Since entering Parliament in 2018, I have been dismayed to see a justice and corrections system under growing pressure, and a community at increasing risk as a direct result of that.
The Tasmanian Custodial Inspector has repeatedly pointed out that the state’s prison population has been rising rapidly over the past few years, along with a commensurate increase in overcrowding and a decline in standards and safety.
The Custodial Inspector’s latest report tells us nothing we didn’t know already – it paints a dire picture of conditions at Risdon Prison – backing in concerns raised in multiple previous reports from the Inspector and others.
The problem is that each time a new report comes out, the Liberal government swats away the findings by saying it has accepted most of the recommendations and is acting on them.
But, in reality, the government sits on its hands until the next report comes out, inevitably restating the same concerns and recommendations.
It is an endless cycle that is doing nothing to improve prison conditions or keep Tasmanians safe.
It’s important to point out that the justice system is not merely about punishment – and while people of course must be held accountable for offending behaviour, an effective justice system also looks at other factors including, crucially, crime prevention and rehabilitation.
Unfortunately, a completely overburdened and overcrowded system that is struggling to meet its most basic responsibilities is not going to be able to provide the rehabilitation opportunities needed to prevent a return to crime when people are released.
As the Custodial Inspector’s report points out, the national maximum limit for prison utilisation is 95 per cent, because prisons require spare capacity to manage risk.
But with Tasmania’s prisons routinely at or close to capacity, both inmates and staff are at ongoing risk.
Unsurprisingly, the situation is worst at Risdon Prison, with the overall utilisation rate, based on operational capacity, at 98 per cent at the end of June, and the maximum security section at a dangerous 113 per cent.
The report says while TPS facilities seem to be coping relatively well at face value, the reporting standards they use may actually be masking the true extent of facility overuse.
The Custodial Inspector spells out the dodgy calculation, describing how 85 temporary beds across the prison system have been excluded from bed numbers used to calculate either total design capacity or total current capacity, despite finding that these additional beds have become fixed installations and can’t be considered “temporary”.
The report also says the majority of cells at the state’s five custodial centres do not meet national safety standards.
As well as the temporary beds, including bunk beds and mattresses on floors, all but three cells at the Hobart Reception Prison and six cells in Risdon’s maximum security section do not meet the Tasmanian inspection standards
There is also no formal risk or profile assessment when determining which prisoners should be housed in multiple occupancy cells, and delays in notification of the outcome of offender classification reviews are preventing prisoners from participating in rehabilitation programs.
As well as the risk to staff and inmates of an under-resourced, over-stretched system, any impact on rehabilitation programs is hugely concerning.
Even though the state’s prison population has ballooned since the Liberals came to power in 2014, there has not been a proportionate reduction in crime.
It is clear that simply locking people up in increasingly unsafe conditions is not reducing crime and is failing our communities.
We all want to live in safe communities, with fewer home break-ins, fewer assaults, less violence and less crime in general.
But the reality is we won’t achieve that until we start addressing the root causes of crime and providing rehabilitation opportunities for inmates to stop them returning to crime upon their release from prison.
It may not be top of mind for most people to consider the basic humanity of our prison system but this is about the justice system as a whole. It is all intertwined.
If this government is serious about addressing crime and making Tasmania safer, it needs to take all of these issues into account, stop fudging the numbers to make things look better than they are, and actually implement all of the Custodial Inspector’s recommendations.
Ella Haddad is the Shadow Attorney-General and Labor spokesperson for Corrections and Justice.
this article was originally published December 1, 2021