''To the hopelessly brutalised convicts on Norfolk Island, Alexander Maconochie appeared like an angel from heaven.'' Nine years ago, then chief minister Jon Stanhope invoked this description of the 19th century naval officer after whom he named Canberra's prison. Maconochie was an extraordinary figure in Australia's colonial history. At a time when the incarcerated were effectively slaves, and regularly died from overexertion and malnutrition, he argued they must be treated humanely. At Norfolk's penal colony, the destination of Britain's worst convicts, he replaced corporal punishments with reading lessons and rewards to recognise good work and behaviour. Of the 920 prisoners he eventually released as free men to NSW, only 20 were recorded as having reoffended - a recidivist rate of which modern prisons can only dream.
Mr Stanhope, who was clearly moved by Maconochie's life, made building the ACT's first prison one of his highest priorities. Understandably, it was never particularly popular. This city, and the various powers that governed it, debated the pros and cons of a Canberra jail for more than 50 years before the first sod was eventually turned last decade. Ultimately, the decision to proceed was not about saving money; the prison was, and remains, expensive. It cost about $130 million to build and its recurrent expenses are reportedly almost twice as high per inmate as the alternative, which was to send ACT prisoners to NSW jails.
When Mr Stanhope announced his intention to build the Alexander Maconochie Centre, he said it would be Australia's first human rights-compliant jail, focusing ''strongly on prisoner welfare and rehabilitation''. He quoted Maconochie's advice on prisoners to Britain's House of Lords: ''Treat him as a man, not as a dog. You cannot recover a man except by doing justice to the manly qualities which he may have and giving him an interest in developing them.''
This background, and the government's obviously sincere commitment to rehabilitation, makes it all the more curious that Labor decided to shrink the proposed jail's capacity from 374 inmates to 300. That decision was taken in 2006, the year in which the Stanhope government delivered its harshest budget, which closed schools across Canberra, reduced public servants' superannuation and contained other tough measures. The government was clearly keen to scratch savings from as many operations as possible, but it was never particularly clear why it was important to scale back the prison. Then corrections minister Simon Corbell said it was to avoid a budget blowout (which happened anyway) caused by the rising costs of construction in Canberra at the time. He also told the Legislative Assembly the decision was justified on the basis of Treasury projections of the number of ACT prisoners, which, he said, suggested that the centre would house, at worst, 275 prisoners by 2043.
However, as The Canberra Times revealed this week, Mr Corbell failed to mention other modelling the government had commissioned, which had warned that the prisoner population might number over 450 by 2020. It is not known whether Mr Corbell knew about this report because he has directed questions this week to another minister. Canberrans deserve a little more straight talking on this point.
And so, for the sake of saving a relatively small sum during the jail's construction, the ACT's only prison is now crammed and in urgent need of expansion. The longer this continues, the poorer the environment will be for prisoners and, in all likelihood, the worse their prospects for rehabilitation.
However some might wish it, the ACT cannot return to past practices, when this city's remandees were detained in inappropriate temporary centres and its prisoners, even those guilty of lesser offences, were sent to Goulburn's high-security jail. Canberra now has a prison and the government must ensure it fulfils its promise. Yet its list of inadequacies is mounting: widespread drug use and related infections, allegations of staff connivance in drug trafficking, security failures and, now, overcrowding. Past penny-pinching and other shortcomings are rapidly tarnishing what Mr Stanhope no doubt regards as one of his most important legacies.