Prison Population

Prison Population

(Private Members Statement, 26 May 2015, Legislative Assembly, NSW Parliament)

Our rising prison population has economic and social costs for the community and for prisoners. My constituents want government to focus on early intervention, rehabilitation and restoration. The New South Wales prison population has soared to an historic 11,100 inmates, which is about three times the rate in Scandinavian countries. Over the past 10 years the number of adults imprisoned has increased by 50 per cent, and is expected to keep growing under new bail laws. Our prison capacity is 10,800 and a Sydney Morning Herald article of 3 February reported that inmates are detained at police stations and courthouses because there are not enough jail cells. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people constitute 2 per cent of the population but nearly a quarter of all inmates, and since 1989 the Indigenous imprisonment rate has grown 12 times faster than for other sectors of the population. Women's imprisonment rates have risen by nearly half since 2001 compared with less than 19 per cent for men, with women being imprisoned at four times the rate they were 20 years ago. 

Research has identified no link between high incarceration rates and reduced crime. Reducing crime requires addressing its socio-economic causes including disadvantage, poverty, poor education, drugs and alcohol, mental health and housing. In New South Wales 68 per cent of prisoners reoffend, reinforcing that imprisonment does little to deter future offending and that incarceration can increase reoffending. Mental illness, drug and alcohol problems, and trauma such as sexual assault are higher among prisoners, especially women. Prisoners are more likely to have lower literacy and less education, and higher levels of cognitive impairment. Prisons are overcrowded and risk human rights breaches; rehabilitation and education are limited.

According to the World Health Organization, violence, aggression, self-harm and suicide levels rise in prisons due to the "disciplinary regime, lack of choice about activities and the people that prisoners spend time with, and limited communications with family, especially children, and friends." Many prisoners who have a mental illness do not receive treatment and their behaviour more often results in solitary confinement, thereby worsening symptoms. Around half of prisoners faced drug and alcohol charges but prison drug programs are limited and inadequate. There are no programs targeting female offenders despite the greater proportion of women in prison who use drugs. Drug courts have been shown to be effective and we now have three of them, but more drug rehabilitation programs are vital.

The United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-Custodial Measures for Women Offenders, known as the Bangkok Rules, encourage alternatives to imprisoning women. Female prisoners have often experienced sexual, physical and psychological abuse but only two of the seven New South Wales women's prisons offer professional sexual assault programs. Standard procedures such as strip searches can be particularly traumatic for women prisoners who have experienced sexual abuse and searches on women should be restricted, with alternative methods used to prevent contraband. Nearly three-quarters of women in prison are mothers, with 62 per cent of them the sole caregiver and the majority of children aged under six. Mother and child must have regular contact but the remoteness of women's prisons prevents this. 

Today the Government announced that it might relocate Long Bay Correctional Centre—this could push another facility to the fringes, reducing accessibility for more prisoners. Loss of family contact punishes women beyond sentences and has enduring effects on children, including their being at risk of State care. Specialist services are needed to help the children of prisoners. I understand that there are few police protocols for arresting someone with dependent children and some prisons control family visits as a form of discipline. Women prisoners are less likely to be employed before their imprisonment or to have jobs organised on release, and have less access to rehabilitation, education, training and job programs. Thirty per cent of women in custody are on remand with no access to programs. Employment is a strong predictor of recidivism, but there is little support. Instead of incentives for education, prisoners earn more from working, which undermines their future. 

Homelessness and mental health problems are linked with offending and reoffending. The Government must increase social housing stock and provide post-release supported accommodation. Tough bail and mandatory sentencing laws remove consideration of individual circumstances and result in higher incarceration rates without deterring crime, especially for first offences. Governments must partner with the non-government and business sectors. We should help prisoners establish new skills in prison that give them opportunities to treat drug problems and mental illness, and to move away from a prison career on release. We must expand and resource prevention, early intervention, diversion and rehabilitation programs, and help integrate offenders back into their families and communities, maintain a home and get work. Evidence-based approaches such as the Magistrates Early Referral Into Treatment program and drug courts must be expanded, and we must trial innovation and test new approaches to better spend the money and improve outcomes for offenders and the community.

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