No escaping problems at jail
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No escaping problems at jail

Despite unjustified criticism, there are problems at Canberra's jail that require independent investigation, writes DAVID BILES

The release of the Report on Government Services by the Productivity Commission on January 31 has provoked a number of criticisms of the Alexander Maconochie Centre, only some of which may be justified.

The report cautions against making comparisons between jurisdictions on the basis of the statistical data for each state and territory, but this did not deter some people from making fatuous comments.

The Alexander Maconochie Centre needs an independent investigation.

The Alexander Maconochie Centre needs an independent investigation.Credit:Jay Cronan

For example, it has been suggested that the ACT has the highest prison escape rate in Australia based on a total of one attempted escape, and the fact that the costs per prisoner in the AMC were reported as the highest in Australia also attracted negative comment.

Neither of these criticisms are valid and are the clear result of the fact that the ACT holds a small number of prisoners (259 at the time the report was prepared).

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The report also presented data which seemed to indicate the rate of prisoner-on-prisoner assaults in the ACT was the highest in Australia, and this may well be a cause of concern. However, even here caution must be used as assaults are notoriously difficult to define and quantify.

Crime statistics collected by the police frequently yield widely divergent rates because different police forces interpret the term assault in different ways even if the same verbal definitions are used.

It is possible that this is also the case inside our jails.

Apart from the Productivity Commission data, there are other aspects of the jail administration which are genuinely a cause of concern.

It has been known for some time that the separation of remand and convicted prisoners has been abandoned, and it has also been suggested that the capacity of the AMC has been informally increased from 300 to around 340 by the simple mechanism of putting two beds in cells designed for one and doing the same thing in a few of the low-security cottages.

If these two claims are found to be true they indicate a serious breach of the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners which were adopted by the UN in 1955 and are highly regarded by all member nations.

There is no provision for the enforcement of the rules, but the consequence of non-compliance is significant international embarrassment, especially for an economically and politically advanced country such as Australia.

The rule related to accommodation is Rule 9 (1) which states: ''Where sleeping accommodation is in individual cells or rooms, each prisoner shall occupy a cell or room by himself. If, for special reasons, such as temporary overcrowding, it becomes necessary for the central prison administration to make an exception to this rule, it is not desirable to have two prisoners in a cell or room.''

It is possible that some people would dismiss this rule as nothing more than a homophobic reaction to the possibility of homosexual relations, but such a reaction would be too simplistic.

Assigning two prisoners to a single cell or room raises other questions with potentially more serious consequences, such as assaults that may be fatal between two occupants of a relatively small space.

Most experienced prison administrators would be aware of cases where death or serious injury has been the result of the incompatibility of two prisoners in a single cell.

The UN rules anticipate this outcome in Rule 9 (2) which states: ''Where dormitories [or shared cells] are used, they shall be occupied by prisoners carefully selected as being suitable to associate with one another in these conditions.''

This raises the obvious questions of what methods are used at the AMC for the careful selection of prisoners as compatible for sharing cells?

The rule relating to the separation of remandees and prisoners serving sentences is brief and quite explicit.

Rule 8 (c) states: ''Untried prisoners shall be kept separate from convicted prisoners.''

In some other Australian jurisdiction this rule is not always strictly enforced for female prisoners because their very small numbers may result in the solitary confinement of remandees, especially in remote areas, but it is always strictly enforced for male prisoners.

The ACT must be unique in Australia in its disregard for this rule.

This situation is obviously unacceptable, but the blame for this cannot be laid entirely on staff at the AMC who must be working under difficult circumstances.

Some of the blame can be laid at the ACT courts which have allowed a backlog of cases, especially remand cases, to build up. Also, perhaps, some blame can be attributed to over-enthusiastic police who lay multiple charges against suspects (leading to a presumption against the granting of bail) only to have the cases dismissed at a later date.

Notwithstanding this litany of shortcomings, the ACT correctional system still has some praiseworthy aspects, such as the low imprisonment rate, the wide range of therapeutic programs that aim to reduce recidivism offered in the AMC, and the high number of convicted offenders serving non-custodial orders in the community. But it is surely time for some action to be taken to resolve the problems.

One step that could easily be taken would be to invite the West Australian Inspector of Custodial Services, Professor Neil Morgan, to conduct an independent investigation and report his findings to the Legislative Assembly.

In November 2011 the assembly gave its unanimous support in principle to the proposition he and his inspection team could be used from time to time under the same conditions that they follow in Western Australia.

This relatively inexpensive option would ensure an absolutely independent expert report would be available to provide the basis for the further development of ACT corrections in accord with the government's commitment to respect for the human rights of offenders and the need for efficiency and effectiveness in all of its operations.

David Biles is a Canberra-based consultant criminologist.

biles@netspeed.com.au

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