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Privatise the AMC? Madness!

By John Hargreaves 2 January 2017 50


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.

What’s Your opinion?

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50 Responses to
Privatise the AMC? Madness!
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HenryBG 1:49 pm 19 Jan 17

Chris Mordd Richards said :

Unlike the arbiters of morality the Australian Christian Lobby and the LNP right faction who wish to arbitrate their morality against LGBTQI marriage? Because Greens are only ones who put their personal morals into politics right! ROFLMAO!! Great joke you made there! You forgot the /s at the end though!! 😀

I think the difference there is that whereas groups like the Christian Lobby present their beliefs as opposing views, the Greens present their views as the only valid and acceptable views on the subject, with all other views being clear indications of misogyny, racism, xenophobia, homophobia and/or islamophobia, which should therefore be legislated against.
No small part of this is caused by the communist-sympathisers having infiltrated the Greens in order to hijack them to serve as a platform from which to promote their deluded ideals clothed in their illiberal methods of debate.

Chris Mordd Richards 1:29 am 18 Jan 17

Mysteryman said :

Chris Mordd Richards said :

Interesting how a Greens corrections Minister is held to higher standards than Liberal/LNP corrections Ministers in other State or Territories.

That’s to be expected when the Greens constantly act like the arbiters of morality.

Unlike the arbiters of morality the Australian Christian Lobby and the LNP right faction who wish to arbitrate their morality against LGBTQI marriage? Because Greens are only ones who put their personal morals into politics right! ROFLMAO!! Great joke you made there! You forgot the /s at the end though!! 😀

miz 7:49 pm 17 Jan 17

As someone who works in an area with links to all correctional services across Australia, my experience is that NSW in general has the best correctional regime and Victoria is not great due in part to all the linkage problems caused by privitisation. ACT would appear to have lots of problems not least of which is it’s self-delusion of being a human rights prison (e.g. clear breaches in not keeping remandees separate).

HenryBG 1:17 pm 17 Jan 17

Rebecca Vassarotti said :

For me it’s not who is the decision maker – it’s that governments, no matter what party they belong to, remain accountable to the people they serve. Private companies have a legal responsibility to serve their shareholders and there is a record of Governments using this to reduce accountability.

The problem with this kind of perspective is that it prioritises the needs and wants of the criminals.
OK, they deserve *some* consideration, but the priorities should be:
1/ The 99% of the population that manages to *not* commit crimes – we deserve protection from criminals as well as the cheapest-possible prisons to house them in. Why should *we* pay for criminals having access to a revolving-door into a holiday camp?
2/ The victims of crime. How are *they*? Do *they* need any assistance? These are our fellow citizens who have been preyed-upon and whose lives are often irrevocably changed as a result. Let’s prioritise their needs and recognition for their victimhood *much* higher than we prioritise any consideration for the criminals, please.
3/ Finally, the last priority: the criminal. Again, within this category there are priorities:
A. How can we make them suffer for what they’ve done?
B. How long can we keep them locked up and excluded from this, our society, which they have rejected and no longer deserve to be part of
C. Finally, the last priority of all – can we do something nice for them, maybe give them lots of cuddles and see if that turns them into nice people?

I can’t see how the private sector could do a worse job with the AMC than the ACT government has done. Hand it over.

Mysteryman 9:52 am 17 Jan 17

Chris Mordd Richards said :

Interesting how a Greens corrections Minister is held to higher standards than Liberal/LNP corrections Ministers in other State or Territories.

That’s to be expected when the Greens constantly act like the arbiters of morality.

Chris Mordd Richards 12:54 am 17 Jan 17

Grrr, missed a “not” – The fact that the ACT is *NOT* jailing ppl for as many minor offences – is what I meant it to read, apologies.

Chris Mordd Richards 12:52 am 17 Jan 17

I sometimes vehemently disagree with John H on here, sometimes I vehemently agree.

In this case it is the latter, and the hypocrisy on show in these comments is revealing in and of itself.

Interesting how a Greens corrections Minister is held to higher standards than Liberal/LNP corrections Ministers in other State or Territories. Shane is a Green therefore he must have the magic solution that Labor and LNP continually fail to find? Well no actually, Greens are just a bit more compassionate in their approach to human rights and basic dignity of prisoners.

As John H said, they are sent to prison AS punishment, not FOR punishment. The distinction there is vital to make. The fact that the ACT is jailing ppl for as many minor offences such as low level cannabis possession as other States and Territories do often, at least means we aren’t sending in complete non-criminals into an environment where they will end up becoming one when all they need is some basic drug treatment instead. The fact remains though that other States and Territories lock people up in far worse conditions and treat them far worse, than the AMC does. Have we all forgotten Dylan Voller and the NT Royal Commission already? How about we contrast that with the experience in the AMC, show me how the NT is doing it so much better than the ACT is at this, please!

wildturkeycanoe 7:01 am 16 Jan 17

John Hargreaves said :

To lump them all into the same basket of “hardened criminals” is not only wrong statistically but socially wrong.

If the law lumps them all into the same building for their sentence, why should the public see them any differently? If your crime is bad enough to warrant incarceration, then being labelled a hardened criminal worthy of confinement and being subjected to the same disciplinary actions is a matter for the law to discern, not the bleeding heart public.
Just because someone embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars from the taxpayer, they shouldn’t get any more leniency than a rapist. One may have violated a person’s body, but the other may have forced someone on welfare to get evicted from their home or go without food, thanks to the decrease in the funding available to a charity for instance. Just because one crime uses a gun or a knife to get the cash and the other used a computer system, doesn’t mean both perpetrators aren’t guilty of the same thing – theft. It isn’t like stealing money is a an accident, it is a deliberate act to defraud not only individuals, but the government or institution that was violated.
The judiciary also has mechanisms to deal with more violent crimes. Ever heard of the terms “hard labor”, “no parole” and “good behavior” in a court room? They have a discretionary ability to enforce a penalty to suit the injustice and/or the attitude of the criminal. If nobody’s life was threatened they can hand out a lighter sentence, but if deaths occurred from a person’s deliberate actions, they can hand out either solitary confinement, a physically demanding sentence or less privileges whilst inside. Maybe these aren’t all available in Australia because we are so backwards and stuck in the colonial era, but perhaps they should have a range of severity in sentencing criminals, proportionate to their crimes.
I wonder how many inmates are actually first offenders? How many have been in and out of the courtroom numerous times before they ended up getting that final resounding smack of gavel on table? Surely a judge is not doing their job properly if anybody ends up standing before them for the third, fourth or fifth time. Obviously these cases are not going to be easy to rehabilitate and need the deprivation of liberties that prison should accomplish.
I believe that the softly softly approach is exactly why there are so many people in prison. If life inside didn’t provide three meals a day, TV, computer games, drugs and a gym, most criminals would think twice about committing a crime. A person’s needs are taken care of inside prison, but out on the streets we fight society for our very survival. We fight against every other citizen for a job so that we can eat. We fight other tenants in the search for a rental home that we can afford to live in. We fight the government in order to prove that we are doing everything in our power to get a job, in order to get a welfare cheque every other week. Life is tough in the free world. But inside you won’t starve, you get to sleep in a bed with a blanket and you are secure.
As for having a different attitude if a family member was locked up, would it really make you think differently? If one of my family members went and took somebody else’ life with a gun or a blade in a premeditated attack, I wouldn’t want them to walk around freely in society. As much as I’d miss having them around, the law is the law and the judge’s sentence is to be respected. Sure people deserve second chances, but when a crime is so heinous that prison time is warranted they have thrown away that chance.
Prison is supposed to be a deterrent, not a holiday camp. If it seems too hard for the poor fools that get locked up, then too bad, they should’ve thought about that before they turned to a life of crime. Harsh penalties do work. If you don’t believe me, just look at the Philippines right now. The penalty of death has turned drug criminals into a bunch of wimps who have even turned themselves in for fear of being shot by a dissatisfied customer. Would you consider holding up a service station with a knife if you knew the person behind the counter had a shotgun and the legal right to shoot you dead for doing so? I’m sure it would make the gutless cowards who do that currently think twice before having another go.

dungfungus 8:59 am 10 Jan 17

John Hargreaves said :

Many of the comments by those who advocate hard labor within a prison to where people are sent FOR punishment do not understand that the vast majority of the people, yes – people! – in the AMC are there for white collar crime and crimes without an obvious primary victim. Sure drug dealers who have no addiction should be dealt with by the whole weight of the law and removed from our society as should paedophiles and murderers; and those with repeat violence related crime.

But those for whom a mistake is made, fraud, embezzlement, Centrelink fraud, credit card fraud, even drug offensives whilst under the influence of hard drugs, should be treated with respect and compassion. They are recoverable with the right programs.

I ask how they would feel if the offender was a brother, sister, mother, father or son or daughter. I suggest there would be a different attitude.

To lump them all into the same basket of “hardened criminals” is not only wrong statistically but socially wrong.

If you do the crime you do the time. It it was a close relative if wouldn’t want any concessions for them.

White collar criminals shouldn’t get any concessions either.

Life must be pretty easy at AMC; no rock breaking, not even making number plates.

No wonder it has become a revolving door for many.

I am a Rabbit™ 12:46 pm 09 Jan 17

Other countries are trying to get rid of their privatized prisons, and we’re trying to implement them. You need not look further than overseas to realise that in country after country, the act of privatizing the prison system results in greater incarceration rates. Businesses are out to make profit, so private prisons ALWAYS lobbies governments increase their prisoner occupation through implementing prison sentences for even the most minor “crimes”.

Grimm said :

This is the correct way to run a prison:

What has that got to do with privatization of the prison system though? Black Dolphin Prison is run by the Russian federal government.

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