ACT News

Inmate numbers force jail review

Overcrowding at Canberra's prison has forced the government to consider a home detention program that may see inmates fitted with electronic tracking bracelets and released from custody.

The Alexander Maconochie Centre.
The Alexander Maconochie Centre. Photo: Rohan Thomson

The Alexander Maconochie Centre has been put understrain by a considerable surge in inmates this year, with criminologist Peter Marshall warning the ACT is in danger of losing its record of having the lowest imprisonment rate of any Australian jurisdiction.

Authorities have expanded the prison's capacity from 332 to 366 beds, squeezing more bunk beds into cottages and cells.

The prison held a record 340 inmates one day last month, which effectively put the Maconochie Centre at full-capacity, due to the restrictions on housing different prisoner types together.

But Corrections Minister Shane Rattenbury said there was no further scope for temporary expansions of the centre, with a permanent upgrade to capacity years away.


That has forced the government to hold urgent talks with the justice sector to understand why the prison population has skyrocketed, and to come up with solutions.

The first round of talks late last month raised a number of options now being investigated by the government, including non-custodial sentencing and stronger diversionary and post-release programs to stop recidivism.

One option, which the government is in the early stages of researching, is to release inmates into home detention with monitors attached to their ankles or wrists.

''There's obviously significant work to be done in considering the viability of that, including cost, community-safety issues and scale for the ACT in particular,'' Mr Rattenbury said.

He said he was ''very open'' to exploring all the ideas from the talks. But he did note the ACT's offender population might not be suitable for home detention and electronic surveillance.

''There's a strong emphasis in the ACT on people not going to jail, but going into other options, so those who are in jail tend to be the more serious offenders,'' Mr Rattenbury said.

''There's a question mark about the suitability of some of that offender group for programs such as home detention … so that's where more detailed analysis will need to be undertaken,'' he said.

The overcrowding crisis was partly caused by the decision to reduce the size of the prison to cut costs during the planning stages.

That decision saw the centre shrink from a 374-bed to a 300-bed facility, despite two separate expert reports that suggested such a prison would be full almost immediately.

One report, produced by Rengain Consulting in 2001, found the prison needed 480 beds.

The government dismissed both the Rengain report and another piece of modelling, known as the Walker report, and instead developed its own, vastly lower projections of prisoner numbers, which it later used to justify the scaling down of the centre.

The opposition attacked the government's consideration of home detention and electronic surveillance.

Opposition Leader Jeremy Hanson called on the government instead to begin sending prisoners back to NSW, an approach he said had worked ''satisfactorily'' for decades before the Maconochie Centre's opening.

''It is utterly unacceptable that prisoners who should otherwise be behind bars are being released into the community because the government knowingly built a jail that was too small,'' Mr Hanson said.

The ACT trialled a similar scheme in the early 2000s, but it was scrapped because the number of prisoners involved was too small.