Should we lock up anyone in prison?

August 4, 2016

Footage aired last week of children being abused in a Northern Territory prison sent shockwaves around the nation. These images forced us to grapple with the problem as if it were breaking news, despite the fact that so many people knew so much about it for so long.

Nevertheless, a royal commission is being established, and although many would like to see a wider scope, accountability for abuses of this nature must be the ultimate result.

But there is a much broader question to be asked about the use of incarceration in circumstances such as these. When we know that prison entrenches harm, as well as crime, it is hard to imagine how the deprivation of liberty in its current form — let alone the unmitigated deprivation within the walls of Don Dale — could really correct or rehabilitate anyone.

There is a reason why international law demands that incarceration or detention be an option of absolute last resort where children are concerned. When a significant proportion of all offenders come into custody profoundly disadvantaged — and traumatised — in some way, imprisoning them only compounds these effects.

Without doubt, there are hardened offenders for whom there seem no other options. This applies to a small minority and means that more work has to be done around providing effective supervision and support in the community once prisoners are released.

Notably, very few — if any — of the most-hardened offenders are women or children. In fact, incarceration is a policy designed mainly around men, with women and children the collateral damage in a centuries-old battle to contain the impacts of poverty, maintain the authority of some men and punish the infractions of others.

This is not an essentialist or patronising statement. The reality is that, with few exceptions, women's offending differs from men's. Low-level drug offences, property crimes and theft are the primary offences committed by women. Most are categorised as minimum security and are sentenced to short custodial periods that leave them ineligible for the limited rehabilitation services available.

Nevertheless, while in prison they may be exposed to strip searches and other intrusive surveillance and restriction. In Victoria until just over a decade ago, this potentially included shackling women while they gave birth, as apparently male decision makers considered labouring women a flight risk.

Meanwhile, we know that the majority of incarcerated women are victims of some kind of gendered violence. This in turn contributes to their offending, either through its association with mental illness, homelessness and other forms of disadvantage, or through the foisting of debt or culpability on them by their abusers.

Then our sympathy evaporates and we send them to an environment that entrenches others' control over their bodies. The only advantage is that it sometimes offers a brief period of respite from the people who have hurt them outside.

In other words, we are spending vast amounts of money on incarcerating women and young people who, for the most part, need more protection from the community than the community needs from them.

Also, the prevalence of women's prior victimisation raises the question of whether we need a women's prison — or juvenile detention — at all were it not for men's use of gendered violence?

Posing this question is not about demonising men. Incarceration is not a smart response for most of the people in our prisons — male, female, or transgender. A significant proportion of all prisoners are from backgrounds of intergenerational poverty and low educational attainment, are living with mental illness or an acquired brain injury.

Given the vast majority of violent offenders — from whom the community rightly wants protection — are men, and we know the criminogenic effects of prison — not only on those in custody, but on the children left behind — the use of this as a mainstream policy response seems even more bizarre.

The community rarely questions the use of incarceration as a response to crime. But this is an opportunity to ask ourselves what the purpose of a corrections system really is. Is it to punish? Detain? Rehabilitate? Shelve intractable problems?

Or should it function as a positive intervention which protects the vulnerable from further harm?

Incarceration may have been a useful policy for those in privileged positions down the ages who were keen to secure the authority of the state. For the most part, however, it has become a stone around our necks — unfit for purpose for the majority of those it houses, and definitely unfit for the women and children we are increasingly locking away.

[Rob Hulls is Director of the Centre for Innovative Justice, RMIT University and Elena Campbell is Manager, Policy and Research at the Centre for Innovative Justice, RMIT University. This article was originally published on The Conversation.]

Like the article? Subscribe to Green Left now! You can also like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

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.