The growing razor wire empire



BRISBANE — The Maryborough community will experience the fruits of the Queensland government's increased capital expenditure in regional areas when the first sod is turned and construction of a new $97 million high-security men's prison begins there in January.

When the prison opens in October 2002, the town will join Mareeba, Woodford, Rockhampton, Townsville, Toowoomba, Wacol/Mt Omaney, the Gold Coast and Ipswich as hosts to Queensland's massive population of prisoners, ex-prisoners and their families.

The Department of Corrective Services has again won a whopping $35 million increase in its operating budget for the new financial year, along with $121.1 million for capital works "necessitated by a rapid and significant increase in inmate numbers in recent years", according to its own budget papers.

The new Capricornia Correctional Centre in Rockhampton will cost the state's taxpayers $89.5 million. Woodford is about to become the biggest prison in Australia with its $68.8 million expansion from 400 to 1000 high security beds. The Wolston (men's) and Brisbane Women's prisons, which opened last year, cost $132 million combined, and the two private prisons, Borallon and Arthur Gorrie, were also expanded this year at a cost of $15.5 million and $34.1 million respectively.

Around 15,000 people pass through Queensland prisons each year, the vast majority of them serving sentences of less than two years (average sentence length is four months for men and two months for women). Around 1600 of them are fine defaulters. When prisoners are placed in regional prisons, many families follow in an effort to maintain relationships with their spouses, children and other relatives.

Queensland's booming prison industry is not unique but rather mirrors a trend now impacting on most of the Western world. But while some governments elsewhere are attempting to slow incarceration rates, the Queensland government seems intent on supporting both the private and public prison operators' attempts to expand their razor wire empires.

Peter Beattie's government is currently supporting a proposal from the Department of Corrective Services to abolish supervised community release (parole, home detention and release to work) for prisoners serving two years or less, a proposal which will increase the time that minor offenders spend behind bars (from 50% of their sentence to two thirds) and then release them, unsupervised, into the increasing number of communities in which prisons are located.

As a result, Maryborough, Woodford, Rockhampton, Mareeba and the other affected communities will not receive any assistance from the department's community corrections staff to facilitate the successful reintegration of released prisoners. They will be left to deal with the problems caused by family separation, unemployment and other post-release traumas with only their existing community services.

The department has argued that the majority of prisoners serving sentences of under two years "don't apply" for parole or the other supervised release options.

Agencies who work with prisoners and their families tell a very different story. In our experience it is the prison department's own policies, practices and administrative problems which have reduced prisoners' ability to access release to community supervision.

Even the most educated of our clients have problems negotiating the red tape wrapped around the parole system, and those with literacy problems, intellectual disabilities and mental illnesses have no hope at all.

The Criminal Justice Commission's Report on Prisoner Numbers, released in April, found that much of the growth in prisoner numbers since 1993 has been as a result of the Department of Corrective Services' "stretching" of the time offenders spend in prison, through processes which have made it harder and harder for prisoners to access supervised community release programs.

The Aboriginal and Islander Legal Service, Catholic Prison Ministry, Sisters Inside, Prisoners' Legal Service, Second Chance Foundation and Queensland Council for Civil Liberties have all condemned this aspect of the Corrective Services Bill, 2000. They have formed an alliance to call on the state government not to entrench this dangerous trend in legislation.

According to the coalition's member services, early intervention in the offending cycle is the most effective way to prevent serious crime. Prisoners sentenced to two years or less should receive intensive assistance to reintegrate and build useful lives in the community as soon as possible in their sentence.

They should not be seen as "profit producing units" who rot in prison cells and then cease to be the responsibility of corrective services when they are released from violent, dehumanising and drug-ridden prisons.

[Karen Fletcher is a member of the Democratic Socialist Party and coordinator of the Prisoners' Legal Service.]