Prison Inquiry


Detailed inquiries into the NSW prison system and supporting studies say the same thing with almost monotonous regularity; prison does not work in terms of its stated objectives, and the use of imprisonment as a sentence should be scaled down. Despite these findings and the consideration of viable, sustainable alternatives to imprisonment, the government continues to pursue policing, sentencing and prison policies, which have led to inflation of the prison population and overcrowding of jails. History shows that every new jail built will be filled, and overcrowding will quickly reoccur. E.g. The remand centre at Silverwater, the largest prison in NSW, was filled within three months of opening.

Listed below are summaries of the main findings of some important prison inquiries. In addition, here are some relevant issues in prison reform:

  1. There is no technical policy fix to the problems of policing, sentencing and prisoners. Human solutions must be looked for and found.
  2. Sentencing policy must take account of Australia’s human rights commitments, which includes a commitment to the essential aim of the prison as ‘reformation and social rehabilitation’ (ICCPR Article 10(3)). Bail law must also be consistent with Australia’s human rights commitments and this would involve removing the presumptions against bail for several categories of offence (s.8A and s.9 of the Bail Act1978).
  3. The collective wisdom of all past inquiries and studies must be respected. Prison has failed its stated objectives, so alternative sanctions must be developed and the use of prisons must be scaled back. Prison must not be regarded as synonymous with sentencing.
  4. Prison sentences, in general and in specific cases, must therefore be justified by some real argument of public policy, and not assumed as the default penalty. The question must therefore be, not ‘what is the alternative to prison?’, but ‘why commit to prison?’.
  5. The building of new prisons is entirely regressive and can only expand the total prisoner population, at great financial and social cost. Prison numbers must be capped, and then reduced. There must be a moratorium on the building of any new prison, and a ceiling must be placed on the Corrective Services budget. No real reform requires any greater financial commitment.
  6. A declining prison population is the only acceptable goal. Therefore, prison policy must be integrated with policing and sentencing policy. This in turn requires a commitment to intervene in the law and order culture.
  7. The decision to build a new women’s facility should be subject to more rigorous scrutiny in light of the possible alternatives.
  8. Some form of discountable sentence (e.g. by remissions) must replace the rigid formula of the Sentencing Act 1989. The Act is problematic because no sentencing judge or magistrate has full wisdom or foresight, prison managers value remissions, and incentives for prisoners coincide with the only sensible public policy, which is to minimise the use of prison.
  9. Community corrections, and sanctions such as community service orders that encourage offender responsibility rather than repress it, must be developed and expanded.
  10. Policing practices have an enormous impact on the prison population, and most public policing is aimed at young people. Tolerant policing is required in its own right, but also as a means of finding human solutions and minimising formal legal interventions.
  11. Because the Aboriginal population is overrepresented in prisons, the general reduction of prison numbers is of crucial importance to decrease Aboriginal imprisonment rates, and deaths in custody.

Leave a Comment