Good news week for jail system
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Good news week for jail system

Setting in place a truly independent inspection process would reassure the public their money has been well spent, DAVID BILES writes

The news item by Noel Towell ''ACT Govt planning to bring in WA jail inspector'' on November 8, and the editorial in this newspaper the following day which supported the idea, are both good news for the people of Canberra.

A very large amount of our money was spent on the design and construction of the Alexander Maconochie Centre, and a further considerable sum is spent each year in maintaining its operations. Even if money were the only consideration, and it certainly is not, we should have the best independent inspection system to reassure us that we are getting value for money.

The underlying reason for setting up our own jail was not to save money but to ensure that we had control of the treatment of our offenders (rather than assigning this task to another jurisdiction) in an environment which respected their human rights and was also as effective as possible in reducing recidivism. This goal has not changed, but, as the editorial pointed out, the AMC has been plagued with a series of incidents (probably no worse than in most other jails in Australia), which leaves a negative impression in the public mind. Hence the call for a truly independent inspection system.

Before exploring this issue in more detail of the WA system, I feel that I should put on the public record the fact that the current Western Australian inspector, Neil Morgan, and his predecessor, Richard Harding, are both well known to me. Both of them have helped me at various times during the nearly 15 years that I was the coordinator and rapporteur for the annual conference of Asia and Pacific Correctional Administrators. They are both highly qualified in law and criminology, and I would count them as friends as well as professional colleagues.

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The position of Inspector of Custodial Services in WA was created as a result of an unusual political circumstance. The then WA government had expressed a wish to establish a privately managed jail, but the opposition would only agree to this if the government established an independent prison inspectorial system which would cover both government-run and privately-run jails in the state. The eventual legislation which set up the system required that all reports from the office of the inspector be tabled in the WA Parliament and therefore would become available to the public.

The legislation also empowered the inspector and his staff to visit any jail in WA at any time, whether the visit was announced or not. In practice the inspector always provides drafts of his reports to the governors of the jails that have been inspected so that differences of opinion may be recorded and, perhaps, resolved, before being sent to the relevant minister who would table the report in the Parliament.

Harding was appointed as the first inspector in August 2000, a position he held for exactly eight years. During this time he produced a series of reports on each of the jails in WA as well as ancillary matters such as court security and the escorting of prisoners to and from the courts and between institutions. Each of the reports, many with photographs, were a model of careful writing and analysis leading to recommendations for improvements in the management of the correctional practices under scrutiny. It has been suggested that the overall impact of these reports can be seen in a number of different areas, specifically: +improved understanding and treatment of Aboriginal prisoners; +a reduction in the frequency of prisoner suicide; +greater attention given to the needs of women prisoners; +improved amenities for prisoners held in protection; +improved prisoner transport conditions; +a closer integration of private and public prisons, and +strengthening of community links with prisons and public understanding of corrections.

To the extent that these suggested improvements are measurable and can be verified, the establishment of the inspection system must be seen as worthwhile, and similar if not identical gains may be expected in the ACT from an extension of the system to this jurisdiction.

For each of his inspections Harding established a team to do the work. They would be largely composed of his own staff, but from time to time would include experts with relevant experience, senior corrections staff from other states and, on one occasion, the Inspector-General of Prisons from Britain who happened to be in Australia.

Since his appointment in 2009 Neil Morgan has maintained the high standards of his predecessor and also produced some extremely valuable reports on very sensitive subjects. One of these reports covered the death of a respected Aboriginal elder in the back of a prison escort vehicle, which made headlines around Australia. As a result of that report and the consequent publicity it is highly unlikely that a similar tragedy will occur again anywhere in this country.

When this arrangement is signed and sealed it does not mean that an outsider will be running our correctional services. That will always be the responsibility of the minister, his directorate and, of course, the staff of the AMC. There will also still be plenty of work for the Human Rights Commissioner and the ACT Ombudsman.

The editorial referred to above concludes with the suggestion that, ''Mr Corbell should consider making Mr Morgan's office answerable directly to the Legislative Assembly''. I would go further and argue that it is essential that we give him the same degree of respect that he receives in his home state. On this question, it is unimaginable that any of our three political parties in the Assembly would vote against this proposition. After all, the ACT is on the side of openness and accountability much more so than any other Australian jurisdiction.

On the question of respect, as an incurable pedant I feel that I must point out to the editor that Neil Morgan is entitled to be addressed, and referred to, as either ''Professor'' or ''Doctor'' even though I am quite sure that in most circumstances he would prefer to be addressed simply as ''Neil''.

  • David Biles is a Canberra-based consultant criminologist.
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