A grim picture in NSW prisons

June 8, 1994

By Jill Hickson

SYDNEY — "Clearly, with the expansion of all forms of punishment in NSW, what we are seeing is not a crime wave but a punishment wave", states a review of prisons in NSW by the Inter-Church Committee on Prison Reform. The committee's brief was to find out what progress had been made since the combined churches' 1988 social justice statement on the nation's prison system.

Published under the title, Prison — Not Yet the Last Resort, the committee's findings reveal a worsening situation brought about by regressive policies put in place since the 1988 election of the Liberal-National government, which came to office on a wave of law and order rhetoric.

Prisoner numbers have increased from a daily average of 4124 in 1988 to 6441 in November 1993. Five new prisons have been built to ease overcrowding. The first privatised prison in NSW, with 600 cells, was opened in 1993 at Junee. Despite the new prisons, overcrowding continues at Goulburn and Parramatta jails and the Long Bay Remand Centre.

According to the report by the churches, Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research figures do not suggest that there has been a significant rise in the crime rate. Yet a perception exists in the general population that there is a crime wave. Media reporting of crime has increased, adding to this general misconception.

The state government has used this perception to increase punitive measures, including cuts to education and welfare programs. Riot and security squads have been expanded. Measures such as removing nearly all prisoners' personal property in 1990 caused riots and unrest.

The main cause of the increase in prisoner numbers is the Sentencing Act of 1989, introduced under the slogan of "truth in sentencing". According to the review, this act had three main consequences: it increased prisoner numbers by increasing the length of sentences, it reduced the time spent under community-based parole, and it removed from the system the incentive of remission for good behaviour.

Another cause of increased numbers of prisoners is that people who previously would have received sentences of community service orders or periodic detention are now getting prison sentences. Minor offenders previously given fines, suspended sentences or probation are being sentenced to periodic detention or community service.

Public opinion is way ahead of the judiciary on this issue. An independent survey conducted for the Probation and Parole Officers Association in 1992 found that 65% of NSW residents, when asked which one option they would most prefer to reduce prison overcrowding, chose placing more non-violent offenders in community-based programs instead of prisons. This was chosen ahead of building more jails and shorter sentences.

The review noted that imprisonment for Aboriginal people comes at the "end of a long history of dispossession and racism. The solutions to these problems will not be found in the prison system."

The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths In Custody recommendations have not been implemented, and Aboriginal people are becoming even more over-represented in prison. Aboriginal prisoners have increased nearly 100% since 1987, while the general prison population increased by 60%. Aboriginal people are more likely than others convicted to be sentenced to prison rather than periodic detention.

Women were found to experience extra hardship as a result of being a minority, around 5%, of the total prison population. There are fewer programs and activities available to them, and overcrowding has been a chronic problem. In 1976, there were 102 women in NSW prisons; in November 1993, there were 303.

The 1993 annual report of the NSW ombudsman described incidents when women have attended Westmead Hospital under escort. Officers refused to leave a hospital room while the woman gave birth, handcuffed a woman during a gynaecological examination, insisted on staying during an abortion and during counselling sessions for abortion and sexual assault.

The review points to incidents such as these which "illuminate the kind of custodial thinking which elevates security above all other values".

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.