"Shutting prisons and getting rid of 600 jobs leads to overcrowding.": Paul Lynch. Photo: Jon Reid
The state government's tough-on-crime policies are swelling the prison population so quickly it is too late to avoid crowding by building or reopening prisons, the Bureau of Crime Statistics has warned.
Prisoner numbers hit a peak of 10,937 in March, almost 900 more prisoners than a year earlier, or the equivalent of one Parklea prison, internal government data shows.
A report delivered to former attorney-general Greg Smith by BOCSAR director Don Weatherburn has concluded that the sharp rise in prisoners is not caused by an increase in crime.
''It's a consequence of government and policing policy that the prison population is rising,'' Dr Weatherburn said.
''At the current rate it would be very difficult to bring additional capacity online fast enough to deal with the growth.''
Last June the prison system had a capacity of 10,154, and no new prisons have been opened since.
Instead, Parklea prison began converting two-man cells to accommodate three men last month, sparking a petition from prisoners who claimed the additional bunk beds breached health guidelines. The extra inmates were not moved into the cells until several days after an Ombudsman's inspection.
Corrective Services commissioner Peter Severin has admitted in a letter to a prisoner advocacy group that GEO Group, which runs the prison, was asked to find additional accommodation ''in response to an increase in the NSW inmate population''.
Mr Severin said public health regulations allowed three prisoners to be housed in the small cells if they are moved within 28 days.
''While the preference of many inmates to be accommodated in two-out cells is appreciated, CSNSW must ensure that inmates are housed within the constraints of available accommodation,'' Mr Severin wrote.
Advocacy group Justice Action said crowding increased the risk of violence in prisons. Mr Severin said this was not substantiated because the extra beds had been occupied only recently.
A leaked memo has revealed the policy for revoking the parole of prisoners was also changed last month in an attempt to get prisoners out the door faster.
Inmates being unable to find outside accommodation in time, poor behaviour in custody or outstanding court matters were not grounds for revoking parole, the memo said.
''Proper prison management has been sacrificed on the altar of cutting costs,'' shadow attorney-general Paul Lynch said.
The O'Farrell government closed the Parramatta, Kirkconnell and Berrima prisons in 2011 to save money. ''Shutting prisons and getting rid of 600 jobs inevitably leads to prison overcrowding,'' Mr Lynch said.
A Corrective Services spokesman said: ''The government is considering a range of options to deal with the fluctuations in numbers.''
Prisoner numbers had fallen to 9491 by July 2012. But they rose 7 per cent in the 18 months to December 2013, as arrest rates for drug and weapon offences and breaches of suspended sentences and apprehended violence orders spiked. The BOCSAR report will be released publicly next month.