Australia’s prisons are at breaking point. ‘Tough on crime’ policies have significantly increased prison populations, but governments have not been spending enough money on new prisons to keep up.
The result is significant overcrowding, with many inmates forced to share cells and sleep on floors. It also means that the sheer pressure of numbers is forcing state governments to build new jails, expand existing ones and re-open old ones.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics keeps accurate and up-to-date numbers on Australia’s prison population. In March 2015 there were 35,467 prisoners in Australia’s jails, up from 33,246 a year ago and just 25,353 ten years ago – a 40 per cent increase in a decade, at a time when crime rates for most offences are declining. Half of NSW’s 44 prisons are defined as overcrowded.
Despite the overcrowding, prisoners are being forced to spend more time in their cells, because of staff shortages. Prisoners in NSW spend 16 hours a day in their cells.
The reasons for the harsher conditions are not hard to find. State governments are fond of ‘law and order’ campaigns such as NSW’s stricter bail laws, which have vastly increased the number of prisoners kept in remand. Conservative governments in particular have been behind the laws, and have even lauded the increased prison numbers as a good thing.
“Thanks to excellent law enforcement and tough new bail laws we have more criminals behind bars,” said NSW justice minister Troy Grant recently. “If you’re a criminal and you’ve put the community at risk, I’ll find you a bed behind bars.”
The pressures in jails have been exacerbated by the decision of authorities in most states to ban smoking. Over three quarters of Australia’s prison inmates are smokers, and the practice is one of the few pleasures allowed behind bars, this has caused considerable conflict.
Last month there was a major riot in Victoria’s Ravenhall prison over the ban. Tasmanian prisoners have trashed prison facilities and tried to mix nicotine patches with tealeaves as a substitute for tobacco.
Smoking is already banned in jails in the Northern Territory and Queensland. Victoria is in the process of implementing a ban, and NSW has said it will do so this year, with other states to follow.
The ban is being promoted as a health issue, but as the riot in Ravenhall showed, it is extremely unpopular with prisoners. Added to the overcrowding in most jails, it is adding to the many problems of prison management.
Some criminologists have called for a phased introduction of the ban, accompanies by an education program, as was successfully implemented in New Zealand. But authorities seem determined to press ahead, regardless of warnings of the consequences.
This is likely to lead to more unrest in the nation’s overcrowded jails. There are no votes in being soft on criminals, but the best arguments that can be made against increase rates of incarceration are financial.
It costs on average over $100,000 a year to keep someone behind bars. The necessity of opening new prisons is causing real problems to the bottom lines of most state budgets.
The recent NSW state budget allocated $1.2 billion to prisons, with a new 600 prisoner facility to be built in Grafton to replace the aging jail in that city, and a 50 per cent increase in the size of Parklea prison in Sydney’s West, from 800 to 1000 prisoners.
The Queensland Government has been forced to spend $153 million to recommissions the Borallon Correctional Centre near Ipswich to address what it describes as “systemic overcrowding” in the state’s prison system.
Corrective Services Minister Jo-Ann Miller said there 1400 prisoners in Queensland (out of a prison population of 7200) sharing cells designed to accommodate one person. “Sewage and water systems are at breaking point, prison medical officers are having to work in cramped quarters and staff are telling us that it’s unsafe,” she said, blaming the former LNP government’s neglect of the prison system.
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