The Alexander Maconochie Centre.

The Alexander Maconochie Centre. Photo: Rohan Thomson

In the recent commentary about the ACT's prison, the Alexander Maconochie Centre, a fundamental point has been missed: the design is flawed.

Specifically, the requirement to house all categories of detainees within a relatively small prison population of about 300 means that it will always be difficult to properly meet everyone's needs.

David Biles raised concerns about administration (''No escaping problems at jail'', February 8, p19). However, he misses the point that current administrators have inherited an almost impossible situation. The original design brief for the AMC required that facility to include men and women, remand and sentenced, all security classifications, and - by default - prisoners with psychiatric illnesses. All these categories of detainees require degrees of separation.

There are then further separations required for prisoners with protected or highly protected status, such as sex offenders, and those seeking to undertake alcohol and other drug treatment, through the Solaris Therapeutic Community. This is unique to Australia, and it makes running the AMC a big challenge.

In order for common facilities to be available to detainees, such as health and education services, there has to be some level of mixing. This creates additional risks, for detainees and the staff supervising them. It may be possible to restrict all contact between detainees who may pose a risk to each other, but this would come at great cost, in terms of both additional staff required, and restrictions on movement.

In one obvious area there is already strict separation, and that is between male and female detainees. This begs the question: why not go to the logical conclusion and establish a separate facility for female detainees? This was the strong recommendation of women's groups in the 1998-2001 period, when the ACT prison concept was being developed. They argued, with foresight, that having a women's section of what was fundamentally a men's prison would risk marginalising women's needs, and not enable the services and support required to start their effective rehabilitation.

Consideration could also be given to innovative programs such as the Jacaranda Cottages at Emu Plains, western Sydney, where women can live with their children.

Such specialist programs may be difficult to implement in the ACT due to our smaller population. However, it would be worth at least considering offering transfers to such alternatives interstate where the need justifies. In some cases, the benefits from such programs may outweigh the temporary hardship of being away from Canberra.

In replacing the dysfunctional Belconnen Remand Centre, many also argued that it would have been better to build a new stand-alone centre, rather than housing prisoners on remand within AMC. A number of other advocates, including the Community and Public Sector Union representing prison officers, told the ACT Legislative Assembly standing committee on justice and community safety that attempting to house all categories of detainees in one facility would create management problems.

These concerns were ultimately dismissed in favour of building a single facility. While this may have been partly driven by cost considerations, it appears there was insufficient attention to the longer-term costs of creating such a complex prison environment. It is to be hoped that the government is now looking seriously at alternative accommodation options, including best practice interstate programs, to take pressure off the AMC campus. This would also improve outcomes for groups with particular needs, and minimise their likelihood of return after release.

That said, we should be placing a high priority on reducing overall prisoner numbers. We could do a lot more to prevent or minimise contact with the criminal justice system in the first place. Carrie Fowlie cited the recent Australian National Council on Drugs report, and made the case for reforms to reduce indigenous imprisonment, including through the establishment of an adult drug and alcohol court (''Jail costly way to tackle scourge'', CT, 12 Feb). Just as we talk about the social determinants of health, there are social determinants of crime.

Recent discussion in senior government circles about ''justice reinvestment'', with a focus on the needs of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community, provides some hope that we may finally be getting serious about prevention. At the ''back end'' of the system, we are finally giving proper attention to keeping ex-offenders from returning to the AMC. The government is to be commended for the recent ''throughcare initiative'', which has the potential to routinely link up offenders with key services and supports on release.

This is basic stuff. The evidence is clear that the best way to keep ex-prisoners ''ex'' is to ensure they are properly housed, have the family and social support they need, and can access training or employment. But the slow turning of policy wheels remains frustrating.

I recently came across a recommendation for a ''whole-of- government strategic policy framework on crime prevention which emphasises non-custodial sentencing options and diversionary programs for drug-addicted offenders''.

This sounds very much like the February 2013 ANCD report. It isn't. It was a recommendation from the ACT Legislative Assembly standing committee on justice and community safety, from August 2001.

Simon Rosenberg is CEO of Northside Community Service, and a member of the AMC Taskforce.