What would Macquarie have thought of the Westbury prison?
By Greg Barns
26 October 2020
Tasmania's high reoffending rate, and the wisdom of yore, nix jail plan, says Greg Barns
What might Lachlan Macquarie, the reformist governor of NSW from 1810 to 1821, have thought of the idea of the Gutwein government building a high-security prison in the North of Tasmania? Probably not much is the answer.
Macquarie's views on criminal justice (and those of his wife Elizabeth) were enlightened, bordering on revolutionary, and it is his spirit which ought to guide this vitally important project. In Austin Lovegrove's fascinating Images of an Australian Enlightenment: The Story of Lachlan and Elizabeth Macquarie's Treatment of the Convicts as a History Tale for Today (Unicorn Publishing), Macquarie and his wife are none too keen on the idea, sadly all too evident still, that prisoners should be treated harshly. Macquarie and his wife believed in rehabilitation, recoiled at harsh punishment, and saw social reintegration as a key to reducing recidivism. It was Macquarie who devised what he called the Principle of Emancipation. As Lovegrove writes, it meant "the well behaved convict upon emancipation should be treated as though he or she never offended." And it meant, says Lovegrove, a former reader in criminology at Melbourne University, that former convicts could not only be reintegrated into society but they could move through its ranks. One ought to note here Macquarie was not without considerable flaws and ordered the massacre of Indigenous Australians.
Cleverly, Lovegrove constructs principles which emerge from Macquarie's practice as administrator of criminal justice in both NSW and Van Diemen's land, as this place was then known. It includes these eminently sensible principles: it is the future, not the past that is important for persons who come into contact with the criminal justice system; in order to reform most prisoners require assistance - life skills, training and education; punishment must not be so harsh as to crush offenders; and the goal of reform is not just the cessation of offending, but "lives renewed, regenerated, uplifted and enjoyed."
Lovegrove's message is that the punitive sentencing system which flourishes today is the "gold standard" of a punitive culture.
But how much safer and more enlightened our society would be if we followed in Macquarie's footsteps and that instead of nasty complaints about prison sentences not being long enough we said, "Why not rehabilitative punishment for this offender"?
So this is why the spirit of the Macquarie is critical if we are to stop a disaster in the making. (Disclaimer: this columnist is chair of the Prisoners Legal Service). Nearly one in two of those who leave Risdon prison end up back behind bars within two years. And more than 80 per cent are unemployed two years after they have finished their sentence. The physical structure of traditional prisons is designed not to focus on rehabilitation but instead on punishment and order.
If the spirit of the Macquarie was to guide a northern centre for persons who are detained by the criminal justice system then it would be a place that was not called a prison. It would house education, health and life skill campuses. Detainees would live in units. They would be known by their first name. They would wear their own clothes and be responsible for their cooking and washing. Their family members would be able to visit them in a safe but enjoyable environment. The centre would be designed by architects who are committed to human rights being the centre piece of good design. There would be emphasis on through care for detainees.
Instead of them walking out a prison gate with not much more than a night or two at emergency accommodation and little else, planning would see them with a house, employment, healthcare appointments made in advance.
The centre would not be built unless the government had a social licence to do so. Instead of foisting a nasty razor-wired structure on the people of Westbury, the government would look to placing this centre near major urban areas so the teachers, social workers, counsellors and other professional staff would have an easy commute to work.
If you think this is a utopian vision and that the spirit of the Macquarie is dead in this punitive world, you are wrong. It is a vision alive and well throughout Scandinavia where recidivism rates are about 20 per cent, not 47 per cent as is the case in Tasmania. And the smart justice of the Scandinavian detention system is now being exported even to deeply conservative places such as North Dakota in the US where the head of prisons Leanne Bertsch, sounding very Macquarie-like, says that you give detainees "every opportunity to change their behavior and get back in general population." "And then once they go back into general population. there's a lot more support put around them, so that they maintain their behavior." Bertsch says.
It is 200 years next year since Lachlan and Elizabeth Macquarie walked the soil of this island but their smart justice thinking is what must be reflected in any northern detention facility.
Hobart barrister Greg Barns is a human rights lawyer