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Jailing is failing: Why Sydney doesn't need a new prison

OpEd by Eileen Baldry, Sydney Morning Herald 30 December 2020

The NSW government has reportedly settled on the riverfront suburb of Camellia as the site for a major new prison as to address massive overcrowding in the state’s jails driven by successive governments’ law and order policies.

But before it takes another step towards construction, the government should first be required to provide evidence that building more prisons and incarcerating more people works to reduce crime, rehabilitate or makes the community safer.

Every royal commission and parliamentary inquiry into prisons in Australia has recommended reducing the rate of imprisonment because the evidence is overwhelming that prisons do more harm than good.

There is no evidence showing that higher prisoner numbers are a good use of our taxes or good for our society’s safety. In fact the evidence shows the opposite – jailing is failing in Australia.

Being in prison does not rehabilitate – more than half of those who are sentenced to prison go back behind bars, and most go back many times.

Upon release, most people come out worse than they went in: they are poorer, have even worse housing than when they went in and are unemployed. This costs the taxpayer even more in public health, unemployment and other support services.

Half of those in prison today have at least one disability (mental health disorders and cognitive disabilities, and increasingly dementia) and drug addiction, raising the question as to why we use prisons for what are essentially social and community problems.

And the extreme over-representation of Indigenous Australians in prison, two thirds of whom have a disability, is a disaster for them and their communities as well as for the nation because this use of prison continues to fragment and undermine communities.

The use of remand (holding someone in prison not yet proven guilty and awaiting trial) is one of the major culprits in the increase in numbers and rates of prisoners in full-time custody. But there is no evidence that sending thousands of people into remand every year is necessary or effective.

Prisons are criminogenic – they perpetuate crime.

This is not a call to close all prisons, because some dangerous people do need to be kept away from the community, but it is an evidence-based argument to use other proven successful means to keep our children, young people and communities safe. The overwhelming strength of this evidence has driven the establishment of the Justice Reform Initiative, a multi-partisan alliance working to show Australian governments that prevention and community-based options work better.

We have the evidence both locally and from overseas that shows preventive early intervention for children and families in disadvantaged communities work better by supporting disadvantaged parents and is cost effective in the long run. Using community-based sanctions rather than prisons is more effective and costs much less.

Raising the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14 (the average in continental Europe) or 15 (as in Nordic countries) would ensure children are not criminalised by being incarcerated. Reducing the number of Aboriginal and disadvantaged children being placed in out-of-home care is also essential as the rate of OOHC kids ending up in juvenile detention and then prison is far greater compared with the general community.

Protecting children from sexual and domestic violence and supporting them properly if they are abused is critical as most adult prisoners and almost all women prisoners experienced abuse of some sort as young people.

Increasing appropriate education and employment opportunities for disadvantaged people with a mental or cognitive disability works much better than being sent to prison. These human and social service approaches that prevent people becoming involved in offending behaviour in the first place are used in Scandinavian and European countries with success.

The War on Drugs has been a disaster with all public health and many justice officials acknowledging that it has just criminalised those at the bottom of the pile and created multi-billion dollar international drug cartels. Drug law reform, prevention and harm minimisation are far more effective than prison in reducing the harm done by drugs.

And in Aboriginal communities, as called for in the Uluru Statement, listening to the elders and other community leaders, addressing intergenerational and current trauma and building capacity for self-determination, education, employment and strong and healthy families and communities are effective.

Finally, how can the NSW government on the one hand aspire to the Premier’s priority of reducing recidivism by 5 per cent and the intention of reducing the prison population by using more community-based orders (which was showing promise in 2019), while at the same time building yet another prison that will increase the numbers of people going in and coming out and re-offending.

Sorry, Premier, this is selling NSW yet another expensive prison lemon.

Eileen Baldry is a professor of criminology at UNSW and a patron of the Justice Reform Initiative.

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