By Sonia Hickey and Ugur Nedim
The rights of inmates in correctional centres is always a contentious issue.
Many believe that those convicted of crimes, or even suspected of them, should be denied all rights while they are behind bars.
However, the fact of the matter is that people are sent to prison as punishment, not to be punished, and a third of inmates in Australian prisons are there on ‘remand’ – which means they have not been convicted of any crime and should be presumed innocent until and unless they are proven guilty in a court of law.
It is in this context that the adequacy of prison food has been called into question, especially that which is provided to defendants during emotionally and physical exhausting criminal trials.
Allocated meals during court proceedings
Jury trials can last weeks or even months.
During that time, inmates are routinely awoken at around 4am and given a 30 gram box of cereal and milk. They are then packed into prison vans and taken to their allocated courthouses, which can take several hours.
During morning tea, they are given a sandwich and coffee, and another sandwich at lunchtime.
It has been reported that the sandwiches are often frozen before they are delivered, and can be either stale or soggy. Many describe them as ‘inedible’.
By the time inmates return to their correctional facility in the evening, they may have missed the dinner service and, while meals are left out for them, they are often cold and there is no way to reheat them.
Judge and defence lawyers express concerns
During a number of recent court cases, criminal defence lawyers have expressed concerns about their clients being ‘light headed’ and unable to concentrate, due to the lack of sustenance.
This is a concern as it is vital that defendants are able to concentrate during what is often the most pivotal experience of their lives.
There are reports that one District Court judge recently threatened to abort a robbery trial after the defendant’s barrister submitted that his client’s meal intake was so small her three-year-old daughter, “would be crazy by lunchtime if that’s all she was getting”.
Criminal defence lawyers for members of the Rebels Motorcycle Club also recently expressed concerns their clients were not getting enough to sustain them, and that the food provided was inedible.
The infamous ‘Sons of Ancharchy’ trial is perhaps the best recent example, with the defendants clearly losing weight as the proceedings went on.
The Judge in that trial ultimately allowed families and lawyers to bring in extra food to be taken to the cells. The defendant were all found not guilty of allegations relating to the kidnapping and murder of a former gang president.
Judge speaks out
District Court Judge Peter Zahra has been concerned about the food provided to defendants for a number of years.
The highly-respected former Public Defender recently told the media:
“As a trial judge, I need to ensure a fair trial and, if that accused person doesn’t have enough sustenance, that they’re not able to concentrate on the proceedings, then I may need to consider whether proceeding with the trial is an abusive process.”
“If they have not been properly sustained and cannot continue with the proceedings, I have no alternative but to stay the proceedings”.
There is enough food, and it is good
Corrective Services NSW is the government department responsible for providing food to inmates in our state.
A spokesperson for the department disagrees with the reports, contending that all inmates are properly fed during the trial process.
It explains that additional cereal and a bottle of water can be arranged for inmates who are travelling more than two hours to attend court, and additional sandwiches can also be arranged upon request.
It claims that, “quality control measures are in place and all meals provide adequate nutrition and comply with legislated food and health requirements, and Inmates can purchase additional food through the correctional centre grocery list”.
CSNSW says it feeds more than 13,000 inmates, at a cost of about $10 per day.
It fears that any increase in cost will result in a public outcry, and seems unconcerned that that proper nutrition has a huge bearing on brain function and can impact mental health.
However, many believe that being properly sustained is part of providing a fair trial, pointing out that the cost of aborting a trial due to a prisoner’s inability to properly participate can also come at a significant cost.