The Prisoner as a Human Being

By Jon Stanhope

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.

In 2004 the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) Legislative Assembly enacted the Human Rights Act, the first Bill of Rights to be passed into law in Australia. In passing the Act, the ACT Government made an overt and very public commitment to the universality and inalienability of human rights.

In essence the Act provides that no one may be treated or punished in a cruel, inhumane or degrading way: that even the worst among us have human rights that should be respected even if we have been convicted of the most heinous crimes.

In 2009 the Alexander Maconochie Centre, the ACT’s first prison, became operational.  The Government was motivated, when taking the decision to build the prison, by the opportunity to learn from the experience of other prisons in operation in Australia and to avoid the temptation, as politically enticing as it is, to employ the practice and language of retribution, punishment and demonisation.

The prison was the first in Australia to be built and operated in accordance with human rights legislation and principles. The fact it is named in honour of Alexander Maconochie, superintendent of the Norfolk Island penal colony from 1840 to 1844, a prison reformer unmatched in Australia before or since, was to be a constant reminder of the prison’s aims as a reforming institution, one which reflects a commitment to human rights and a belief in the possibility of rehabilitation and redemption.

The most recent Productivity Commission Report on Government Services, released on 31 January 2012 gives a first glimpse of some of the outcomes of the operational approach employed at the Alexander Maconochie Centre (AMC).

It reveals that the percentage of eligible prisoners employed at the AMC was 92.3 percent against a national average of 76.1 percent; the number of AMC prisoners enrolled in education and training is 92.0 percent as opposed to 34.8 percent nationally; and AMC prisoners spend an average of 14.1 hours out of cells while nationally prisoners are out of cells for 11.4 hours a day. Prisoners at AMC may also receive visitors six days a week including up until 8 pm and the crude imprisonment rate in the ACT is 68 per 100,000 while nationally it is 169 per 100,000. It is not surprising that the cost per prisoner of providing corrective services in the ACT is also the highest in Australia.

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.

These early results are very encouraging, particularly when considered in conjunction with the range and nature of programs in place at the prison. The Government, corrections and other staff have every right to be confident that the operating philosophy in place at AMC will improve opportunities for successful prisoner rehabilitation and re-integration and will reduce recidivism.  They should be supported and applauded.

The clearly accepted political wisdom is that there are no votes in prison reform or in defending prisoners’ rights. I cannot recall a single instance of a politician campaigning on a platform of prison reform while there are countless examples of politicians taking every opportunity to attack prisoners and their rights.

It has occurred to me, as I mull over this, particularly since taking the decision to construct a human rights compliant prison and experiencing the backlash it engendered, that 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 or opprobrium.

As a nation, we have over time and at different times discriminated against or villified certain classes of people, openly and without public censure or any legal consequence. These have included Chinese and all other Asian peoples (through the White Australia Policy), as well as Aboriginals, the post World War Two migrants (particularly the Greeks and Italians), single mothers, the Vietnamese, Muslims, boat people, gays and lesbians, and Catholics and Jews.

It is, however, not currently politically, socially or legally acceptable to openly disparage or discriminate against any person in Australia on the basis of any such personal characteristic.

The same cannot be said of prisoners. They remain as a group, and without any consideration of the personal history or background of any individual prisoner, fair game not only for poll driven law and order political campaigns but more generally. It is disappointing too that when prisoners are treated with contempt and without compassion or regard for even their basic health needs even, the broader community turns its back.

I will use one current topical example:  the proposal to introduce a needle and syringe service into the Alexander Maconochie Centre.  The idea is simple. Illicit drugs regularly find their way into the prison, as they do in all prisons.  Clean needles are not available in the prison. So the prisoners share dirty needles. Most prisoners have a pre-existing drug addiction. Many, up to 65%, have Hepatitis C and it would not be unusual for some of them to have AIDS.

The evidence is incontrovertible that clean needles prevent the spread of these major life threatening diseases. It is not alarmist to suggest that at some time a prisoner at the Alexander Maconochie Centre will contract, from a dirty needle, a major blood borne disease and die from it.

Clean needles are, of course, available throughout Canberra to prevent this occurring and to protect the general community. Surveys of community attitudes suggest that well over 70% of Canberrans support the needle exchange program.

The clearly accepted political wisdom is that there are no votes in prison reform or in defending prisoners’ rights.

The ACT Government is considering expanding the needle exchange program to include the prison.

The Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU), the largest union in the ACT, represents not only prison officers and those employed at the prison but indeed all clerical staff in the Territory’s public service. It is almost certain that up to 75% of the CPSU membership, which is highly reflective of the Canberra population, supports the needle exchange program. The union, however, does not believe that prisoners, the most at risk drug users in society, should be provided with clean needles. The CPSU is affiliated to the Australian Labor Party (ALP). It is in fact the largest affiliated union and now dominates the Left faction within the ALP. It is probable that in excess of 75% of the ACT’s ALP membership supports the needle exchange program and I had always taken it as a given that the whole of the Left faction supported the program.

Yet at this stage it appears that the CPSU veto will succeed. It will succeed, disappointingly and perhaps tragically, despite three quarters of its own membership, of its faction, and of the ACT Branch of the ALP, to which it is affiliated, not agreeing with it, and thus a supposedly progressive union will succumb to a base, historic national characteristic that I had hoped we had outgrown.

Jon Stanhope is a Professorial Fellow at the Institute of Governance, University of Canberra, having stepped down after a decade as ACT Chief Minister in May 2011.  Prior to being elected to the ACT Legislative Assembly, he was an adviser to federal opposition leader Kim Beazley and chief of staff to Attorney-General Michael Lavarch.