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Prison reform will create a safer Tasmania

Updated: Mar 15, 2023

Since coming to power the Liberals have been vocal about being tough on crime. But the reality is that on their watch Tasmanian communities have become less safe.

One of the major impediments to reducing crime rates is an underfunded, understaffed and overcrowded prison system, which is focused on punishment alone, rather than rehabilitation.

The government’s approach to the prison system has been to ignore systemic issues that have pushed that system to the brink of collapse – while continuing to lock more people away. They want to remove suspended sentences and impose mandatory sentences, which will only increase pressure on the system, while failing to deal with the root causes of that pressure.

While talking tough on crime might be politically popular, it doesn’t reduce crime, improve community safety or improve lives in any way.

The government’s approach also comes at great financial cost to the community – more than $300 a day to keep each inmate locked away.

There is no doubt there will always be a need for some people to be put in prison and situations where incarceration is the most appropriate option. I don’t dispute that.

But it is also clear our current system is not working. Not only is it costly, it doesn’t reduce crime.

Under Labor, inmates were supported to prepare for release without reoffending through the successful Reintegration for Ex-Offenders program. Among people completing the REO pilot program, the recidivism rates – people returning to jail after reoffending upon release – dropped from 65 per cent to just three per cent. That meant less crime in the community.

When the Liberals came to power they scrapped this program before replacing it with Beyond the Wire, which does a great job but is so poorly funded it can only help around 66 of the 750 people released from prison each year .

While the current Minister, Elise Archer, claims to be focused on rehabilitation and reintegration, the statistics tell a very different story. What we have seen on this government’s watch is a jump in the recidivism rate to a massive 56.6 per cent. That means more than half the inmates leaving Risdon Prison return within two years. That’s not a statistic to be proud of.

The lack of support to prepare inmates for a return to society, combined with the lack of support on release, means people are returning to crime. This is not only bad for those inmates who are truly motivated to reform and live a better life on release, it is also bad for the community. More crimes being committed means less safe neighbourhoods to live in.

Recent reports from Tasmania’s Custodial Inspector paint a very worrying picture of conditions at Risdon Prison. The Inspector raises concerns about the exponential increase in prisoner numbers, noting that infrastructure constraints create pressures on the system, limit opportunities for prison education and programs,

employment for prisoners and intensive preparation ahead of their release.

Lockdowns at the prison are becoming more frequent and lasting longer, due to chronic staff shortages. Rolling lockdowns leave inmates with limited or no access to programs, family visits, professional appointments with lawyers or any employment opportunities.

Cells that were meant for one inmate now house two, and those meant for two inmates now house three. There are mattresses on floors and chronic overcrowding.

There are now only two alcohol and drug counsellors to work across the entire prison and the 10-bed Apsley Unit detox facility, which had been getting good results with the small number of inmates able to participate, was closed to make way for more cell space.

Program opportunities out of the jail have been stripped and while plans to set up a TasTAFE campus at the jail are good news, this won’t be truly effective until the prison’s systemic problems are addressed.

So how do we fix a broken system?

We need to prioritise community safety and focus on intervention points that prevent people from ending up in jail in the first place, while improving outcomes for inmates by providing them with rehabilitation, education and training programs to help them reintegrate into society on their release.

At the moment, 65 per cent of children of prisoners end up in jail themselves later in life. If the government is serious about reducing crime rates and protecting the community, it needs to look at early intervention programs that work with the children and families of prisoners.

If we truly want to see better outcomes and improved community safety, we need to look at how crime is dealt with – and a sensible starting point would be a rethink on our underfunded, understaffed and overcrowded prison system.

Ella Haddad is the Shadow Attorney General and Shadow Minister for Justice and Corrections

this article was originally published November 19, 2020

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