1 April 2021

Government needs to contemplate a larger jail to help put the big house in order

| Ian Bushnell
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Alexander Maconochie Centre

Overcrowding is behind many of the Alexander Maconochie Centre’s problems. Photo: File.

Shane Rattenbury must have been relieved when he was able to hand the Corrections basket case to Mick Gentleman.

As much as Mr Rattenbury is committed to reform, including policies such as justice reinvestment to keep people out of jail, the Alexander Maconochie Centre has been a running sore with seemingly intractable problems.

The recent Inspector of Corrections’ report on last year’s riot reveals not just a lack of trained staff on the ground that could have led to a disastrous outcome, but confusion at senior management level.

Corrective Services Commissioner Jon Peach’s heavy-handed intervention proved his undoing and he is no longer in the position.

In February, the government announced that former Victorian police commissioner Christine Nixon will lead the new Oversight Committee implementing the AMC Healthy Prison Review, and act on reports from the ACT Inspector of Correctional Services on issues impacting the AMC.

But that will be a 12-month process.

READ MORE Former top cop Christine Nixon to chair prison Oversight Committee

The government also recently contracted a private training company to skill Corrections staff in conflict resolution and de-escalation techniques.

But problems with AMC, which ironically was supposed to be the nation’s first human rights-based prison, go back to underestimating the size required by a growing ACT, something not dissimilar to other bits of infrastructure around Canberra that has needed or is in need of upgrading.

Overcrowding means remandees are mixing with sentenced prisoners, and women prisoners, once housed in a dedicated cottage setting, are now housed in a high-security area, with little green space, formerly used for male prisoners.

It also means prisoners being locked in their cells more than they should, leading to boredom and frustration – perfect fuel for outbreaks such as the November riot.

An Assembly committee recently heard that about 39 per cent of the prison is on remand and that they are treated and accommodated no differently than convicted prisoners, in conflict with legislated requirements.

The prison was simply not built to house the number of detainees that now need to be managed.

The committee recommended that the government either fix the problem or amend the legislation.

It also heard how female prisoners have to parade past some male units when they are going to programs, the health centre and visits, and are subject to “catcalls and worse”.

READ MORE Prisoner held hostage by another inmate at AMC

Prison authorities want the women back to the areas specifically designed for them, and the committee has urged the government to act.

Corrections Minister Mick Gentleman told the committee it was a “live issue” and the government was looking at options, as was the case with remandees.

“We have not yet developed a resolution, but we are certainly on track,” he said.

Some might say we will need a bigger jail, but Mr Rattenbury, now Attorney-General, has previously ruled that out, preferring to pursue policies to reduce the number of custodial sentences.

That is commendable, and in line with the inclinations of governments of all colours concerned at the counter-productive effects of increased incarcerations and the ballooning cost.

But given the ACT’s population is now more than 430,000 and expected to hit half a million by 2030, the government may have no choice but to expand the facility.

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There is little public sympathy for those who break the law, some repeatedly, and the AMC is not a preoccupation of voters but continuing headlines about riots, drugs in prison, violence, the treatment of women, and even deaths in custody give the impression that the government is not coping.

The appalling ongoing incarceration rates for Indigenous people should also be anathema to a government that professes to support the progress of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and adheres to a human rights regime.

In short, the prison is becoming a political problem for the government that threatens to undermine its overall credibility.

Beyond politics, the government can’t let the situation continue.

Remandees need to be separated from convicted prisoners, the women need to be back where they were intended to be, and there need to be strategies to ease the overcrowding while serious thought is given to a larger facility.

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HiddenDragon8:29 pm 02 Apr 21

Another sad tale of the yawning gap between idealistic theory and grim reality in how this town is governed.

It’s partly to do with the inevitable constraints of a small jurisdiction, which will never have the depth of capacity and experience of the large states, but it’s also about choices and priorities – and this is clearly not a real priority for this government.

Inca Serrated7:58 pm 02 Apr 21

Privatising would definitely be a great way forward. The poisonous culture of the public prison systems across Australia prevent any positive outcomes for prisoners and the community.

ChrisinTurner1:42 pm 02 Apr 21

Isn’t it wonderful that instead the money will be spent getting buses replaced with trams to Woden, taking almost twice the journey time and with half the seats.

Alexander Maconochie would be turning in his grave. Previously the ACT’s prisoners were sent to NSW prisons, so the ACT had little experience on how to operate a prison. The government realised their inexperience with light-rail, so got a private company to build and operate it. This is what they need for the AMC, for a private company to operate it to the government’s specifications. Plus, the current government and the workers union are sharing a bed, which means they can’t tackle the difficult issues. So yes, expand the prison as our population grows, and get a private operator.

loosey_leftie11:45 am 02 Apr 21

The only way the A.C.T can move forward would be to re-instate the amazing team of peach and corrine justason. They are revolutionary and visionary in their way of thinking. Honesty, integrity, beyond reproach, approachable are just some of the words that are contained in a dictionary.

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