My attention was drawn recently to an interview Jon Stanhope did on radio concerning some alarming issues at the Alexander Maconochie Centre. The article by Tom Lowry of the Times described Mr Stanhope as the architect of the AMC. Not so sure about that. There were many people involved in bringing offenders home into our proposed human-rights compliant facility.
I draw on my time in the Legislative Assembly on the Justice and Community Safety Standing Committee and as Minister for Corrections. Also on the stance I have taken the public ownership of its responsibilities for rehabilitating and restoring offenders, in comments inside and outside the ACT Labor Party.
This report raised alarm bells with me because it seemed that Mr Stanhope’s suggestion that the AMC be privatised goes totally against the stance Labor has had for decades and as far as I know is against Labor Party policy in the ACT.
Some history. It was actually the Liberals under Gary Humphries which started the ACT Prison project. Initially they wanted it to be built and run by the private sector. Labor has always been opposed to the notion that the responsibility for offenders and the attendant risk could be shifted to the private sector. I once described the notion as profiting from other people’s pain.
But at the 2004 election, Liberal Brendan Smyth wanted to stop the construction of the prison. Go figure!
Jon Stanhope as the leader of the Labor Opposition and then Government, as a former chair of the Civil Liberties Council, saw the need for the Territory to accept its responsibilities and to build, own and operate its own correctional facility. I supported his view without reservation.
I looked at the recidivism question and concluded that if we treated offenders with respect and compassion, we were more likely to stop recidivism than treating offenders as animals. Jon and I shared the notion that one was sent to jail as punishment not for punishment. The deprivation of liberty was the sentence. It was not the introduction of more suffering to come. It was not retribution from the community but a chance to rebuild a life.
Jon talked about a human rights compliant jail. He was spot on here. I argued that once the prisoners transferred into the ACT from NSW had washed through the system, the recidivism rate for those offenders for whom the AMC was their first encounter with the correctional system would drop dramatically. NSW jails are predominantly the punishment centres, the brick and concrete, 1800s style and treated prisoners as lesser people. And we had a chance to change that. I still hold these views. The wash through has not ended yet, so criticising the recidivism rate for the ACT needs to be carefully considered with proper data otherwise it is just plain wrong.
I was disappointed to hear Mr Stanhope agree saying “that we now have reviewers of this prison saying look, this is not a human-rights compliant prison – stop calling it that, you’re not being honest.” Then to my staggering amazement, Mr Stanhope went on to say that the ACT Government should consider privatisation of the prison as a way to improve management!
Does he not remember the failure of the Port Phillip prison, run by Group 4 under contract to the Victorian Government, which attracted a Victorian Auditor General to savage the contract? Does he not remember the Victorian Government taking back the contract? Does he not remember that the Port Phillip prison had 13 deaths from hanging in the first 18 months of operation?
Does he not remember how strident we all were about having to accept our community responsibility for correcting the behaviour of our own offenders, the main reason for bringing our prisoners home from NSW jails?
Let me first say that I am appalled that a life member of the Labor Party would countenance such a notion at all, let alone a former Chief Minister who championed the causes of the under privileged, the down trodden, the discriminated against, the homeless and the hopeless.
However, it should be acknowledged that there are shortcomings at the AMC as well as some brilliant initiatives, neither of which have seen the light of day. It is still in its infancy as a correctional facility.
The transitional release centre is a wonderful re-introductive tool for prisoners who have been incarcerated for a very long time and have lost those basic community awareness skills.
The absence of barbed wire and concrete walls allows fresh air and scenery into the daily life of those who have had their freedom removed. They can see kangaroos in the morning, they can see the mist rise over the creek bed and they can see the traffic going by. They have not been locked away in a cupboard a with the key chucked away. They can see a reason to restore themselves and get out a changed person.
The fact that the AMC is a tiered facility, with both genders, remand and sentenced prisoners is a positive.
Oh… and I saw in the article that there is a hairdressing facility. Hello! There were always two hairdressing bays in the women’s section. Not news, guys!
And where is the credit for the barista training which gives the prisoners a Certificate 3 in hospitality and an employment qualification? Or the peaceful quiet space for indigenous inmates with programs just for them?
Sure, the work programs aren’t sufficient, but where is the involvement (and thus criticism for the lack) of opportunities from the nearby private sector to have work related programs run in conjunction with the community? It has worked in Mt Gambier, in Sale and in Mareeba. But these are privately run jails. Is it possible that the private sector will not cooperate with a public jail?
The shortcomings are, to me exacerbated by the lack of a safe injecting facility. I was a big opponent of this in a jail until I realised that harm minimisation is a good start to getting people off drugs. To deny this is just madness. The proof is everywhere that this works and is not a danger to the officers as they say. Having shared needles in prisons because they can’t be prevented is more of a danger than a supervised facility.
Another concern I have is the emergence of a gym. I saw for myself the stupidity of putting body building equipment into a facility where lack of employment or activity only serves to entice people to enhance their image through strength and body building. The Fulham Prison near Sale had a group of Asian inmates who did just that and intimidated the other prisoners. They also prepared for skullduggery on release as stand over merchants.
It is clear to me that having a military approach to custodial officers is a significant problem. Having uniforms just widens the gap between those incarcerated and those who are trying to rehabilitate them. The us and them syndrome is alive and well. Uniforms only perpetuate the notion of officers being “screws” and “turnkeys”. But my suggestion that uniforms not be introduced was met with horror by the officers.
The experiment at Mt Gambier, where uniforms and ranks were banned, involvement with the community, engineered by the enlightened Director, resulted in positive outcomes for prisoners and job satisfaction for the corrective service officers. The community/prison/business partnership resulted in a low recidivism rate and a real time re-integration of offenders back into the community.
I mourn for the prisoners in the AMC, I mourn for their families, I mourn for the officers, I mourn for the community and I mourn for the hope I felt in that facility. Jon Stanhope’s comments were not helpful and his backflip is regretted.
Sure there are issues at the AMC, but privatising the AMC will not transfer the risk of failure, it will just be more expensive and less compassionate.