Prison Realities and the Need for Change

By Peter Norden AO | 06 Feb 12

This article is part of our February theme, which focuses on one of the great silences in the human rights conversation in Australia: Prisoners’ Rights. Read our Editorial for more on this theme.

After several years’ involvement with the juvenile justice system in Victoria, my first contact with the adult prison system was in 1976 as a volunteer with the Prison Visitation Group of the St Vincent de Paul Society (The Vinnies). I had recently graduated in social work from Melbourne University and was invited by a good friend who was a senior officer in the Public Defender’s Office to get involved.

On my first visit to J-Division for 17–21 year old offenders, my role was to be available to assist either those just arrived (could you phone my mum and tell her I am out of the police cells and now here at Pentridge) or those about to be released (I’m getting out next week and have no where to live).

One young guy joined the line of inmates waiting to see me and when his turn came he explained his mate wanted to talk to me but was too frightened to join the line. I said I would see him when I had seen the last few young fellows.  He took me around the back of the division and I found a seventeen year old lad, shaking, weeping, bent over, in a very distressed state. He had been raped the night before in one of the four dormitories that the young offenders were then held in. There were 30 or 40 to a dormitory and only one prison officer on duty from 4 pm when they were locked in after having finished their evening meal until 8 am when they came out of the dormitories for breakfast.

I arranged for him to be transferred to A-division across the way, where he at least had a private cell, but was then exposed to older, more sophisticated criminal types. He would not make a formal complaint and there was no way that charges could have been laid.

I had always been confronted by the general community view that “Prisoners have no rights”

That young man was in for car theft, but I suspect the trauma of his first prison experience was largely responsible for his subsequent heroin addiction and a consequent string of armed robberies that brought him back into the prison system on and off for the next twenty years.

The following year I founded a community service to assist young offenders after their release, those who were most in need or most likely to reoffend after their release.  It was named the Brosnan Centre after, Father John Brosnan, the legendary Catholic Chaplain to Pentridge Prison who served in that role for 30 years, and was at the gallows at the time of the last execution in Australia, that of Ronald Ryan in 1967.

Over the last 30 years of my continued involvement with the criminal justice system in different capacities, I had always been confronted by the general community view that “Prisoners have no rights”. This view seems to be largely shaped by a sensationalist media that stirs up a sense of fear and outrage in the community, and that has led State and Territory governments throughout the country over the last twenty years to conduct their election campaigns based on “law and order” and “get tough on crime” agendas.

The result has been that despite no substantial increase in crime during that period of time, the prison population has increased at three times the rate of the general Australian population.

[T]he reception biff was the regular practice for any inmates received into H-Division

When I first visited prisons in the 1970s it was common place for prisoners to be bashed, not only by other prisoners, but by prison guards.  There was little chance of taking action against them.  The history of such systematic bashings in New South Wales prisons is well known and was documented in the Nagle Royal Commission.  Following that investigation, Professor Tony Vinson was engaged from the NSW Bureau of Crime and Statistics to become the Commissioner for Corrective Services in New South Wales.  His attempts to reform the NSW prison system and the persistent resistance to such reforms is well―documented in the publication Wilful Obstruction.

The resistance to change by prison officer unions throughout Australia during the 1970s and 1980s was a major influence that opened the way to the privatisation of prisons throughout the country.

When I worked as chaplain to Pentridge Prison from 1985-1992, the reception biff was the regular practice for any inmates received into H-Division, then the maximum security division.  The heavy metal door to the division was closed, the newly arrived inmate was told to strip off all his clothes and he was surrounded by several burly prison guards who proceeded to belt him with batons, fists and even boots until he fell to the floor and stopped any resistance to their brutal assault.  There were no witnesses and it remained an accepted practice until the prison closed in 1996.

The reforms of the last twenty years have seen a change in the physical design and management of prisons throughout the nation, and an emphasis on better management of inmates, but little serious attempt for the “corrective services” to bring about any serious change.  The principle that has taken hold in the United States over the last 30 years of “warehousing” inmates – packing many in together despite capacity – seems to be gradually infiltrating the management model of Australian prisons.

Look for one example at what are called “management units” in the maximum security institutions, where many inmates are held in isolation in their cells for 23 hours a day.

Two young men who had been clients of the Brosnan Centre during the 1980s were placed in one of those management units in Barwon prison during the 1990s.  Both had previously escaped from medium security prisons, I admit, but they were now placed in the most secure unit of the most secure prison in the State.  During the one hour exercise which was mandated, each came out of his cell, with hand cuffs and leg irons in place.  No-one else was in the yard during that time, and two prison officers directly supervised the “exercise” through reinforced glass screens.  This practice continued for months and months, under the pretence of the good order and management of the prison.

The reforms of the last twenty years have seen … little serious attempt for the “corrective services” to bring about any serious change.

Only last year, I was asked to provide “expert witness” evidence in the case of an inmate of Risdon prison, held under precisely the same circumstances.  He had been held in such isolation for several years and finally took the State of Tasmania to the Supreme Court.  The judge examined the evidence before the matter came to court and brought the parties together to negotiate.  She made it clear that the case against the State of Tasmania was very strong.  It was agreed to move the inmate out of the Tamar unit and to reform the rigid, punitive regime practiced there.

Over the years, while I have criticised prison regimes across the country for their failure to implement policies of “humane containment”, one of my former school friends who had become the State President of Crime Watch regularly criticised my point of view with regard to prisoners’ rights and the treatment of offenders.  Unfortunately several years ago, he himself was charged with the criminal offence of fraud which involved a two year period of imprisonment.  He informed me that he then realised how true my analysis was of the nature of the prison system in Victoria at the time.  His major concern was not the treatment he received, but what his wife and teenage children had to endure at the hands of prison authorities: the lack of communication and information and the disrespect with which they were regularly treated as they visited their family member each week.

What is the solution to these difficulties?  Is there some way forward that can bring about a more effective response to the prevention of crime and the treatment of offenders in Australia?  I attempted to address this question at greater length in the John Barry Memorial Lecture which I was invited to present at the University of Melbourne in November 2010.  It can still be viewed on the ABC Big Ideas online service.

In that address I called for a more rational, evidence-based policy direction for the future of the Australian criminal justice system today.  I believe that it is critical that we acknowledge the limitations of our present systems and our need for a substantial change of direction.  Similar calls have been made in recent times by U.S. Senator Jim Webb in a country that has 5 per cent of the world’s population, but 25 per cent of the reported prison population.  Further the Open Society Institute-Washington, D.C. has also called for a multidisciplinary collaboration to find a more effective and economical response to the underlying issues that fuel the cycle of incarceration.

These underlying issues are complex and need the commitment of a broad range of government services, but most of all the political will of leaders prepared to implement such changes.

Forums such as Rights Now seem to represent potential leaders in our community who may well be prepared to champion those changes in future years.

Peter Norden AO is an Adjunct Professor in the School of Global Studies, Social Science and Planning at RMIT University. He previously worked for many years as a Chaplain in the Victorian prison and detention systems, and as executive director of Jesuit Social Services. In 2007 he was made an Officer of the Order of Australia for assisting marginalised young people and offenders, among other services to the community.