in the initial stages of re-entering society can lead to reengaging in old habits and reoffending.
Access to services
The 2015 report found the AOD programs that were available in prisons had a long waiting list. There was only a limited provision of these programs for remandees. And not all prisons actually had these rehabilitation programs available.
The ninth recommendation of that report was to ensure that AOD treatment programs are available in all Victorian prisons, including minimum security facilities. In February 2016, the Department of Justice and Regulation reported that the implementation of this recommendation had been completed.
However, there continues to be a lack of access to post-release AOD programs, particularly in regional and rural areas. Currently, there are 250 publicly-funded residential rehabilitation beds available in the state, and of these, only 15 are located outside of metropolitan Melbourne.
The lack of available beds is leading to long waiting lists, which means these services are unavailable for ex-prisoners on release, or at the time when they are willing to engage in such a program. And this in turn has an impact upon rehabilitation and reoffending.
Another major hurdle for inmates entering into the community is a lack of secure and available housing. This can force individuals into a situation of having to sleep on the streets or couch-surf, and this can lead back into patterns of AOD use.
The 2015 Ombudsman investigation “identified alternative approaches to prison as highly effective in reducing the number of people who come into contact with the criminal justice system for AOD issues.”
Specifically, the Dandenong Drug Court was found to have reduced reoffending by 34 percent over a 24-month period. And on the Ombudsman’s recommendation, the Victorian government launched the $32 million Melbourne Drug Court in March this year.
However, the number of people coming into contact with the criminal justice system for drug-related issues would further be reduced if calls for the decriminalisation of personal possession and use of illicit substances were heeded.
Indeed, in Portugal, where the personal possession and use of all illicit substances has been decriminalised since June 2011, not only has drug use fallen, along with the rates of drug-related deaths and HIV infections, but police resources have been freed up to address real crimes.
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Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.