Prison violence: Letter to Minister

Mr Bob Debus
31st May 1998

Dear Minister,

Reducing Violence in NSW Jails
We write to you about the alarming levels of violence and death in the states prisons in recent times. We have discussed this matter intensively with members and groups within the Criminal Justice Coalition, but we wish to make this contribution as ex-prisoners. Together we have nearly 50 years combined experience in and study of prisoners, and this underlies our comments and emphases here.

1997 saw a record number of deaths in custody in Australia and almost half of these (46 of 97) were in NSW; 30 were in the jails and 16 in police custody. In addition to deaths, there are reports of many stabbings and bashings. Here statistics do not tell the full story, because as with all jail conditions, there is great variation between institutions. The recent Criminal Justice Coalition tours of maximum-security jails confirmed what many prisoners have told us: Goulburn Jail and the new Remand Centre (the MRRC) are the worst. Conditions in some other jails are considerably better.

It is this great variation that forces a review of the structural causes of jail violence- the actual living and working conditions within he jail. Prison violence can take several forms: prisoner on prisoner, prisoner on prison officer and prison officer on prisoner. (Unlike the first two, the department keeps no statistics on this third category). In our view, most of these forms of violence may be reduced by addressing the structural problems. Basic jail living conditions are at the root of much of the tension, violence and self-harm. The major areas we see as fruitful to focus on are the following.

We have seen over many years how policies of strict yarding causes violence. Yarding is convenient for jail administrators, but causes great tension. Many people are thrown in together with few or no facilities, but a lot o mindless boredom. Crowding, deprivation and boredom breed petty disputes. Freedom of association within a jail undoubtedly reduces these disputes. With yarding, those in conflict with others, with drug debts, or simply being victimised, have no retreat- as would be the case if they could return to their cell, or go to a sportsground or library. Many jails have abolished yarding, recognising hat this greatly reduces tensions. However in t he highly segregated jails (with large protection populations) or the unofficial ‘punishment’ jails (such as Goulburn) yarding persists.

The first proposal to address the structural causes of jail violence is therefore to abolish the system of yarding where it exists (such as Goulburn and the MRRC) and to replace it with more open regimes which incorporate individual choices, freedom of association and options of retreat from personal conflict.

2. Absolute Poverty
Another cause of conflict and potential violence is the absolute poverty imposed on prisoners. The vast majority of prisoners are from very poor backgrounds, with two-thirds unemployed. Most prisoners have no savings. Yet the minimum jail wage has remained at around $9 to $12 a week for the past15 years. Meantime, prices have doubled. A pouch of tobacco now costs more than the minimum wage, and this can have serious implications. There have been several cases where prisoners have been stabbed or bashed fro a pouch of tobacco, or a pair of shoes. Desperate poverty breeds desperate measures.

Therefore an attack on the absolute poverty of many prisoners, by raising the minimum weekly wage to at least $25, is appropriate. This must include non-industrial wages, such as wages for students and jails maintenance staff (sweepers).

3. Human Contact
Observations and experience over many years tell us that attempting to deal with self-harm through isolation, observation and the denial of all possible means of hanging, has been a great failure. The notion of ‘suicide proof’ cells should be abandoned. Even though such proposals came from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, and from the Waller Inquiry, they are expensive failures which focus too much on the ‘duty of care’ of custodial study, and on physical control, and not enough on the psychological need of the distressed or depressed prisoner. Control and surveillance can so easily displace simple human concern and compassion over another’s anguish. Suicides have occurred in ‘safe cells’, while there have been very few in relaxed-regime jails, despite easily accessible hanging points. We have also seen suicides and suicide attempts immediately after isolation and observation. So almost any sort of human contact is preferable to entombment in a pink-painted, video-monitored, perspex enclosed and suffocating box. Decent human and social contact is far more important than attacks on ‘hanging points’.

Therefore the appalling ‘safe cell’ model should be replaced with human contact and properly resourced and trained peer support programs. Access to telephones and visits with family and friends should be prioritised. Rather than limit the time of hone calls (in the name of equity) more phones should be installed and visits provided for each and every day of the week. This outside support is universally recognised as valuable for the prisoner, and costs the department very little. Peer support systems should be capable of being activated at any time of the day or night. The development of responsible peer support programs (as part of the wider development of a responsible prisoner community), in the area of self-harm, is also a valuable rehabilitative program, and might be seen as an extension of the current Aboriginal mentor scheme.

4. Strengthen Grievance Procedures
Frustration at petty injustices and an unresponsive bureaucracy can generate great tension in jail. The fact that official statistics on jail violence include prisoner-to-prisoner officer, but not prison officer-to-prisoner, simply underlies the wider fact that prisoners’ complaints against officials are not listened to, and on the contrary are buried, trivialised and ignored. The clear lesson for prisoners is that you have to exact your own justice, including by violence. The irony of this is that most prisoners are held for breaching social codes, and are expected in some way to ‘learn a lesson’, through imprisonment, that social codes are to be respected. However lack of a descent civil complaints procedure sends the opposite message. Further, unresolved complaints breeds legitimate resentment at injustice, and this often spills over into petty, or more serious, violence.

A clear charter of prisoner rights, and an effective complaints mechanism, would help defuse widespread frustration at and reaction to a system which is widely perceived as unjust and unresponsive. Such a process could include independent community members and be coordinated through the office of the Ombudsman, but also requires strengthened local feedback mechanisms, through elected Inmate Development Committees. Many of these IDCs are currently ineffective. Conciliation training for those in IDCs would develop a valuable human resource which could help resolve many local conflicts.

5. Certainty in Placement and Classification
The Department of Corrective Services is well aware that uncertainty in classification and placement creates tension and frustration, and that this can lead to self-harm and other violence. Self-harm takes place to prevent movements, while general uncertainty and denial of lower classification is a constant source of serious tension.

Therefore greater certainty in jail location and classification must be established, as a matter of simple justice but also as a violence prevention measure. A commitment to jail placement within case management and classification regimes, and to firm schedules of lower security ratings, could greatly ease this tension. Classification procedures should build in a presumption that all long-term prisoners (serving sentences of 12 months or more) will reach the lowest security rating (C3) and so be eligible for some form of pre-release scheme, such as works release or study leave.

However to bring about certainty in placement, overcrowding also has to be dealt with. For example an excess of remand prisoners, and subsequent overcrowding at the MRRC, has forced the placement of remand prisoners in other jails. Overcrowding must be dealt with by sentencing reform and expanded back-end conditional release schemes. However in dealing with overcrowding (and bearing in mind the universal policy objective of using jail as a last resort and reducing rates of imprisonment), expanding cell capacity (eg. Through new jails) must be resisted.

6. Reduce the Remand Population
Associated with the overcrowding problem is the need to deal with and reduce the currently swollen remand population. Half of these 1100 people will not go on to receive a jail sentence (other than their remand period) yet they live under uncertainty and in the poorest conditions in the entire prisons system. It is well known that there is greater tension in remand jails, and that the death in custody rate is high there.

Reduction of the remand population through regular and frequent bail hearings at the MRRC (either by a visiting magistrate or by video-link, and after consultation with the Chief Magistrate) is therefore highly desirable. Bail all reform to restore a presumption for bail for all categories of offence, as is required by our international human rights commitments, is also highly desirable.

7. Responsible Choices
Finally we draw your attention to the need to foster the capacity for prisoners to make responsible choices within jail regimes, while this at times cuts across ‘ control and contain’ regimes, it is essential that responsibility be encouraged through access to responsible, day-to-day choices- such as the preparation of food, choice between education and work, and participation in peer support programs. With responsible choices removed, people ultimately become childlike and irresponsible. This is one of the deep effects of institutionalisation.

A minimum standard of 12 hours out of cell- in maximum security institutions, with firm minimum and reasonable times for access to exercise, education and welfare- should be set and adhered to. Increased voluntary association, exercise and education activities, peer support activities and human community contact reduce the stress and tension that underlies much jail violence

We would appreciate hearing your response to these proposals. Your administration has been characterised by its openness and we believe you are genuinely concerned to look for and find real solutions.

Yours sincerely

Tim Anderson
& Brett Collins

cc. Assistant Commissioner Catriona McComish


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