Beyond Bars - Are Prisons cost-effective?

This fact sheet examines how much is spent on the prison system in New South Wales and how effective imprisonment is as compared to other options for responding to crime.

In examining the costs of imprisonment, it is important to consider both tangible or monetary costs (including the costs of building, maintaining and running prisons) as well as hidden costs (including psychological trauma, the impacts of other family members and impacts on employment and housing).  Of course, many of these non-monetary factors also have an economic cost in the long term but these are more difficult to measure.

Read more


Prison violence is a major issue among prisoners and is one that requires urgent attention. Justice Action aims to campaign against prisoner violence, making prisons safer for inmates. Current projects we are working on include the deaths of inmates Craig Behr and Scott Simpson. Justice Action has applied to the coroners’ court to participate in the upcoming second inquest of Craig Behr.

Words From the Inside

Some of these words have been taken from letters written to Justice Action, others are referenced.

"Being inside gives you an unerasable sense of alienation from mainstream society. The sense that what you know is worlds apart from what most people know never leaves you. Your eyes have been opened and you can never forget what you have seen."
Blanche Hampton, Prisons and Women, 1993

"Goulburn – caged or locked in cockroach infested cells. I’ve done time in LBJ, I know what cockroaches look like, but I’ve never seen anything as bad as this. Want to know why the place is cockroach infested? We’re fed shit and locked up in our cells to eat it.

Usually two out. So two blokes eat their meal. What happens to the scraps? How are the plates washed – there’s no hot water in the cells?

Rehabilitation? That page is torn from every dictionary here. How can anyone expect the regime at Goulburn to rehabilitate someone?“
– Tony 1999

Read more

Stop Building New Prisons

Prisons in Australia - The Construction of More Jails

Historical Context:
Many prisons in Australia were built by convict labour in the 1800s. During the 1990s various state governments in Australia engaged private sector correctional corporations to build and operate prisons whilst several older government run institutions were decommissioned. Operation of federal detention centres was also privatised at a time when a large influx of illegal immigrants began to arrive in Australia.

Read more

What is Prison About?

Nordic Prisons less crowded, less punitive, better staffed

Prison itself is not a modern idea. Putting people under lock and key, throwing them into the Tower of London, the Bastille in Paris, the Peter and Paul Fortress in St Petersburg, into dungeons underneath big castles or into small lock-ups or bridewells in towns and cities is not new. Even the Bible tells the story of Joseph, who became the trusted servant of Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s chief ministers. He was thrown into prison after having been falsely accused of impropriety by his master’s wife. [1]

The use of imprisonment as the main way of punishing crime, however, is different. It is a fairly recent development. In the eighteenth century in England, hanging was the most severe penalty and it was applied widely. You could be hanged for many offences, including murder, violence, theft or property over a certain value, housebreaking, arson and removing parts of Westminster Bridge. As the century wore on, hanging became less acceptable. But even if the offenders found guilty of serious crimes were not to be executed they could not be set free. They had to be kept somewhere and punished somehow. Many were transported to the American colonies, which came to an end in 1776. In the Victorian period, England started to send convicts to the far side of the earth- Australia. This decision was condemned by a parliamentary committee set up in 1837 to look at transportation ‘as being unequal, without terrors to the criminal class, both corrupting to convicts and very expensive’. [2]

Eighteenth-century thinkers saw crime as doctors saw illness. It was contagious, so those suffering from it had to be separated one from another and it could be cured by treatment. Jeremy Bentham dreamt up his idea of a Panopticon, a circular prison where from one place, one guard could see every prisoner all the time, and an inspector would keep under surveillance both the guard and the prisoners. [3]

The main features of the nineteenth-century prisons are well known. Ingenious devices were employed so that prisoners were kept from having any contact with each other. When walking round the exercise yard, prisoners wore masks, which allowed them to look down at their feet but not sideways or upwards. When prisoners went to the chapel they sat in little boxes so that they could see the chaplain straight ahead but could not make contact with the prisoners on either side. In some prisons the activity for the prisoners was working the tread wheel, a machine that required prisoners to turn a huge cylinder with their feet. This system was not a success. Prisoners succumbed to madness. In 1850, 32 prisoners per 10,000 had to be removed from Pentonville on grounds of insanity. As a result of the high rate of madness some changes were brought in. However, prison continued to be an oppressive and cruel experience.

Penal philosophy moved on and in the early decades of the twentieth century the hopes that had earlier been pinned on religion were transferred to other forms of treatment, including psychology. The prison system moved into treatment era. Prisoners were seen somewhat as patients in need of cure. Prisons became places for a range of professionals to work at their craft. It was felt that if prisoners were classified correctly and the right medicine was applied then they would be cured of their criminal ways. [4]

These systems were going to work. Criminals were going to be cured. However,  many research studies established that treatment generally did not succeed and disillusionment with treatment set in. Sending people to prison did not cure crime. In fact, prisons seemed to make people worse.

The basis of the treatment idea was that there was something wrong with the personality of the individuals that could be altered by whatever was done to them in prison. But the new view was different. It saw prisoners in relation to their families, communities, socio-economic background and life chances.

Thus developed the view of prison that is current in most Western European countries today: prison is damaging to the individual, the family and the community; it has few positive results; its costs are high. Not only direct costs for maintaining prison buildings and its staff, there are also social security costs of a family when the breadwinner has been taken away. Further costs arise from the damage caused by imprisonment – the costs of the ex-prisoner who is homeless, who cannot find a job because of the stigma of a prison record, and the family break-up that can result.

In Crime Pays, [5] prisons are described as the ‘ultimate symbol of state and corporate control over individuals’ through the threats of power and violence. It criticised the state’s incarceration of individuals to deal with significant social issues, including systemic poverty and lack of education, which perpetuates crime. Rather than dealing with the lack of public infrastructure in certain communities and establishing effective rehabilitation programs, the government has employed prisons as a fear and control mechanism. Furthermore, it is believed contemporary prisons reinforce racial hierarchies and class systems, as prisoners are stigmatised as lifetime members of the ‘criminal class’. Accordingly, indigenous and migrant groups who are overrepresented in prisons, become often segregated and unable to reintegrate with society upon release. In this sense, the prison system has failed to rehabilitate prisoners and further marginalised those involved. Read full article here.

As prisons simultaneously punish and rehabilitate, careful reconsiderations of their purpose must be made. Recently, prisons have been associated with the abuse of human rights by their failure to provide adequate care and support [6]. Even though education and welfare programs are extremely beneficial in supporting the rehabilitation of prisoners, the loss of dignity and autonomy could neutralise all these efforts. The use of power and force fails to nurture a willingness to change within the affected individual, thus perpetuating struggle and resistance instead of positive change. [7]

There are four justifications used to support maintaining the current prison system in contemporary society:

  • Rehabilitation: proposes that offenders who enter the prison system will be released into society as productive and law-abiding citizens
  • Retribution: acts as a moral balance by punishing the offender for their crime(s) against society in exchange for the deprivation of freedom
  • Deterrence: provides motivation for the offender and others to keep within the boundaries of the law or face similar punishment
  • Incapacitation: protects the wider community from serious offenders by segregating them and disabling them from committing further crimes

Ideally, prisons would implement safeguards to protect both the incarcerated individual and society, the most famous being theUnited Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners[8] Firstly, it states prisons should be rehabilitative, providing incentives for the prisoner to change. Secondly, imprisonment is punishment in itself, not a place for punishment to be imposed. And finally, prisons should exist in a framework of justice and fairness by protecting human rights. However, contemporary prisons are incongruous with all three UN standards of imprisonment - read more aboutfailure of imprisonment here.


[1] Vivien Stern, A Sin Against the Future: Imprisonment in the World.

[2] Vivien Stern, Deprived of their Liberty: A Report for Caribbean Rights

[3] Vivien Stern, A Sin Against the Future: Imprisonment in the World.

[4] Vivien Stern, A Sin Against the Future: Imprisonment in the World.

[5] Renee Lees, Crime Pays: http://www.justiceaction.org.au/campaigns/media-releases/196-crime-pays-why-capitalism-needs-gaols-and-why-the-two-must-fall-together

[6] Vivien Stern, A Sin Against the Future: Imprisonment in the World.

[7] David Brown & Meredith Wilkie, Prisoners as Citizens: Human Rights in Australian Prisons.

[8] Vivien Stern, A Sin Against the Future: Imprisonment in the World.

Who is in Prison?



The subject of youth crime has been one of much public debate over the last few years.  Statistics demonstrate that many youths who resort to crime face serious social and economical marginalisation.  Justice Action believes that major changes have to be made to the current youth justice system in order to combat these ongoing concerns.
Read more…


Women have traditionally been sent to prison for different reasons to men; and once in prison, they endure different conditions of incarceration. Not only are more women going to prison in today’s society, but at expanding rates, for longer periods, and for even more minor crimes. But entering the prison system as a mother is especially damaging for both the woman and her children.

Most women who are put in prison pose no real threat to society at all.  Statistics show:
- 70% of women prisoners have mental health problems.
- 37% have attempted suicide.
- 20% have been in the care system as children (compared to 2% of the general population).
- At least 50% report being victims of childhood abuse or domestic violence.

Prison is often a very expensive way of making bad situations worse.
- Nearly 40% of women prisoners lose their homes as a result of imprisonment.
- 65% re-offend on release.
- The most common offences for which women are sent to prison are theft and handling stolen goods.
Read more…

Source: Women in Prison, http://www.womeninprison.org.uk/

Indigenous People

There is a disproportionate number of Indigenous Australians being incarcerated. Alongside the escalating number of Aboriginal prisoners has been a major growth in ill health, with a high percentage of Aboriginal people entering the judicial system with chronic illnesses, substance abuse problems, learning and cognitive disabilities and mental illness.
Read more… 

Legal Access

Legal Needs of Prisoners Forum NSW

The New South Wales Legal Assistance Forum held a roundtable and workshops at the Law Society following a Law and Justice Foundation report. Justice Action was present and presented a statement. JA was critical of the lack of progress over the decades of its involvement, despite numerous discussions, reports and considerable resources in the area. JA criticised the legal profession for taking a supine approach to Corrective Services despite its responsibility to its clients in the prisons.
Read more… 

Prisoners Legal Service Review

Justice Action was asked to respond to the Federal Government's Prisoners Legal Service Review. The following is the JA Submission. Read more…

Alternatives to Prison



Restorative Justice

Restorative Justice is a community-focused approach addressing the issue of offending, and suggests an alternative to prosecution and sentencing, hence being a substitute to the court system: “Restorative Justice is expected to heal the community bonds and to have a humanising effect on the system of punitive justice”. It enables stakeholders (offender(s), victim(s), community and others) to cooperate and come to a mutual agreement on sentences, and upon appropriate outcomes at different stages of the criminal process. Thus, its effectiveness depends predominantly upon the sincerity of the victim and the offender in the restoration of harm. There are many different treatments and programs for Restorative Justice, such as family treatment, circle sentencing, forum sentencing, mediation, reparation, and victim-offender conferences. The purpose of these programs is to create a direct interaction with offenders, communities and victims; dialogues have been created to achieve understanding and undertake responsibility.

Read more

Resources and Publications

Miscarriages of Justice

There is currently no regulated way by which persons in NSW - wrongly convicted but then exonerated - can obtain compensation.

Beyond Bars - Policing

Does more police necessarily mean lower crime rates?
Read more… 

Privatisation of New Zealand Prisons

The NZ National Coalition Government has proposed privatisation of NZ prisons following the defeat of Labour in 2008. NZ community organisations and prisoners asked for assistance for a consultation with NZ prisoners and brought a Justice Action Coordinator from Australia to help. JA wrote to the Minister for a consultation. She refused but the consultation occurred on May 4 2009. Prisoners, prison officers, the union and administrators were all involved.
Read more…

Nowra's Burden

The local community was promised jobs and economic stimulation to the tune of $10 million a year in return for bearing the stigma of being a prison town. So although Nowra can expect all the stigma and consequences that come with playing host to the states newest correctional mistake it is unlikely to see the $10 million flow on stimulus the local community was promised when accepting the proposal.

Read more…

Privatisation of NSW Prisons

The NSW Governments attempt to privatise Cessnock, Parklea prisons and court transport offers a window on the disaster that prison privatisation has proven around the world. The Legislative Council has been holding an Inquiry and received 453 submissions all except eleven opposing it.


- As cited on "Your Lawyer: A User's Guide" (Lexis-Nexis)

Q: What is expungement?
A: Expungement is often equated to the sealing or destroying of legal records. Each state offers its own definition of expungement, based on different rules and laws. Generally, expungement can be viewed as the process to "remove from general review" the records pertaining to a case. But the records may not completely "disappear" and may still be available to law enforcement. 

QLD Review of Sexual Offences

Queensland review of legislation based on the case of Dennis Ferguson. Queensland Public Protection Model For the Management of High Risk Sexual and Violent Offenders. Queensland review and JA submission.

Read more…

Transgender Inmates

Transgender inmates pose a unique problem within the correctional system. They are at a far greater risk of assault, particularly sexual assault. Transgender women are at particular risk if they are placed within a male correctional facility. Transgender inmates classified by the Department of Corrective Services include persons who have been identified as being non-biological male or female gender, with or without having undergone gender-related surgery or hormone therapy appropriate to their choice.

Read more…

Redeveloping the Penal Colony
Crime prevention through social support.

Read more…

Home Detention
Why Justice Action opposes home detention.

Read more…

Prisonless Society

International Foundation for a Prisonless Socety (IFPS).


Privacy is the interest that individuals have in sustaining a 'personal space', free from interference by other people and organisations.  Privacy can be broken down into many areas, such as privacy of the person; privacy of personal behaviour; privacy of personal communication; or privacy of personal data. Privacy laws, while significant in that they protect the private affairs of individuals, should not be misused to deny discussion of matters of public concern.

Read more…

Sexual violence and Transgendered Inmates

Part of the susceptibility of transgender prisoners to sexual assault in the prison setting is the excessively masculine nature of the prison environment.
Read more… 

Prisons as Part of the Community
This is a key to JA's work. It was presented to the NSW Legislative Council 2009 as part of the campaign against the corporate privatisation of prisons. It is an analysis of the conflicting policies of social exclusion and community building, giving examples of how they conflict in practice and offering some direction for change. 

New Quasi Prison System - COSPS
There has been a dangerous development of a quasi-prison system being created around the resettlement of ex prisoners. Instead of people ending their sentence and returning to the community with support from non-government organisations and mainstream services, Corrective Services has begun taking federal homelessness money and extending the prison system by stealth. They are calling them COSPs but in reality they are controlled by the prisons department, where curfews and in some cases even permission to meet family members has to be granted two weeks in advance.
Read more…

Legal Access

Legal Needs of Prisoners Forum NSW
The New South Wales Legal Assistance Forum held a roundtable and workshops at the Law Society following a Law and Justice Foundation report. Justice Action was present and presented a statement. JA was critical of the lack of progress over the decades of its involvement, despite numerous discussions, reports and considerable resources in the area. JA criticised the legal profession for taking a supine approach to Corrective Services despite its responsibility to its clients in the prisons.
Read more… 

Prisoners Legal Service Review
Justice Action was asked to respond to the Federal Government's Prisoners Legal Service Review. The following is the JA Submission. Read more… 



New Zealand Privatisation

Privatisation Proven Ineffective in New Zealand
New Zealand's attempts to privatise prisons are a prime example of the inherent failings of this model, despite political interest. The public exposure of these failings became so apparent that NZ's own Labour Party agreed to return one of the country's major prisons to public hands upon their election in 2005. This was a move reversed by the re-election of the National Party in 2008, and since then the human cost of privatisation has been both demonstrated and severe.

In December 2015, the Corrections Department confirmed that its contract with Serco at Mount Eden Correctional Facility would not be renewed  and control of the prison would return to the government in March 2017. The sub-standard operation of MECF in New Zealand by private contractor Serco is but one source of evidence that the first sacrifices made in pursuit of private interests are at the expense of the very inmates these centres operate to house. 

In 2011 a contract for management of MECF was completed with Serco Group, a multinational security corporation. Like GEO, MECF's previous contractor, Serco’s history of corrections management is mired in controversy from its operations of prisons abroad, with international reports canvassing issues of violence, overcrowding and poor health care within prisons managed by Serco.

It became apparent in 2015 that management of MECF was no different from that of GEO. Deliberate understaffing of MECF to maximise profit was linked to organised fights amongst prisoners, prevalence of contraband inside the centre and the death of one inmate, Nick Evans. In July 2015, Serco was fined $300,000 by then-Minister of Corrections Sam Lotu-Iiga for systemic failures in performance over the period 2014/2015. Day-to-day management of the centre was also removed to the Corrections Department following the reports of violence.NZ community group No Prisons for Profit, an organisation of prisoners, ex-prisoners, families and interested citizens, stresses that the public duty of the state to run prisons cannot be delegated to private business with profit motives, and is vocal in highlighting the failures of privatisation under Serco at MECF. 

Media Sources 
26th Feburary 2016: Mt Eden prison contract loss spurs Secro's Asia Pacific earnings drop
9th December 2015: Serco's contract to run Mt Eden not renewed
26th July 2015: Flow of information at Mt Eden inadequate
23rd July 2015: Serco fails to meet performance targets

Justice Action's 2009 Campaign
In July 2000, Auckland Central Remand Prison (ACRP; previously Mount Eden Prison) in New Zealand became the first fully privatised prison in the country, being managed by Global Expertise in Outsourcing NZ Ltd (GEO), the NZ wing of private company Australasian Correctional Management (ACM), a subsidiary of the world’s largest multinational security services corporation G4S. G4S holds contracts to manage 55 prisons worldwide and rakes in a massive $12.9 billion in revenue annually.

It is also a private corporation marred by controversies in the way of human rights abuses of prisoners and detainees held in its facilities. In previous years, ACM has drawn strong opposition here in Australia for alleged human rights abuses of asylum seekers in detention centres including Woomera, Villawood and Curtin. The Australian government continually refuses to permit independent investigation into detention centres run by ACM – no doubt contributing to their profitability.

Management of ACRP by GEO ceased in 2005 following the election of the Labour Party, with responsibility of prisons returning to the Department of Corrections. After defeat in 2008 by the NZ National Coalition, however, the proposed Corrections (Contract Management of Prisons) Amendment Bill (first introduced 12 March 2009) sought to reinstate privatisation.

Opposition to privatisation in NZ was clear and unequivocal. The NZ Select Committee on Law and Order was the body charged with receiving community expression, following numerous demands these backwards laws be amended. NZ prisoners, their families and community members requested assistance for a public forum taking place on 4 May 2009, with Justice Action Coordinator Brett Collins being brought in from Australia to help. NZ politicians, prison officers, union officials and members, and administrators were all involved. NZ Minister for Corrections, Judith Collins, was contacted for her participation but refused.

NZ Corrections then agreed to distribute a negotiated notice informing prisoners of the inquiry before the Select Committee to allow responses, but later reneged. Justice Action presented its submission on behalf of NZ prisoners in May of 2009. In addition, a submission by prison officers highlighted numerous failures of the private management. These included inadequate staffing, inadequate education and crime prevention programmes, incentives against drug searches, avoidance of reporting prisoner self-harm, officer compliance in prison escapes, and intentional underreporting of positive drug testing to retain quarterly Department bonuses – among many more. 

Media Release July 30, 2009
NZ Prisoners say “No” to Select Committee on Privatisation
“In Wellington yesterday, before the Select Committee on Law and Order, prisoners declared that privatisation was totally unacceptable and affected their rights as citizens in a democracy. 'Privatisation would reduce prisoners to slaves, in breach of ILO Convention 29, passing control of their lives to unaccountable multinationals corporations', according to JA spokesperson Brett Collins.

Minister of Corrections Judith Collins shows her lack of fresh ideas to deal with the resounding failure of prisons by wishing to outsource this primary government function. She misses the point that people only change their behaviour when they are involved, so she can’'t treat prisoners like they don’t exist if she wants to reduce crime. 'Crime is a community responsibility”', said JA Coordinator Michael Poynder.

“The Minister's contempt is clear. She refused to attend the public prisoner consultation arranged by community organisations in May and refused to notify prisoners that they could write to the Select Committee. She and her staff were too busy to meet the representatives who had consulted about privatisation. Prisoners were denied the chance to address the Select Committee as no area was made available and the request to sit in Auckland was not read”.

“We had significant meetings with other political parties on the issues, and most importantly were able to tell the Select Committee that we had reached agreement with the prison officers that we would work together to confront privatisation and on policy issues affecting OH&S and recidivism. No corporation would want to reduce crime when it affects their future profit”, said Mr Poynder.

“The Select Committee heard compelling evidence of the failures of privatisation’ everywhere to deliver on the sales pitch, and the total opposition by all those involved. 'Let'’s hope that the Minister doesn’'t discover her authority isn’'t transferable in practice”', said Mr Collins.

Ex-con back behind bars to fight jail privatisation
Tuesday May 5, 2009
By Simon Collins

Brett Collins was allowed into Mt Eden Prison yesterday after initially being refused.

The gates of Mt Eden Prison opened yesterday to a former convicted bank robber campaigning against privatising jails,
despite an official statement that he would not be let in.

Ngaruawahia-born Brett Collins, who served 10 years in an Australian jail for a bank robbery, now leads Sydney-based
Justice Action. The organisation helped to push the New South Wales Government into abandoning plans last Friday to
privatise one of two state jails it had earmarked for private management.

Quakers paid for him to come to Auckland to speak at a public meeting last night against a bill allowing private
management of New Zealand prisons. Submissions on the bill close on May 22.

He applied to the Corrections Department on April 26 for permission to talk about the bill with prisoner committees in
Mt Eden and Paremoremo jails, but a department spokesman said yesterday morning that the visit was "not possible",
partly because there were no elected committees of prisoners. But when Mr Collins turned up at the prison gates anyway
at 2pm with three local activists, acting prison manager Gary Stock eventually gave the group an hour with four
prisoners on the jail's welfare committee.

Mr Collins said the four prisoners and the prison officers he met all opposed privatisation, and the prisoners felt "resentful".

"They objected to multinationals coming in and making a profit out of them sitting longer in jail," he said.

Maori Party MP Hone Harawira was invited to speak in support of privatisation at last night's meeting, organised by
Global Peace and Justice Auckland, but had another engagement.

He said he would not be particularly happy to see multinationals running a local jail - "but by the same token neither
am I particularly happy to see the New Zealand Corrections Department running it".

"What would you suggest that the Maori Party did," he asked, "sit back and let things continue the way they are,
or do what we can to change things?"

Media release May 4, 2009
Mount Eden Prisoners' Consultation on Privatisation

Mount Eden Correctional Facility prisoners will have the chance to consult with the Australian delegation on prison privatisation today
at 2pm at the prison.

Although Minister Judith Collins said last week that prisoners are too busy working, over five hundred Mt Eden
prisoners say that they are mostly locked in cages and cells, and want to
consult on the issue.

Mount Eden Prison Manager Gary Stock has been asked to set aside an area in the prison for that consultation
to happen.  

NZ community organisations paid for Justice Action Coordinator Brett Collins to visit to assist the consultation.
Last week Australian plans to privatise prisons were reversed after major
community opposition forced the
government to change its mind.

Mr Collins and Green Party MP Metiria Turei will also speak at the GPJA forum today at 7.30pm at Trades Hall,
147 Great North Rd, Grey Lynn, Auckland chaired by John Minto.   

The Minister of Corrections Judith Collins, and Maori Party MP Hone Harawira have been invited or asked to
provide representatives, to present the case supporting prison privatisation.

For Comments:
Jim Gladwin 828 4517,  Rose Hollins  828 0238 / 021 297 0875, 
Brett Collins 0061 438705003   


  • get involved2
  • donate
  • breakout-logo2



Justice Action
Trades Hall, Level 2, Suite 204
4 Goulburn Street
Sydney NSW 2000, Australia

T 02 9283 0123
F 02 9283 0112
E ja@justiceaction.org.au
© 2020 Breakout Media Communications
breakout-logo  womens justice network icon logo-community