Comparing zoos and prisons: Worse Than Animals

This unique analysis compares the treatment of zoo animals and prisoners. The findings reveal that Taronga Zoo’s gorillas are given twenty four times more space than people held inside the private Parklea prison. 

This research shows that zoos have stringent safeguards maintaining much higher standards than prisons to ensure that captive animals receive adequate care. 

The overcrowded cells article on the Sydney Morning Herald website can be viewed here.
Media Release: Comparing Zoos and Prisons: Worse Than Animals 23 November 2015
The report is available for download here.

In April 2015 the Report of the Inspector of Custodial Services “Full House” exposed the inhumane conditions in NSW prisons due to overcrowding caused by an exploding prison population of 12.5% increase per year.  The Inspector declared: “the state treats inmates in a way that denies them a modicum of dignity and humanity.” 

The publicly exposed lack of enforceable standards was the basis for this unique analysis comparing people locked in prisons and animals in zoos, not previously undertaken elsewhere. 

The Inspector’s Report was based upon the limited space for each prisoner in breach of Health Regulations, poor access to health care and inadequacy of facilities. Health Regulations require 5.5m2 to be allocated to each person in prison, yet Corrective Services claimed a special exemption from the Health Minister and subsequently argued that 4m2 might be enough. There is no punishment for breaches and no mechanism for enforcement. 

That space compares to the 72m2 that gorillas must have under NSW legislation. Breaches of obligations to animals are enforced by imprisonment.

One explanation for the differences is that the public can see animals in zoos, see their conditions and are encouraged to understand their needs. People in prisons however are in places of isolation where they are put into cages and cells where no-one can see them or their conditions. They cannot show their anguish and are not able to talk to the public. Their conditions are not visible and therefore the administration is not accountable to the public.

Zoo enclosures simulate natural habitats in order to ensure the health and well being of the specific species. However, prison cells are homogeneously designed and don’t cater for individual needs. They hold inmates in conditions starkly different from their normal lives.  Captive animals in zoos roam in larger spaces for long periods to be seen, but incarcerated people are held in cells with strangers for around eighteen hours a day with no ability to leave.

The gorilla is dangerous by nature but the prisoner is statistically very unlikely to be dangerous.

The existing rules in place to protect the rights of inmates are largely regulatory rather than legislative. For example, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners has codified Standards for health services in Australian prisons; the NSW, ACT, Northern Territory, Queensland, Victoria, Tasmania and Western Australia Corrective Services Departments have adopted the Standard Guidelines for Corrections in Australia. While the Crimes (Administration of Sentences) Act enshrines inmates’ rights to medical treatment it is largely concerned with legally empowering correctional facilities to detain, order and control inmates.

This report recommends greater accountability through public and media scrutiny of the prison system, subject to privacy rights. Damaging citizens through degrading treatment rather than helping them, causes greater danger upon release and creates crime. Overcrowding should cease by adopting alternative sentencing measures. Legislation enforcing living standards should be adopted. Technological advances applying to humans should give prisoners access to computers in cells as an expression of the human right to develop.

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