By Rob Graham
ADELAIDE — Australia's prison system, and the attitude of a large percentage of the population to those within it, are inherited to a large degree from Australia's English colonial past, said Tim Anderson at the second public meeting organised by the South Australian Prisoners Advocacy group, held on November 11.
The aim of Prisoners Advocacy, as explained by coordinator Greg Mead to the well attended meeting, is to increase awareness of prison issues in the community.
Anderson was the featured speaker at the meeting, and he went into some detail explaining how our current prison system arose. In Australia, he said, as in other countries with legal systems based on English Common Law, prisons are highly militarised institutions, with a large emphasis on "discipline", and virtual autonomy from bodies such as legal courts (who have a tradition of non-intervention in jails).
This situation arose in Australia initially partly from the fact of the virtual military dictatorships that were the first penal colonies in Australia, (when prisons were the virtual feifdoms of their governors), and the sheer logistical difficulty of administration from half way around the world.
In addition, there was also the very important concept of the existence of a "criminal class", inherited from a highly class divided society, whereby the poor were (and still are) objectively criminalised purely on the basis of their poverty. (The "debtors jails" in England were the classic example of this.)
Anderson pointed out that there is virtually no concept of basic rights for prisoners in Australia. Everything, from food to exercise to fresh air, is considered a privilege, and any of these can be taken away at any time.
Certain "rights" may well be guaranteed under the law, but in reality they are only bestowed by the prison authorities, and not to be demanded of by prisoners. If a prisoner does decide to take up a case of injustice, the attitude of the courts is generally that they cannot be seen to win against the system.
Anderson said that officially, both the major parties would consider the use of prison a last resort. He pointed out, however, that in NSW, the prison population has increased by around 2700 in the last four years, the largest increase since the days of transportation! There are also some 2,000 people in prison on remand throughout Australia.
One aspect of the prison system that is rarely mentioned in the mainstream media is the maximum security jails and the high security sections in others, or the conditions within them. Reasons for confinement in these "segregated" areas, as revealed by investigations carried out by the New South Wales Ombudsman, proved to be very defective. It was shown that prisoners can be placed in these areas arbitrarily, for "administrative" reasons, with no right to a trial and no automatic review process. It was also found that some prisoners, and even some prison warders could be unaware of the reasons for confinement in these areas. Anderson noted that laws drafted in the 17th Century in England, to which Australia still officially subscribes, forbid the use of "cruel or unusual" punishment. The conditions in these segregated areas, including solitary confinement (when there is room!), are not considered cruel or unusual by the courts here, however.
Anderson emphasised the very important point of the damage that is done not only to individuals, but to society as a whole by the degradation and social isolation of prisoners, and that they must be kept in touch with the wider community. He pointed out that most prisoners are in their teens when initially incarcerated. Many come from juvenile detention centres, and can find it extremely difficult, if not impossible to integrate themselves into society upon release from prison. Basic independent living skills that are usually acquired in a person's teens — how to handle money, obtain accommodation, learn about their own sexuality, effectively communicate and so on, are just not learnt in a prison environment. Anderson finished with a call to end the culture of isolating prisoners. n