WRAP - No prison in Westbury

OPINION: New Northern Regional Prison - bad policy in action

By Cameron Scott
Tasmanian Times
22 June 2020

If we fixed poor policy settings that are driving the crime and recidivism rate up, we wouldn't need a Northern Prison, argues barrister Cameron Scott.

The Tasmanian Attorney-General Elise Archer has announced that the new Northern Regional Prison will not be built near the township of Westbury, but rather will be built approximately 5 km away from the township, at Birralee Road.

While the Government says this is because it has listened to the people, the backflip has prompted suggestions that the Northern Prison has simply been 'kicked down the road'. The politics of choosing a site for the new prison provides a classic study into negative attitudes directed towards inmates within our community and highlights why so many former inmates struggle to reintegrate back into society following their release from prison.

It is shameful that Tasmania should require an additional prison, given that successive governments have not taken serious steps to promote rehabilitation and community-based sentences thereby failing to take the opportunity to reduce the recidivism rate in Tasmania. On the contrary, modern Tasmanian politics has descended into a race to the bottom, to see which of the major parties can be the most 'tough on crime'.

The reality is that if the Tasmanian Government adopted an evidence-based approach to reducing crime and re-offending instead, there would be no need to build an additional prison. The Government would implement community based options like Intensive Corrections Orders (which have been successful in New South Wales), and crime would be diminishing rather than increasing.

As I highlighted in an earlier article, the incarceration and recidivism rate statistics are going up, thus to maintain an ideological stance on crime and punishment that only serves to create more crime does every Tasmanian a disservice; especially when the Government is well advised on the causes of crime. It is staggering that the Government continues to pursue the development of a new prison and chooses not to invest the same effort or funds to address the causes of crime in Tasmania.

It is well documented that addressing the causes of crime and offending is significantly cheaper (and more effective) than incarceration.

The other problem with building a new prison is staffing. The current prison facilities struggle to retain a sufficient cohort of staff, and it is hard to believe the same problem will not be encountered at the new prison. I was recently informed that the Hobart Reception Prison was so lacking in personnel that they could not adequately staff each floor with custodial officers. Similarly, prison lockdowns have been used at Risdon Prison to compensate for an insufficient number of available staff. These lockdowns deprive the inmates of access to prison-based employment, scheduled appointments with support workers, education and training programs, as well as rehabilitation services. Lockdowns serve as an unnecessarily burdensome punishment on a prison population for circumstances not of their own making.

Ms Archer's promotion of the Northern Regional Prison is largely centred around the idea that it will be beneficial for northern inmates to have contact with their northern based families. But when you consider the detriment to the individual that is caused by prison, and the high rate of recidivism, this is hardly a ringing endorsement for a new prison. To be clear, prisons do not deter crime or promote rehabilitation, they exist purely to warehouse people either before trial or while they are subject to sentence.

The new Northern Regional Prison will inevitably be filled with remanded inmates facing allegations of family violence, from the least to the most serious. The increase in reported family violence is partly due to a changing community attitude towards violence against women and children. Sadly, the Tasmanian Family Violence Act works much like a hammer, and treats the family violence problem like a nail - despite family violence being a complex social issue that requires a nuanced approach from our community, community organisations, the police, and the Courts.

The Family Violence Act serves a certain ideological viewpoint, whereby the mandatory remand in custody of those accused of family violence is the only way to prevent further family violence, all the while ignoring what happens when an offender is ultimately released from prison. Anyone involved in dealing with family violence cases can see that early intervention including family counselling and an emphasis on post-offence counselling can be implemented far more easily, at less cost, and with better effect, rather than simply remanding (predominantly) men in prison, where they have little or no access to support services.

The Northern Regional Prison is a consequence of poor government policy that is driving the crime and recidivism rate upwards, yet claims to be part of a supposed tough-on-crime agenda. The reality is that the Northern Regional Prison will compound this problem further.

The people of Tasmania should stand with Westbury and demand that there be no new prison, not because it will ruin the aesthetic, but because it is the result of bad policy.

Cameron Scott is a barrister at Edward Coke Chambers in Hobart. He is an advocate for an evidence based approach to sentencing, and supports full judicial discretion in the criminal justice system.

 

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