The Andrews’ Labor government allocated $1.8 billion in the state budget on May 27, to build 1600 new prison cells in Victoria and less than one sixth of that amount — $209 million — for 1000 social housing units.
But the capital expenditure is just the tip of the iceberg. The annual recurrent cost of imprisoning a person in a Victoria is about $125,000, while housing a family in a public housing dwelling costs about $6400.
Victoria is in an acute housing crisis with more than 24,000 people homeless and 84,000 on waiting lists for social housing. At the same time, prisons are bursting at the seams with remand prisoners denied bail because of a series of law and order crackdowns in response to a small number of high-profile violent crimes.
The biggest and fastest increases in the Victorian prison population are being driven by harsher sentencing and denial of bail to women, particularly First Nations women, for drug- and alcohol-related crimes.
When the Dame Phyllis Frost Correctional Centre in Melbourne’s south opened in 1996 it received about 50 prisoners a month. Today, more than 150 women arrive each month — most on remand and most suffering post-traumatic stress disorders and addiction.
There is a sickening churn of women serving short sentences for drug-related offences. The majority are there a few weeks or months — just long enough to lose their jobs, accommodation and, all too often, their kids.
At Flat Out Inc, we try to support women into housing so they can get out, and stay out, of prison and build a life for themselves and their kids. But it’s getting harder and harder.
So many prison cells and so little affordable, secure housing mean more and more women are released to homelessness — cheap motels, caravan parks, friends’ couches, egregious rooming houses and rough sleeping.
Without a home, how are these women supposed to make a life or parent their kids? More kids in care. More women in desperation. More trauma. More drugs. More prisons.
Advocacy groups continue to decry the prison spending.
“The budget blows almost $2 billion on a mega-prison that won’t reduce crime or make us safer,” Victorian Council of Social Service CEO Emma King said on May 27. “Think of what else we could do with $2 billion? For $2 billion we could have built tens of thousands of social housing units...”
Federation of Community Legal Centres CEO Serina McDuff said: “It’s disappointing to see this extraordinary amount of money being spent on locking up people who need help with drug, alcohol and mental health issues, instead of investing in the critical support they need.
“Many women in prison are themselves victims of crime. When a woman has turned to drug use to self-medicate for family or sexual violence, she should not end up in prison, she should get the counselling and drug rehabilitation support that she needs.”
But prison construction continues to escalate.
Building has begun on a new 250-cell youth detention centre at Cherry Creek near Werribee and on a mega-prison for 1250 men in the Geelong suburb of Lara. One hundred cells for women will be added to Dame Phyllis Frost with this new money and there are strong indications that the government intends to build a second high security women’s prison in the near future.
Since the Labor government was elected in 2014, prison capacity in Victoria has grown from 6400 to more than 8200 cells. With this budget there will be capacity to imprison 10,000 Victorians at a time, at a recurrent cost of more than $1.2 billion a year — three times the $412 million a year it costs to provide the 64,000 public housing dwellings.
On May 25, two days before the budget, we awoke to the news that Courtney Herron, a young woman suffering mental illness and addiction, had been bashed to death while sleeping rough in an inner Melbourne park.
Courtney’s death has thrown the government’s priorities into stark relief. Victoria has become a place where there appears to be unlimited public money to imprison people suffering mental illness and addiction, but precious little to support them to have any kind of life in our community.
[Karen Fletcher is a board member of Flat Out Inc, a support service for women leaving prison in Victoria.]