Justice Minister Shane Rattenbury was all assurances this week regarding the possible transfer of prisoners from the Alexander Maconochie Centre to the Symonston Correctional Facility as a result of "accommodation pressures". Only "very compliant detainees" would be assessed for transfer to Symonston (which lies close to the suburbs of Red Hill, Griffith and Narrabundah), and while the facility was not human rights-compliant, the Human Rights Commissioner and Official Visitor would both be granted full access. As welcome as Mr Rattenbury's pledges are, they cannot disguise the fact that the present over-crowding at the AMC is proving expensive to remedy – and that much of this cost could have been avoided had the Labor government heeded the advice of expert consultants in 2001 when it settled the matter of how many prisoners the jail would hold.
That report, by John Walker Crime Trends Analysis, said the ACT would need, at the very least, space for 335 prisoners by 2009, and 340 by 2013. The government chose instead to be guided by modelling which showed a prison population of, at worst, 275 by 2042. While a sensible design incorporating 374 beds was initially chosen, this was later scaled back to 300 beds – doubtless to minimise overall construction costs and deflect public criticism that the jail was unnecessary given existing arrangement in which NSW jails were contracted to warehouse ACT prisoners.
The unwillingness of the ACT government to consider that overcrowding at the jail might become an issue sooner rather than later is glaring, in hindsight at least. It seems especially inexplicable given the debacle over the Gungahlin Drive extension, which had to be widened from two lanes to four at great expense after estimates of the number of motorists who would use the road proved inaccurate, was fresh in people's minds.
It did not take the AMC long to reach capacity after opening in 2009. Some have attributed this in part to the fact that ACT judges and magistrates, no longer burdened by the knowledge that the convicted could be sent to faraway jails in NSW (at considerable inconvenience to their families), began handing out custodial sentences more freely. What is irrefutable, however, is that prisoner numbers around Australia have been growing, and that some of the steepest increase in imprisonment rates have been recorded in the ACT.
Some of this increase can be said to be the result of governments legislating to limit the sentencing options available to judges and magistrates and placate the law and order lobby. However, the single biggest factor behind overcrowding in our jails is probably population increase – just as this has led to congested roads, choked emergency departments and long surgery waiting lists. The failure of governments to recognise the infrastructure deficit, and to do something about it, is testament to the speed with which Australia's population has increased in recent decades.
Given there are so few votes in building and running prisons, it is hardly surprising that governments should have failed to ensure that they provided beds commensurate with rising prison population. ACT Labor governments, however, have long regarded themselves as being motivated by higher ideals when it comes to prisons, which makes their fumbling over the AMC all the more embarrassing.
The optimistic claims of 2009 that the jail would set new standards in rehabilitation and prisoner welfare and safety have so far failed to materialise. Despite state-of-the art security, the jail has been visited by all the usual prison afflictions of contraband, drug rings and serious prisoner assaults. The hoped-for improvements in recidivism rates have not occurred, and attempts by the government to set up a needle exchange program have been shelved, for the time being at least. Pursuit of these goals will become far harder if overcrowding becomes the norm at the AMC
Last year, the government announced at it would spend $54 million to add another 110 beds, thereby boosting the jail's capacity to 476 beds. Mr Rattenbury has said he hopes this expansion would be the last required at the AMC. Given the government's poor record on prudent planning, it seems far from certain this enlarged AMC will be sufficient to meet long-term population growth. Better strategies of keeping people out of prison, while not making Canberra a less safe place for all of us, must, therefore, become a matter of priority for Mr Rattenbury and the government.