Justice Action is a “community-based advocacy group targeting abuse of authority”. The organisation recently released a report comparing the treatment of prison inmates to animals being kept at Taronga Zoo.
Their conclusion? That animals are treated better.
Some might argue that inmates deserve to be treated worse than animals because they “lost their rights” by committing serious crimes, while animals have done nothing wrong. They might add that the function of zoos is to preserve and protect animals, rather than punish them for wrongdoing.
A proponent of that view is NSW Corrective Services Minister, Ron Woodham, who stated that:
“Well, elephants probably do not go around murdering backpackers and children and doing armed robberies and shooting people and hurting my staff.”
However, civil liberties groups like Justice Action contend that people are sent to prison as punishment – not to be punished while there. They point out that punishment is just one of the aims of imprisonment, and that the important objective of rehabilitation is almost impossible to achieve when fundamental rights are abused.
They argue that denying inmates access to basic needs – such as education, mental health support, living space and programs that address the underlying causes of offending – has the effect of decreasing their prospects of rehabilitation, thereby increasing the likelihood that they will commit offences after being released.
Gorillas Get More Space
The report points out that in NSW, the size of an average prison cell is just 8.75m2. It says that, by comparison, Western Lowland Gorillas must be kept in enclosures that allow at least 72m2 per animal. This is despite the fact that the average Western Lowland Gorilla is shorter than an average human. The report goes on to state that even Chimpanzees get 45.6m2 each, despite growing to only 3 feet, 2 inches.
Justice Action says that it has received reports about 3 inmates held in a single standard cell – one of them stating that they could not “walk past each other without bumping into each other.”
In NSW, the space requirements for zoo enclosures are governed by Schedule 1 of the Exhibited Animals Protection Regulation 2010 (NSW). Regulation 24 prescribes a maximum penalty of $1,100 for any breach of the rules.
There are also several requirements under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1979 (NSW), such as ensuring that animals are not confined to a cage that does not allow adequate exercise, and that animals are let out out at least once every 24 hours. Anyone who breaches these rules faces a maximum penalty of 6 months imprisonment and/or a fine of up to $5,500.
By contrast, the Standard Guidelines for Corrections in Australia (2012) prescribe a minimum space of 8.75m2 for prison cells in NSW – and these are only guidelines, not “a set of absolute standards or laws to be enforced.” There is no punishment prescribed for those who breach the guidelines.
The Link Between Space and Rehabilitation
Justice Action argues that keeping inmates in confined spaces for extended periods of time inflicts mental and physical stress, and is not conducive to rehabilitation.
The group points out that laws such as Clause 56 of the General Standards for Exhibiting Animals In New South Wales 2004 (NSW) require zoo animals to be given mental stimulation, including sufficient space, climbing equipment where appropriate, opportunities to interact with other animals, and a natural environment including plants that are native to their original habitat. This is because boredom and inactivity can lead to behavioural issues.
The group suggests that applying similar rules to the treatment of inmates might reduce anti social behaviour, and promote rehabilitation. A 2015 report into prison overcrowding by Inspector of Custodial Services John Paget made similar observations – finding that a lack of physical and mental stimulation leads to aggression and other forms of problematic conduct. Mr Paget stated that:
“Where the state treats inmates in a way that denies them a modicum of dignity and humanity it should not be surprised if they respond accordingly, with individual acts of non-compliant behaviour escalating into collective disorder, such as riots.”
Perhaps it is time that the current guidelines are replaced by enforceable laws designed to promote a prison environment that is conducive to rehabilitation, which might contribute to producing outcomes that are in the long term interests of the community.