The Rights of Prisoners: An Interview with Brett Collins, Coordinator of Justice Action

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Justice Action Brett Collins

The rights of prisoners is a contentious issue. There are many in the community who believe that once a person has committed a crime, they should lose all of their rights. Some go as far as to say that inmates should be subjected to corporal punishment behind bars.

But courts have repeatedly made it clear that offenders are sent to prison to be deprived of their freedom – that is the punishment. They are not there to face the wrath of prison guards, or to be humiliated or degraded – basic human rights are not a privilege.

An advocacy group for prisoners

Justice Action is a non-profit community organisation that advocates for the rights of prisoners and involuntary mental health patients.

Founded in 1979, the organisation has had considerable impact on the development of Australian criminal justice policy. Their work led to the development of the Prisoners Legal Service in 1979 and the Australian Prisoners Union in 1999.

The work of Justice Action

Today, the group provides representation to people locked up in prisons and hospitals, with an emphasis on cases that deal with abuses of power and the human rights of incarcerated people.

Key areas Justice Action has focused on are access to educational programs for prisoners and patients, visitation rights for women prisoners, campaigning for prisoners’ rights to vote and access to computers for prisoners in their cells.

Justice Action is a member of the Community Justice Coalition, which is a non-government organisation formed in 2009 that advocates for reforms in the NSW justice and prison systems.

And the organisation is also a member of the International Conference on Penal Abolition (ICOPA), a bi-annual meeting of activists and advocates working towards the abolition of the prison system. Justice Action hosted the 2006 ICOPA meeting in Tasmania.

Press and online

The group also produces a publication for people being held in Australian and New Zealand prisons and hospitals called Just Us. It’s been providing a voice for the incarcerated since 2004.

Another recent project of Justice Action is the iExpress website.  Launched in 2013, iExpress provides prisoners and people in hospitals with a platform to generate a personalised webpage, allowing them to share sentiments in much the same way that Facebook does.

Breakout Media Communications is a social enterprise run by Justice Action that allows the group to remain independent and self-funded via publications they produce for unions, community organisations and corporations.

A life of advocacy

Coordinator of Justice Action Brett Collins has been with the organisation since its inception. He’s had personal experience of the NSW prison system and this led him to take up the cause of prisoners’ rights.

The 70-year-old father of three runs Justice Action out of their downtown Sydney office, with help from volunteers and intern university students.

Sydney Criminal Lawyers® spoke with Brett about what their organisation is pushing for now and the misconception that prisoners somehow forgo their rights.

Many believe people lose their rights once they’re sentenced to prison. In your opinion, do prisoners have rights?

Absolutely, there’s not even a question about that. We’ve been to the Supreme Court on three occasions, just arguing about the entitlement for prisoners to have access to information in order for them to vote correctly. That’s the most basic right of all: the democratic right to vote.

But on top of that, there are entitlements to leave the cell and entitlements to defend yourself in front of the courts. These are all rights which are often resisted by management, but prisoners certainly have rights.

And we make a point of ensuring that prisoners themselves feel as though they do have rights. That’s the most important part, feeling as though you are a person of some worth. To be able to defend some basic entitlements that you have, and also to offer those same rights to other people and respect them.

You’ve been instrumental in the campaign to get prisoners the right to vote in Australia. Why do you think prisoners should have the right to vote?

Prisoners, most times, don’t really care. That’s the truth of it. They actually feel as though they’re excluded from the whole area. So what we are really doing is making prisoners themselves aware that they have some political standing. That they’re actually equal in a democracy. And also giving them a sense of ownership of the laws.

It’s one thing to have laws made that feel like other people’s laws. But if you’re actually part of the process of deciding what those laws are and feel as though you’re contributing to it, then you’re much more likely to respect the laws. So that’s the first point.

The other thing is that once you start to understand power is restricted, then you start to realise that you can actually live within the laws that sometimes put you in gaol if you establish what those laws are. It’s really a chance for people to understand the formation of laws and to be involved in that part of the process.

So can all prisoners vote today?

No, look they can’t. People who are charged with an offence can vote until they’re convicted. And then if they’re serving a sentence of over three years, they can’t vote federally.

But it changes from state to state. So in NSW, if you’re serving a sentence of over 12 months, then you actually lose your right to vote. But you do still retain your right to vote federally.

But when it comes to the mechanics of voting, that’s something once again, because even just enrolling to vote is difficult when you’re inside a prison.

One of our really important campaigns is to make sure that people in prisons and in locked hospitals do have their entitlements to vote, so that people in authority understand that it’s all very well to lock a person in a cell, but it’s a real democratically legitimate human being that you’re locking in a cell and that person has rights and you have to respect them.

And that’s the important lesson, not just for the prisoners themselves, but also for the authorities.

You’re the coordinator of Justice Action, which has been around since 1979. How would you describe what your organisation does?

We see ourselves as being the organisation that carries on the tradition of the prisoner movement. But more than that, as it’s really defending all people’s rights to respect. So a lot of people in the general community come to us and talk about police behaviour for example. The way they haven’t been treated well, when they’re sitting in a cell. Or access to lawyers. They’re all the issues that come to us.

We’re looking at abuses of authority in the widest sense of the term. Quite often it goes into health, where people are forcibly medicated because they’ve caused some disturbance to their families. And for whatever reason the hospitals decide to go along with the concerns of the family regardless of the other alternate ways of dealing with the person.

So these health areas are areas that worry us a lot. But then there’s things like access to education. They’re all issues of ours. We are dealing with people who are disenfranchised and are powerless.

Your work led to the establishment of institutions such as the Prisoners Legal Service in 1979, and the Australian Prisoners Union in 1999. What’s sort of work does the Australian Prisoners Union do?

The Australian Prisoners Union really, to a large extent, is sitting there as a shell. Because it has yet to have acceptance from other unions. And if we wanted to, we could put a lot of energy into that as well. It’s like the Prisoners Legal Service, the service these days is almost captured by the legal aid system. So we don’t have the same influence over the delivery of legal services as we used to.

But the role of Justice Action is robust, we have a number of volunteers working with us all the time. We have a lot of law students and people in the general community, families of prisoners and a long historical group who’ve been working with us for decades.

That’s Justice Action: a forthright, earnest and self-supporting expression of the prisoner movement. It’s a very proud heritage and we’re part of the heritage of Australia.

The largest prison strike in US history took place in September this year, when tens of thousands of inmates from over 40 prisons across 24 states stopped work. What do you think about actions like these?

We actually launched a strike last year here in Australia. Because there were a number of issues where people in authority had not been listening carefully to the sort of concerns we have. Legal entitlements that we have and concerns about some deaths in custody that they were treating as insignificant.

So we actually launched a strike, but at the end of it we felt that we have to work from quite a few different bases. Prisoners themselves are actually in a very vulnerable position and it’s very hard for them to take action and most times it also ends up being rapid responses and dangerous situations.

We’re not encouraging any sort of violent responses inside prisons. In fact, we talk about a smart strike, where people just withdraw assistance to the authorities.

But we work on a whole range of different levels and one of those is prisoners themselves – that’s most important, we always get our information and direction from prisoners and their families – but then we work from the outside as well, working in parliament and before the courts.

Those organisers in the US wanted to bring about the end to free prison labour. But they’re also interested in the abolition of the prison system all together. What are your views on prison abolition?

There’s no question prison has failed. Everyone accepts that. In the US, it’s most obvious of all. The level of imprisonment there is ridiculous, it’s about four times the rate of imprisonment here in Australia. And it’s sapping money that is desperately needed for the health system and the education system.

The very money that would assist people going to gaol is actually spent on locking them up. It’s immensely expensive, when you realise that here in Australia it costs $100,000 per year per person. Each cell costs a million dollars to build – one cell costs a million dollars – when you hear those figures, you think, “A million dollars, that would buy me a house in Sydney,” and you get a cell instead.

This is a real sapping of the economic strength of Australia, as well as being destructive. The money can be much better spent.

There’s a term justice reinvestment which actually talks about exactly that. The money that’s currently spent in those particular areas, where people would normally go to gaol, that money should instead be returned to that community and build a social support for those people.

In 1971, you were sentenced to seventeen years in prison for robbing a bank, ten of which you served. What was that experience like? And how did it shape your future work?

It was absolutely shocking for me. I went in as a university student – albeit I was a cheeky rebellious boy – but I was 23 years old and it had an enormous impact on me.

Seventeen years effectively meant that was the end of my life as it was. I had a three-month-old son and a young wife and I was devastated by it.

Obviously I had to take responsibility for my behaviour. But I sat in there for 10 years and I suddenly became aware of my own need to focus on myself, and to ensure that I learnt some new skills.

It really changed my life, because I became aware then of the prisoner community. I saw how much money was being spent and how damaging it all was.

And I also received so much support from prisoners themselves. I felt accepted appreciated. And I’ve been giving back ever since to the prisoner community.

And lastly, what is Justice Action working on at the moment?

Justice Action has just had a major win in South Australia. We’ve just had a decision coming through from the Ombudsman on our website iExpress – a platform for people in prison and hospital to exist outside in cyberspace.

That was challenged in South Australia when the South Australian Commissioner of Corrective Services said that he wasn’t going to allow any prisoners in South Australia to have any communication with us until we took down the profiles from iExpress.

The Ombudsman in South Australia said – after a very considerable examination of the law – that the special policy that had been brought in to try and force us to take down South Australian prisoners’ profiles was unreasonable and it should be stopped.

So that was a very important victory. It really means defending cyberspace for everyone. And it’s really the beginning of getting computers into cells for every person, so people can actually use their time in their cells properly: do education and also learn new skills. And not just education, but also learn ways in which they can avoid doing the things they were doing before. If it’s domestic violence, you get online counselling.

Brett thanks you very much for speaking with us today. Good luck with your future campaigns for prisoners’ rights.

Thanks it’s been lovely to talk with you.

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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