Failures of Imprisonment

‘The huge expenditure of public funds, however, is contrary to a large body of evidence showing that prisons are an ineffective mechanism to reducing offending in the community – it amounts to double that spent on building new schools, yet recidivism in NSW is the worst of all states.’ Click here to learn more.


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  2. Recidivism
  3. Alternatives to Prison
  4. Prison Issues
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Prisons have failed to meet almost all objectives of the criminal justice system. Their role as a correctional service has adversely affected the lives of prisoners, their families and the wider community. In NSW, although there was a reported decrease in crime rates, a 7% increase in prison population was noted; highlighting the failure of imprisonment as an effective mechanism of social control.

Additionally, contrary to the NSW Department’s goal of reducing adult rates of reoffending by 5% by 2019, the rate of adult re-offending has worsened. The NSW Auditor-General’s Report ‘Law and Order’ (Volume Seven Part One 2015, p. 7) found a 35.9% rate of recidivism within one year of release in 31 December 2013. This rate of re-offending notably increased to 45.8% by 30 June 2014, within two years of release. These rates demonstrate an upward trend in adult re-offending – a clear indication that the prison system is not working.

Clearly, there is a strain on prison infrastructure and services that has resulted in deteriorating prisoner health conditions and rising incidents of self-harm. As the inmate – parole officer ratio is increasing, the attempt to rehabilitate and reintegrate into society has been more difficult. Unfortunately, overcrowding of prisons means a reduced access to adequate support, education and opportunities. The NSW prison system houses an average of three inmates per cell and has over fifty inmates sharing a phone (See: Inspector of Custodial Services Report- Full House 2015).

According to Auditor-General Tony Whitfield, overcrowding has undermined confidence in the justice system and the effectiveness of prisons. His report ‘Performance Frameworks in Custodial Centre Operations’ (2016) outlines the ineffectiveness of CSNSWs performance framework, specifying the lack of communication of organisational key performance indicators (KPIs) cascaded to public correctional centres. As a result CSNSW could not assess their performance(‘Performance Frameworks in Custodial Centre Operations’ Media Release, 3 March 2016). In response, a reform project is being introduced that requires public prisons to take accountability like private prisons through meeting and reporting their performance. The project is designed so that rates of recidivism are reduced, community protection is increased, and prison standards are lifted.

Currently, the average Australian prisoner costs $100 000 per year, a figure which is expected to rise. $60 million is also spent on keeping prisoners on remand (“Court backlog costing $60m as jails overflow”, SMH, 24 November, 2015). In 2014-15, $3.4 billion was invested into prison systems. Justice Action suggests that these funds could be used more effectively in the establishment of post-release programs, public housing and rehabilitation services for prisoners. The government must seek alternatives to imprisonment that will reduce the strain on economic and social resources, as the high cost of imprisonment cannot be sustained.

In addition, a recent report suggests that bail is being refused and longer sentences are being handed down to benefit commercial interest by establishing more prisons and filling them up (‘Prisons trap our money along with crooks’, SMH, 17 February, 2016).

Imprisonment is not contributing to the wellbeing of the community as a whole. See the papers “Prisons Cause Crime”“Alternatives to Imprisonment” .

Major Issues

Penal Abolition
Prison inquiries
1. Nagle Royal Commission, 1978
2. NSW Women in Prison Task Force, 1985
3. Aboriginal Deaths in Custody Royal Commission, 1987-1991
4. The Combined Churches Report, 1994
5. Rand Corp on Mandatory Minimums, 1997
6. NSW Parliamentary Committee on Prisons, 2000

Further References

  • 16th March 2014: Prison population explosion could lead to two new jails per year
  • Elliott Johnston (1991) National Report: Overview and Recommendations, Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, AGPS, Canberra
  • Inter Church Steering Committee on Prison Reform (1994) Prison – not yet the last resort: a review of the NSW penal system
  • J. F. Nagle (1978) Report of the Royal Commission into New South Wales Prisons, Vol 1, 2 & 3, Government Printer, Sydney, April
  • Jonathan P. Caulkins, C. Peter Rydell, William Schwabe & James R. Chisea (1997) Mandatory Minimum Drug Sentences: throwing away the key or the taxpayers money?, Rand Documents,
  • NSW Parliament (2000) Legislative Council Select Committee on the Increase in Prisoner Population, Sydney.Roman Tomasic & Ian Dobinson (1979) The Failure of Imprisonment
  • Roman Tomasic & Ian Dobinson (1979) The Failure of Imprisonment
  • Vivienne Stern (1998) Imprisonment in the World: a Sin Against the Future Written by Tim Anderson for Stop the Womens Jail Anti-Prisons Resource Kit Published June 2001 by Justice Action Ph: (02) 9281 5100

[1]Australian Bureau of Statistics, 4510.0 Recorded Crime – Victims Australia, 2014
[2]Australian Bureau of Statistics, 4517.0 Prisoners in Australia, 2015
[3] Sarah Kimmorley, Australia put more people in jail than ever before in 2015 and its costing taxpayers 2.6 billion, Business Insider Australia

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