Whoever it was that coined the old saw about bad news coming in threes probably never seriously considered prisons. The misfortunes surrounding the planning, construction and operation of the Alexander Maconochie Centre have become legion, and there are few signs of a let-up. In early April, the ACT government said it was shelving plans for a needle and syringe exchange program at the prison after failing to win the support of prison officers for a trial; a week later came the announcement that overcrowding had reached critical levels, and that as a result the Symonston correctional facility might have to be reopened to cope with the overflow. And last week, the ACT Auditor-General's office presented to the Legislative Assembly a report outlining serious deficiencies in the management and provision of rehabilitation services at the prison.
Suggesting there is "a very large gap between what was anticipated and what has occurred since the opening of the AMC" in 2009, the report claims that fewer than one in two male detainees spend time working (female detainees were not audited). Whether working or not, detainees spend, on average, no more than an hour a week on therapeutic programs, two hours a week on education programs, and two hours a week with family and other visitors. With each detainee having a "structured time" of five hours, on average – "significantly less than the 30 hours envisaged in the 2007 delivery strategy" – the report's unsurprising conclusion is that "there is a risk that detainees become bored … and that this undermines rehabilitative efforts".
The finding that no overarching rehabilitation framework exists at the AMC to guide the overall co-ordination of rehabilitative activities and services is perhaps the most astounding aspect of this audit. Indeed, the authors note that efforts by Correctional Services to cobble together plans which could be part of a rehabilitation program are "taking a considerable time to be developed". Absent too are adequate information management systems, comprehensive performance measures, and a finalised case management policy framework. This in a prison which has been operating for the best part of six years.
Prisons, particularly those with prisoners of mixed classification, are always a challenge to administer efficiently, productively and humanely. The AMC is a trailblazing endeavour – Australia's first human rights compliant prison and one with a prevailing emphasis on prisoner welfare and rehabilitation. Teething difficulties were always on the cards, therefore. These were almost certainly exacerbated by the Stanhope government's failure to ensure sufficient capacity at the jail to cater for a significant rise in the prisoner population just a few years after its construction. To have no overarching rehabilitation framework for the prison – when such frameworks are common in other jurisdictions – seems another failure of sizeable proportion. ACT taxpayers may have reasonably expected too that prisoners who wanted to work would be provided with such. Yet, the audit concludes employment opportunities are limited, and confined mostly to the prison's running.
Such missteps invite speculation as to whether the Stanhope government, in all of its enthusiasm and advocacy for a human rights compliant prison, gave serious thought to the possibility of unintended consequences. If so, it hasn't shown. According to the audit, the requirement for prison officers to attend to detainee separation and segregation (usually involving a large number of daily movements) and to oversee visits by family and friends has affected the efficient running of prison programs. And since compulsion is inconsistent with the jail's operating philosophy, no inmate can be compelled to join in the "purposeful activities" that go toward making up "structured time".
If the Correctional Services officers quoted en masse in the audit are a reliable guide, then the prospects of a quick fix seem remote: these "stakeholders" believe the "culture change" needed to run the AMC will take 10 years. Thankfully, the addition of another 110 beds at the prison by next March should help accelerate reform. The biggest driver has to be the Barr Labor government, however. The argument that a reduced recidivism rate will justify the hight cost of detaining people at the AMC needs confirmation – and soon, lest ACT ratepayers lose patience.