Three ways we can halt the explosion in prisoner numbers

Three ways we can halt the explosion in prisoner numbers

This article originally appeared in The Age on July 6 2019

By Ruth Barson

Prisons are fundamentally at odds with the notion of rehabilitation. On the brink of tears, a 19-year-old locked up in Port Phillip Prison recently asked me: "How can I think about tomorrow when I can barely survive today?"

He talked about eating mouldy food, people locked in solitary confinement for months on end, being routinely strip-searched, non-existent mental health care, chronic over-crowding and being too ashamed to have his family visit.

This is the everyday brutality of life inside a prison. This is the crushing reality of Victoria's lurch towards caging people at rates not seen in over 100 years. Imprisonment rates have almost doubled in 10 years – a social disaster fuelled by both sides of politics. To put this into context, New Zealand, Canada and even the United States have declining imprisonment rates.

If this trend continues, over the next four years, tens of thousands of Victorians will be taken from their homes, families, jobs and communities and locked away in concrete prison cells. They will have their relationships severed, be subject to extreme alienation and be forced into a cycle of debt and despair. And our government will spend more on imprisoning these people than they will on their housing, education and health.

Of course, injustice is not meted out equally – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, women who have survived family violence, people struggling to make ends meet and people with a disability are hit hardest. Mass imprisonment thrives off the back of social inequality.

It was heartening to hear the Minister for Corrections announce legislative change to make rehabilitation a primary focus of prisons, but the gulf between words and current practice is vast. While a renewed focus on rehabilitation is welcome, it will fail unless the government chooses policies and actions that reverse sky-rocketing imprisonment rates.

It will fail unless we fundamentally reimagine our legal system as one that must, at all times and for all people, deliver a pathway to justice. Here, justice must square both the harm suffered by victims of crime and the harm caused by social exclusion, racism, poverty and trauma.

But right now, if the government's ambition is genuine, there are three reforms they could deliver that would have a profound and immediate impact in reducing the number of people behind bars.

First, the government must raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to at least 14 years, consistent with international standards. Children who are forced into contact with the criminal legal system at a young age are more likely to remain trapped within it, are less likely to complete their education and find employment and are more likely to die an early death. In 2016 – 2017, 35 primary school aged children were locked away in youth jails in Victoria. Children should be in school yards, not prison yards.

Second, bail laws must be changed so that only those who pose a demonstrable risk of causing serious harm are denied their freedom before being found guilty. Currently, almost 40 per cent of people locked away have not been convicted of an offence and are simply awaiting their day in court. Nine out of 10 women entering prison have not been convicted of an offence.

These people are largely behind razor wire not because they pose any serious risk, but because our bail laws are an abject failure. They punish people for being poor, for not having a house, for escaping family violence or for having mental health challenges.

Third, low-level offences like public drunkenness, which can act as a gateway to imprisonment, must be decriminalised. Alcoholism requires a public health response, not a criminal one. Minor infractions should be dealt with far away from the legal system.

Beyond this, we must confront the shameful fact that we have allowed people's liberty to become commodified and politicised. So much so, that every single day in Victoria, mums and dads, children and grandmothers are being locked in cages, when they should be free.

Our politicians would do well to remember that imprisonment was intended as a penalty of absolute last resort, reserved for the most serious of wrongdoing. That removing a human being's liberty is the cruellest of punishments and gravest of decisions.

And we would do well to remember that imprisoning people en-masse serves absolutely no positive social purpose, but rather entrenches poverty, upends families and undermines the very values we all hold dear: equality, fairness and dignity.

The Andrews government has an urgent decision to make: they can point their compass in the direction of justice and be the government that resolutely ends Victoria's tragedy of mass-imprisonment, or they can stoke the fire and sentence more and more people to needlessly suffer.

Ruth Barson is a Legal Director at the Human Rights Law Centre. In 2018 she received an Ian Potter Foundation scholarship to visit organisations in America tackling mass imprisonment.