Rights exist behind the wire
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Rights exist behind the wire

Jail needle-exchange proposal brawl shows how prisoners remain fair game to be demonised and vilified, JON STANHOPE writes

In 2004 the ACT Legislative Assembly enacted the Human Rights Act, the first bill of rights to be passed into law in Australia.

In essence the Act provides that no one may be treated or punished in a cruel, inhumane or degrading way: that even the worst among us have human rights that should be respected, even if we have been convicted of the most heinous crimes.

In 2009, the Alexander Maconochie Centre, the ACT's first prison, opened. The government was motivated, when taking the decision to build the prison, by the opportunity to learn from the experience of other prisons in Australia and to avoid the temptation, as politically enticing as it is, to employ the practice and language of retribution, punishment and demonisation.

The prison was the first in Australia to be built and operated in accordance with human rights legislation and principles.

The most recent Productivity Commission Report on Government Services, released on January 31, gives a first glimpse of some of the outcomes of the operational approach employed at the Alexander Maconochie Centre.

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It reveals that the percentage of eligible prisoners employed at the AMC is 92.3 per cent against a national average of 76.1 per cent; the number of AMC prisoners enrolled in education and training is 92 per cent as opposed to 34.8 per cent nationally; and AMC prisoners spend an average of 14.1 hours out of cells while nationally prisoners are out of cells for 11.4 hours a day.

Prisoners at the AMC may also receive visitors six days a week including until 8pm, and the crude imprisonment rate in the ACT is 68 per 100,000 while nationally it is 169 per 100,000.

These early results are very encouraging, particularly when considered in conjunction with the range and nature of programs at the prison.

The government, corrections and other staff have every right to be confident that the operating philosophy at the AMC will improve opportunities for successful prisoner rehabilitation and re-integration, and will reduce recidivism.

But prisoners are perhaps the last discrete group of human beings who are, in a general way, publicly vilified, dehumanised and demonised within Australia without fear of censure or opprobrium.

As a nation, we have over time and at different times discriminated against or vilified certain classes of people, openly and without public censure or any legal consequence.

These have included Chinese and all other mainly Asian peoples (through the White Australia Policy), as well as Aborigines, the post-World War II migrants (particularly the Greeks and Italians), people with a disability, single mothers, the Vietnamese, Muslims, boat people, gays and lesbians, and Catholics and Jews.

It is, however, not currently politically, socially or legally acceptable to openly disparage or discriminate against any person in Australia on the basis of any such personal characteristic.

The same cannot be said of prisoners. They remain as a group, and without any consideration of the personal history or background of any individual prisoner, fair game, not only for poll-driven law and order political campaigns but more generally.

I will use one topical example: the proposal to introduce a needle and syringe service into the AMC. .

The idea is simple. Illicit drugs regularly find their way into the prison, as they do in all prisons. Clean needles are not available in the prison. So the prisoners share dirty needles. Most prisoners have a pre-existing drug addiction. Many, up to 65 per cent, have hepatitis C and it would not be unusual for some of them to have AIDS.

The evidence is incontrovertible that clean needles prevent the spread of these major life-threatening diseases. It is not alarmist to suggest that at some time a prisoner at the Alexander Maconochie Centre will contract, from a dirty needle, a major blood-borne disease and die from it.

Clean needles are, of course, available throughout Canberra to prevent this occurring and to protect the general community.

Surveys of community attitudes suggest that well over 70 per cent of Canberrans support the needle-exchange program.

The ACT Government is considering expanding the needle-exchange program to include the prison.

The Community and Public Sector Union, the largest union in the ACT, represents not only prison officers and those employed at the prison but indeed all clerical staff in the territory's public service.

It is almost certain that up to 75 per cent of the CPSU membership, which is highly reflective of the Canberra population, supports the needle-exchange program.

The union, however, does not believe that prisoners, the most at-risk drug users in society, should be provided with clean needles, a generally available, life-saving, health service.

The CPSU is the largest union affiliated to the ACT branch of the ALP and now dominates the Left faction. It is probable that in excess of 75 per cent of the ACT's branch's membership supports the needle-exchange program and I had always taken it as a given that the whole of the Left faction supported the program. Yet at this stage it appears that the CPSU veto will succeed, disappointingly and perhaps tragically, despite three-quarters of its own membership, of its faction, and of the ACT branch of the ALP to which it is affiliated, not agreeing with it.

Thus, a supposedly progressive union will succumb to a base, historic national characteristic that I had hoped we had outgrown.

Jon Stanhope, a former chief minister of the ACT, is Professorial Fellow at the ANSOG Institute for Governance, University of Canberra.

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