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Prisoners Aid ACT works to break cycle of imprisonment

By Doug Dobing - 9 June 2017 17

Imprisonment

While the closest most people get to a prison is through a fictional TV series like ‘Prison Break’, life is far different for Prisoners Aid ACT President Hugh Smith and Vice President Shoba Varkey.

They help prisoners and their families every day – Hugh has for 45 years and Shoba for 17.

They also tell a different story. It is one of prisoners often coming from very disadvantaged backgrounds with low education, poor health, poor literacy and addiction problems. It’s also the story of the struggles faced by the families they leave behind.

“They are often behind the eight-ball in education, health in addictions and all those sorts of problems,” said Dr Smith.

“Prison itself is a chance to equip them with some resources. And it’s also important they get some help when they come out, to get back into society,” he said.

Prisoners Aid ACT is a charitable organisation operating since 1963 to support prisoners while they are in jail and on their release, as well as supporting their families and visitors.

They also provide a Court assistance and referral service (CARS) and welcome volunteers to assist.

Dr Smith has been involved with Prisoner’s Aid ACT for 45 years.

Over these years he has gained an insight into the workings of prisons, and the effect being in prison has on prisoners and their families.

“People go into prison with all sorts of disadvantages. Some are addressed while they are in prison, in the form of rehabilitation,” said Dr Smith.

“A lot of those that go in [to prison] do have a drug problem, or an alcohol problem or a mental health problem,“ he said.

“There’s often low education levels or poor literacy. There’s often just poor general health.”

“But even when they come out [of prison] they still have a lot of disadvantages.”

Dr Smith said even after they have served their prison sentence they are often punished because there is often a natural discrimination against someone who has been a prisoner.

He said we are often not aware of some of the wider impacts of someone being imprisoned. It can also be difficult for the whole family, especially if the offender is the main income earner.

“Suddenly they are short of money because their father or husband has gone [to prison]. There’s no income. They struggle to pay the rent and electricity bill, maintain cars, pay kids’ school costs,” said Dr Smith.

“It affects children as well. They can be stigmatised because their parent is in prison,” he said.

When Canberra’s jail, the Alexander Maconochie Centre (AMC), was opened in 2009 it was designed to accommodate 300 prisoners and to meet human rights standards. In 2016 the centre was expanded to accommodate up to 540 inmates.

Dr Smith said the AMC is a complex prison that holds sentenced and remand prisoners, those still to go to trial. It holds males and females, low, medium and high security.

Some prisoners are segregated because they need protection or they are dangerous. There is no mixing of genders.

Prisoners can participate in a combination of education and therapeutic programs including anger management, in an attempt to address their offending behaviour.

“There are education programs and anger management, some work activities and there is now a laundry and a bakery run by prisoners to get them used to work and gain skills,” said Dr Smith.

However, in addition to addressing offending behaviour, prisoners often have other complicated factors that need to be resolved. When they are released they often don’t know where to start, he said.

Prisoners Aid Vice President Shoba Varkey has also been involved with Prisoner’s Aid ACT for 17 years.

Ms Varkey said her motivation to work with Prisoner’s Aid is a preventative measure, to prevent prisoners from re-offending and being locked up.

“When a person commits a crime, they do their time and then come out of prison. Often they come out of jail with no jobs, no accommodation, maybe no family,” said Ms Varkey.

“Should a prisoner have to pay for the rest of their lives?” she asked.

”We don’t want them to continue for the rest of their life doing their time.”

“This is why I would like society to show some compassion. Show some forgiveness.”

“Families play a vital role in the rehabilitation and reintegration of a person when they finish their sentence and they are back in the community. It’s vital.”

The AMC is only open from Wednesday to Sunday and visitors need to book in advance.

Prisoners Aid support prisoners and their families. They can visit prisoners inside the AMC. They also provide a Throughcare service to support an inmate until they finish parole.

Prisoners Aid has a part-time worker in the visitor’s area of the AMC to talk with families.

The Court Assistance and Referral Service (CARS) has an office in the Magistrates Court, Monday to Friday 9 am – 12:30 pm. Phone (02) 6257 4866 or email: info@prisonersaid.org.au.

Should a prisoner have to pay for their crime for the rest of their lives? What ways can we help transition prisoners back into society? Let us know what you think in the comments below.

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17 Responses to
Prisoners Aid ACT works to break cycle of imprisonment
James_Ryan 5:00 pm 18 Jun 17

A_Cog said :

Rattenbury criticised the guard vote against the needle exchange only a few months ago. If Rattenbury hasn’t wanted a needle exchange for years, someone should tell him to stop acting like he does want it.

Minister Rattenbury gifted to the CPSU the power of veto over the implementation of a needle exchange.

He had the evidence he needed, the Greens policy platform, a commitment to implement it in his parliamentary agreement with the ALP, and it was an ACT Government policy position.

What’s more, the clause in the previous staff EBA (providing them right of veto) had been assessed by the ACT Government Solicitor and a private law firm as being invalid. Government was in possession of this advice. In other words, the assertion that staff could block the implementation of a needle exchange was fiction.

So what did Minister Rattenbury do? Remember here that he was armed with a policy commitment, overwhelming evidence, a responsibility to ensure a duty of care, and legal advice that there was no IR barrier to implementation. What did he do? He signed a deed of agreement formalizing a legally binding power of veto to the people who opposed the program’s implementation.

That doesn’t look like a Minister acting like he wants to implement a needle exchange program to me. It looks like a Minister happy to talk it up and saying his hands are tied, after tying them together himself.

A_Cog 12:36 pm 18 Jun 17

Voice of Reason said :

Just a few minor fact corrections required:
1. The AMC is not a human rights compliant prison…
2. Rattenbury is not committed to a needle exchange…
3. …formal needle exchanges… include… benefits.

1. AMC was purpose built to meet “compliance with [ACT] human rights principles”. That quote is from ACT Corrective Services. It was SUPPOSED to be HR compliant. It never has been, thus showing gross govt incompetence. Even when it was purpose built to do X, and is the most expensive per capita prison in Australia, they STILL cannot get it right.
2. Rattenbury criticised the guard vote against the needle exchange only a few months ago. If Rattenbury hasn’t wanted a needle exchange for years, someone should tell him to stop acting like he does want it.
3. Needle exchanges only reduce medical risks of OD, infection, ect. It’s a misleading argument that ignores the context. Prisons are about forcible rehabilitation through pervasive control. Prisoners are locked in boxes of steel, concrete and barbed wire, away from their lives and families, every second of their lives controlled. Most are in jail BECAUSE of drugs. To imprison them but allow continued drug use, to claim moral superiority of confining them but admitting our incompetence to stop drugs entering a “secure” site, to doom them to more addiction and zero rehabilitation, that is abhorrent hypocrisy and pointless torture.

The two deaths were because the prison is a joke, not because they don’t have a needle exchange. Highest rate of recidivism in the nation, two deaths, escapes, overcrowding, precious little diversionary programs. Those are facts.

Voice of Reason 11:27 am 18 Jun 17

Just a few minor fact corrections required:

1. The AMC is not a human rights compliant prison. Never has been, and looks like it never will be. It’s a throw away line used both by those who want to critisise and those who want to spin or excuse government achievements.

2. Shane Rattenbury is not committed to a needle exchange. Technically it’s probably still a Greens Party commitment, but Shane hasn’t got the ticker for it so he gave up on the idea of implementation years ago.

3. A formal needle exchange program does not “allow” prisoners to use drugs. They use drugs anyway regardless. Findings from evaluations of formal needle exchanges in operation in 60-something prisons worldwide include a REDUCTION in overdose, REDUCTION in infectious diseases, an INCREASE in safety for staff, and an INCREASE in referral to drug treatment (and a few other benefits).

Doug Dobing 8:23 pm 13 Jun 17

dungfungus said :

I think there has been enough time and the aggregate outcome of the AMC’s programs is failure as evidenced by the number of re-offenders there.

And I didn’t suggest public floggings or capital punishment either. I don’t know what your background is but hard work never killed anybody.

I didn’t think that you suggested public floggings or capital punishment. Apologies, if it came across that way. It is my understanding that the AMC does provide some work training in the kitchen and bakery. I am aware some prisons also have construction/fabrication facilities to provide industry skills. It would be good if prisoners could gain some practical life and work skills to help them transition into the workforce on their release from prison. Personally, I think work has a lot of benefits including physically, mentally, socially and financially.

dungfungus 4:45 pm 13 Jun 17

As I alluded to earlier, the “focus on rehabilitation” isn’t working and never will.

It’s past time to start referring to is as a gaol and get someone like Arizona’s Sheriff Joe to run it.

A_Cog 1:12 pm 13 Jun 17

The report on government services shows that the ACT has the highest rate of recidivism in the nation. The current AR for JACS tries to hide this by now changing how it calculated the recidivism rate – nice trick, well-worn by governments. When you don’t like the number, change the calculation. Worse still is that the ACT Police are the worst cops in the country when it comes to solving crime (same report, different table). So the “real” recidivism rate is far, far higher.

The auditor general shredded the operation of the jail in 2015 or 2016. For instance, inmates are supposed to get 30hrs/wk of diversionary programs (visits, training, treatment) but on average they get five hours. Added to that is the problem of the jail being 25% overcapacity since opening – more crowding means more violence. Then there are the drug problems – the government refuses to improve controls, and Rattenbury actually wants to allow needle exchange.

The vast bulk of inmates are there for drug related offences, so letting them continue to use drugs guarantees zero rehabilitation… hence the highest recidivism rate in the nation. And two blokes have OD’s within the last year – two deaths in custody of the only jail in Australia that is supposed to be “human rights complaint”. An absolute travesty.

Longer term, the issue here is that we have a Green (someone who is supposed to care) incompetently running Canberra’s own version of Nauru for half a decade but no-one notices.

Doug Dobing 8:31 am 13 Jun 17

No_Nose said :

Doug Dobing said :

. The AMC focuses on rehabilitating the offender with a combination of therapy, programs and work.

How’s that working out for you there? What’s the recidivist rate?

What is the recidivist rate? Very good question! I do not work in the jail or with prisoners, I have only reported on the story. However, I am aware that ACT Corrective Services base offender management is based on the ‘what works’ theory, which includes firstly identifying the offending behaviour risk factors and providing treatment programs to address these risk behaviours. As mentioned by Prisoners Aid, you can’t expect a short stay in jail for fix issues that have been there for many years. Also, it takes more than just these programs to change their behaviour; and can take up to five to ten years after they leave jail. Plus the offenders have to want to change, with ongoing support in the community after their release. I’m happy to further enquire regarding recidivism rates for ACT prisoners.

No_Nose 10:29 pm 12 Jun 17

I just went to the ACT Corrective Services website to see if they have the recidivism rates listed. I couldn’t find them but I did find some interesting things here. http://www.cs.act.gov.au/page/view/859/title/why-alexander-maconochie

I was quite impressed with what they say about Alexander and his report. I really hope that they introduce more of his philosophy in the institution that bears his name.

” He argued that sentences should be indefinite – the convicts would have to earn a certain number of ‘marks’, or credits for good behaviour and hard work, before they were released. They would buy their way out of prison with these marks. “

“Hence the length of his sentence was, within limits, up to the convict himself. Marks could be exchanged for either goods or time. The prisoner could buy “luxuries” with his marks from the gaol administration – extra food, tobacco, clothing etc. “

” Ideally, the convict would pay for everything beyond a diet of bread and water with the marks he earned.”

Quite interesting ideas there that ACT Corrections should take on board. After all…Alexander is their guiding light whose beliefs and principles they want to base their facility on.

No_Nose 10:10 pm 12 Jun 17

Doug Dobing said :

. The AMC focuses on rehabilitating the offender with a combination of therapy, programs and work.

How’s that working out for you there? What’s the recidivist rate?

Maya123 6:00 pm 12 Jun 17

Lucy Baker said :

Huge focus on vocational education needed here, surely. There will be some bright prisoners who would have gone to uni if they had been born into a different family, and their criminal smarts could be usefully re-applied to science, philosophy, criminology. Maybe parole could be re-assessed as something that is allowed only for prisoners who are going into voluntary work, continuing with their education, or into a paid job? The last thing that’s needed is for some vulnerable prisoners to operate well away from such a structured environment.

There might be a few bright prisoners, but unfortunately studies have shown that the average IQ of prisoners is lower than the general population. This is likely one reason many have had the lifestyle they have had that has led to where they are. Less options for those less intelligent. This is from a UK study, but I would be surprised if it is different here. A “vast hidden problem” is how it is put.
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/manchester/6364343.stm

Lucy Baker 2:13 pm 12 Jun 17

Huge focus on vocational education needed here, surely. There will be some bright prisoners who would have gone to uni if they had been born into a different family, and their criminal smarts could be usefully re-applied to science, philosophy, criminology. Maybe parole could be re-assessed as something that is allowed only for prisoners who are going into voluntary work, continuing with their education, or into a paid job? The last thing that’s needed is for some vulnerable prisoners to operate well away from such a structured environment.

dungfungus 11:41 am 12 Jun 17

Doug Dobing said :

dungfungus said :

Some good points there but unfortunately the environment at the AMC is too congenial and this attracts re-offenders.

As a disincentive, hard labour should be re-introduced as part of the “penal” code (if such a thing still exists). This would realign the thinking of some re-offenders as they would realise that they could actually get paid good money for doing the same thing when released into the community.

It’s an interesting point that you say the AMC environment is too congenial as it does look more like a resort than a traditional Victorian gaol. Especially, if you compare it to Goulburn gaol that possibly is the case. As a comparison, they started building the Goulburn Correctional Centre in 1881 to ‘bring the Colony from its backward position as regards to prison buildings’. While the AMC was opened in 2009 to comply with human rights requirements.

Prior to Goulburn’s gaol, their first lock-up was built around 1830 and gallows were built as early as 1832 when floggings were common. The AMC focuses on rehabilitating the offender with a combination of therapy, programs and work. To address risk factors and hopefully reduce the risk of reoffending.

While hangings did reduce the chances of reoffending, I’m not sure how effective public floggings or hard labour was to reduce reoffending. However, time will tell if the AMC, a human rights prison with rehabilitation programs is effective or not.

I think there has been enough time and the aggregate outcome of the AMC’s programs is failure as evidenced by the number of re-offenders there.

And I didn’t suggest public floggings or capital punishment either. I don’t know what your background is but hard work never killed anybody.

Doug Dobing 9:56 am 12 Jun 17

dungfungus said :

Some good points there but unfortunately the environment at the AMC is too congenial and this attracts re-offenders.

As a disincentive, hard labour should be re-introduced as part of the “penal” code (if such a thing still exists). This would realign the thinking of some re-offenders as they would realise that they could actually get paid good money for doing the same thing when released into the community.

It’s an interesting point that you say the AMC environment is too congenial as it does look more like a resort than a traditional Victorian gaol. Especially, if you compare it to Goulburn gaol that possibly is the case. As a comparison, they started building the Goulburn Correctional Centre in 1881 to ‘bring the Colony from its backward position as regards to prison buildings’. While the AMC was opened in 2009 to comply with human rights requirements.

Prior to Goulburn’s gaol, their first lock-up was built around 1830 and gallows were built as early as 1832 when floggings were common. The AMC focuses on rehabilitating the offender with a combination of therapy, programs and work. To address risk factors and hopefully reduce the risk of reoffending.

While hangings did reduce the chances of reoffending, I’m not sure how effective public floggings or hard labour was to reduce reoffending. However, time will tell if the AMC, a human rights prison with rehabilitation programs is effective or not.

Voice of Reason 11:54 pm 09 Jun 17

“Too congenial”. Yeah, cool story bro. They just can’t wait to get locked up again in the AMC. #rollseyes

Don’t worry about providing education, meaningful activities, & access to programmes. Forget about helping people to come out of prison better human beings than when they went in, just crush them with hard labour so they can crave more it of when they get released.

Yep, that’ll work. Been doing that for centuries, and it’s going to start working any moment now. Someone should put you in charge dungfungus.

dungfungus 11:46 am 09 Jun 17

Some good points there but unfortunately the environment at the AMC is too congenial and this attracts re-offenders.

As a disincentive, hard labour should be re-introduced as part of the “penal” code (if such a thing still exists). This would realign the thinking of some re-offenders as they would realise that they could actually get paid good money for doing the same thing when released into the community.

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