WRAP - No prison in Westbury

So what should be the point of Tasmania's prison system, anyway?

By Adam Holmes
The Examiner
24 October 2020

No one is saying dangerous criminals, repeat violent offenders and pedophiles shouldn't serve significant prison terms, but these types of offenders are in the minority in our jails. What sort of people does society want when prisoners are eventually released?

If there's one case that highlights just how broken Tasmania's prisoner reintegration system is, it's James William Keith Chapman - a man living with an intellectual disability and schizophrenia.

Last year, he was jailed three times in the space of seven months in the Launceston Magistrates Court. And each time, he was released with no stable address, community service providers struggling to assist him and other criminals ready to exploit him for their gain. On the third occasion, he had been coerced into breaking into a vet clinic in Deloraine.

A magistrate said Chapman was trapped in a "revolving door" of offending. He is not considered a risk of violence and the prison system isn't equipped to help him at all, but he has nowhere else to go.

Is this a system that's working in the best interests of Tasmania? Or should prison offer something more therapeutic, more capable of addressing individual need?

According to the Custodial Inspector, this is precisely where the state's prison system is failing. A recent report into rehabilitation and reintegration found prisoners serving sentences of six months or less had little to no case management or pre-release assistance.

Prisons had "limited physical space" to deliver offender programs, and one of the most important of these - the sex offender treatment program - was suffering a lack of resources and long waiting times.

Tasmania Prison Service management "seemingly places no real value on prisoner education", while medium and maximum security prisoners "are often released directly from these facilities" without preparation.

This all adds up to Tasmania having one of Australia's highest reoffending rates - and it's rising faster still.

Rapper Greeley spent much of 2019 in Risdon, coming face-to-face with institutionalised prisoners - men who have been in prison for their entire adult lives. "You can tell - they're not immature, they're mature in there - but they haven't done a lot of things that a lot of adults with responsibilities have to deal with," he told a podcast. Then when they're released, there's an overwhelming feeling of anxiety over what comes next.

Under-resourcing of Risdon has caused it to fall into the trap suffered by prisons all over Australia: education, work and health programs begin to suffer and wane, prisoners get disgruntled and act out, lockdowns are brought in, prisoners are in their cells 23 hours of the day, and the cycle repeats. Once it starts, it's difficult to fix.

This exact sequence occurred at Malmsbury Youth Justice Centre in Victoria - among other centres - where riots were the inevitable outcome. Youths serve their terms in intimidating environments and leave as more dangerous people than when they arrived. And like with Ashley Youth Detention Centre, they "graduate" to the adult system for a life of reoffending and institutionalisation, becoming dangers to themselves and others.

In 2011, Tasmania's Children's Commissioner called for Ashley to be shut within two years. But it's simply deteriorated further since then to serve no rehabilitation purpose. Funding these prisons is expensive, too, but with comparable funding, the state could provide secure rehabilitative centres with individualised education and health support for prisoners, the majority of whom have complex needs.

Eventually they'll be released, so what sort of people do we want re-entering society? Hardened criminals with an axe to grind, no housing and unaddressed mental health issues, or people who have served their sentences in environments that attempt to mirror life on the outside - such as workplace training and education - and properly addresses their needs?

A view seems to prevail within governments that the public demands "tough on crime", "law and order" approaches, and to be seen as weak is political poison. In Victoria, this is allowed to fester through sensationalised media reporting, like a 2011 Herald Sun article headlined: "Criminals enjoy 'disgusting' perks at Barwon Prison", because it offered activities on days like Anzac Day and Father's Day.

Fortunately, in Tasmania, this type of reporting is rare.

Now we have a chance to redesign our prison system, starting with a new centre in the North.

The example of Halden Prison in Norway is often put forward as a solution. In the 1990s, Norway recalibrated its corrections system from "revenge" to "rehabilitation", providing properly funded training and education. "In Norway, the punishment is just to take away someone's liberty," prison governor Are Hoidal told the BBC in 2019. "The other rights stay. Prisoners can vote, they can have access to school, to health care; they have the same rights as any Norwegian citizen. Because inmates are human beings. They have done wrong, they must be punished, but they are still human beings."

Offending rates decreased, proving that tough prisons are not a deterrent to crime.

The "Northern Regional Prison" needs to follow this example.


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