Editorial: Prisoners’ Rights

By André Dao
Black and white photo of Goulbourn Jail

In February we’ve been focusing on one of the great silences in the human rights conversation in Australia: Prisoners’ Rights. In his fantastic article, former ACT Chief Minister Jon Stanhope wonders why “prisoners are perhaps the last discrete group of human beings who are, in a general way, publically vilified, dehumanised and demonised within Australia without fear of censure.” Yet if we truly believe in the concept of human dignity and human rights, we should be wary of taking dignity and rights away from anyone, even prisoners. Our February articles are a simple reminder, against the constant barrage of “Tough on Crime” rhetoric, that prisoners are human beings.

Our first piece of the month was also our first audio work to be featured on the website. The Other Side of the Fence is a moving story that reminds us of the humanity of those we lock away.

Indeed, it’s worth asking, as James Petty does, “What Rights Should Prisons Deny?” Is the denial of liberty punishment enough? Not according to our current legal system, which in Queensland is denying prisoners the right to create art. And what about the right to vote? In “Having a Say: Prisoners and Voting Rights”, Graeme Orr argues that the right to vote is a fundamental part of membership of the political community.

Nor does discrimination against prisoners end when they leave prison. Chloe Potvin reports on the difficulties ex-prisoners face in finding employment and Nicki Petrou, Managing Solicitor of the Top End Legal Centre, writes about the challenge facing women exiting prison in finding accomodation. Kate Johnson explores the state’s responsibility to care for prisoners – including the need for rehabilitation.

The other thing to consider is that prisons don’t make our communities safer. Is it time to think about alternatives to incarceration? Certainly, the state of our prison systems would suggest so. Rose Carnes reveals the dangerous level of overcrowding in Western Australian prisons, and Peter Norden AO reflects on his 30 years of experience with the criminal justice system and the lack of serious change towards “humane containment” during that time. Professor Eileen Baldry looks at the consequences of imprisoning people with disabilities and Chris Hartley from the Public Interest Advocacy Centre discusses the Federal Government’s Ten Year Roadmap for Mental Health Reform and its (lack of) measures to prevent prison suicide.

Any discussion of Prisoners’ Rights in Australia would not be complete without acknowledging the shameful over-representation of Indigenous people in our prisons. Chris Varney, Samah Hadid and Benson Saulo – who all served as Australian Youth Representatives to the United Nations from 2009-2011 – call us to account in their excellent article, “Indigenous Juvenile Detention: Australia’s Neglected Crisis”.

We also have two interviews – the first is an interview with Kari Panaccione, an observer at Guantanamo Bay. Two Australian citizens – David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib – have been detained there, and Kari’s reflections on Guantanamo ten years on from its opening are chilly reminders of just how willing we have been to let prisoners’ rights fall by the wayside. Our second interview is a little more positive as Right Now talks to ANU law students who have been participating in the Prison Issues Project.

Finally, we have an article from one of our editors, John Alizzi on the future of private prisons in Australia. He begins with a quote from Dostoevsky that serves as a poignant summation of this month’s content:

“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”