January 18, 2005
Hardened criminals are not filling NSW's prisons - the mentally ill and socially disadvantaged are, writes Eileen Baldry.
The NSW Premier, Bob Carr, proudly announced last Thursday that this state has more than 9000 of its citizens in prison, a record number and one equal to almost half of all prisoners in Australia. Far from being proud of this, Carr should be deeply ashamed. The 50 per cent increase in prisoners over the past decade is a clear indication of failure on the part of government to deal effectively with serious social problems.
More than 50 per cent of prisoners have an intellectual or psychiatric disability. Most of these people cycle in and out on short sentences or on remand because there are few community services to help them stay out of trouble.
Prison, the most unhelpful place to send a person with these problems, is being used as surrogate therapeutic housing. But of course prison is not organised to provide a healing environment and many are released in a worse situation than before they entered.
Parole officers and courts despair that many sent to psychiatric services, because they are clearly mentally unwell, return to court within days or even hours. Eventually they are sentenced to prison terms because there is no alternative.
The chairman of the NSW parliamentary committee on mental health in 2002, Dr Brian Pezzutti, noted: "Deinstitutionalisation, without adequate community care, has resulted in a new form of institutionalisation: homelessness and imprisonment."
The Productivity Commission says NSW spends the least per person of all the state governments on mental health. NSW is also below the average in supporting people with an intellectual disability, particularly those who have been caught in the criminal justice system.
Affordable housing in NSW, especially for those with disabilities, has slipped further out of reach. Fifty per cent of prisoners are homeless within nine months of their release. When this is combined with poor mental or intellectual functioning, most are unable to manage and end up back in prison. NSW has one of the highest rates of recidivism in Australia, with more than 7 per cent of people in prison having been incarcerated before.
NSW is also well below the average in providing supported housing and employment for people with a disability. Most prisoners come from, and go back to, a small number of disadvantaged localities where poor education, unemployment and poor access to services have been generational. These communities already have a heavy load of social problems to deal with without increasing the number of people returning from prison in need of unavailable housing, health and employment.
The fastest-growing group in NSW prisons is Aboriginal women. These women are not the dangerous, violent criminals Carr claims account for the rise in prisoner numbers. Most are on short sentences and have been in and out of detention since their youth, putting a lie to the argument that prison rehabilitates.
Women in general are the next fastest-growing group. Seventy per cent of the flow-through prison population - that is, numbers flowing in and out over a year - are on six-month sentences or less. Most have suffered physical or sexual abuse as a child and domestic violence as adults, and 90 per cent have alcohol or other drug problems. If the women are not supported to overcome these problems they will stay locked in the revolving door of the criminal justice system.
Tougher bail laws were touted as helping us all sleep more comfortably at night. But the remand prisons are not full of serious offenders, although of course there are some. A great many remandees are those who cannot meet bail requirements and are petty crime recidivists. Fifty per cent of people on remand are released in less than a month either because the court assesses they have served their sentence or they are found not guilty; hardly the hardline criminals the bail laws are said to be keeping off the streets.
The people of NSW have been sold a financially and socially expensive lemon. The Government continues to fuel fear of crime at the same time it allows social services to run down. More prisons are presented as the solution. NSW will reap a nasty harvest of greater social problems out of this shameful approach.
Eileen Baldry is a senior lecturer in the school of social work at the University of NSW.