I guess not many people would feel happy about going to jail, even for a short time, but I was more than happy to accept an invitation to visit the Alexander Maconochie Centre this month from Bernadette Mitcherson, the executive director of ACT Corrective Services.
The visit was only a little over two hours, but I saw most of the institution and spoke with a number of senior staff, as well as a few prisoners.
I have visited just about every prison in Australia, as well as many overseas, and in my opinion, the AMC is one of the best designed and equipped correctional institutions in this country.
I was first taken to the education centre, where the classrooms, art and craft rooms and a music room were all impressive but underused on the day I was there.
The medical centre, which includes a dental suite, was also impressive, with ample space for resident medical staff and visiting specialists.
The main kitchen, with appropriately dressed prisoners preparing a variety of meals, was a model of hygiene and efficiency.
I was particularly interested in the visiting centre, where prisoners and their visitors meet in attractive surroundings, including outside in the warmer weather. Staff are able to observe the interactions from a raised area, from which they also monitor a closed-circuit television system for suspicious activities, such as attempts to deliver contraband, especially drugs.
This centre also has a few booths for non-contact visits, as well as rooms for lawyers and other professionals to use without surveillance.
I was next shown one of the low-security cottages, in which a small group of detainees each have reasonably pleasant rooms, many with their own television sets and computers, which they either hire or purchase.
The residents of each cottage make their own arrangements for cooking and cleaning. The cottages are locked at night but the individual rooms are not locked unless the occupant decides to do so.
I next saw one of the cell blocks, where stricter control is imposed. Here, unlike the cottages, all of the cells have their own shower and toilet, and in some, there are double bunks. The cells seem to be larger than I have seen in other jails and therefore double-bunking may be acceptable provided the occupants are compatible.
Throughout the AMC, the gardens are well maintained and contain a variety of shrubs which almost eliminate any prison-like appearance. This softening of the grounds is no doubt assisted by the staff and prisoners, who work in a horticulture area, where I was shown some excellent work.
All of this is fine, but whether or not a correctional institution is good or bad, effective or not, depends much more on the quality and professionalism of the staff. I obviously did not meet all of the staff, or even a significant proportion of them, but I have to say that all those whom I did meet displayed knowledge, sensitivity and professionalism of a very high order.
Even though I have been in this game for more decades than I care to remember, they taught me several things for which I am grateful.
I learnt, for example, that in the interests of safety, it is essential to maintain the strict separation of the different classifications: remand, sentenced (mainstream), protection, strict protection, and women. It was explained to me that because the ACT is a relatively small community, many of the offenders are known to each other in the community and some have serious differences of opinion, which may be expressed violently if they meet in custody.
To eliminate violence between detainees, it is necessary to allocate the time allowed for some activities, such as education, to specific days of the week. That's why the education centre was clearly underused on the day I was there. If that problem had been foreseen when the AMC was being designed, it might have been preferable not to have a central education centre, but more modest education rooms in each of the classification areas.
It is too late now for such a major change to the operational practice of the jail, but it's not too late for other changes . The most serious shortcoming in the AMC is the shortage of meaningful work. There are far too many sentenced prisoners and remandees who do not have enough to do.
As a matter of principle, remandees cannot be required to work, even though they may choose to do so, but all prisoners under sentence should be expected to work unless they are engaged in educational or therapeutic activities.
As the ACT does not have any significant factories or manufacturing industries, some of the usual prison industries found elsewhere might not be appropriate for the AMC, but training and work experience in the building trades, as well as motor mechanics, could be useful.
The service and hospitality industries should also be considered. The introduction of more work for prisoners in the AMC will require some creative thinking as the problems of keeping different groups apart will apply to workshops as much as they do the education centre.
If work opportunities are made available, the time spent in custody will be more purposeful for offenders and their chance of successful reintegration in the community increased.
If this problem can be resolved, I would not hesitate to suggest that the AMC is, in my view, one of the best correctional institutions in Australia. As it stands, it is very close – but not quite close enough – to justifying that accolade.
David Biles is a semi-retired criminologist who lives in Canberra. firstname.lastname@example.org