Prisons in Victoria are at bursting point, with a recent policy shift away from parole programs making life inside ever more dangerous. But, with the public generally apathetic about the plight of prisoners, little is being done to rectify the worsening crisis.
Between December 2012 and December 2013, the prison population in Victoria rose from 5,037 to 5,762 as a result of the Napthine government’s crackdown on crime and its rollback of parole programs. Although the campaign against parole was politically expedient, the subsequent rise in prisoner numbers is aggravating conditions in an already overloaded and underfunded system.
Undoubtedly, the horrific murder of Jill Meagher in September 2013 by parolee and violent repeat offender Adrian Bayley was instrumental in undermining the validity of the parole program in the public mind. A 19 February Age article claimed that many long-term prisoners blame Bayley directly for the overhauls diminishing access to parole.
While Meagher’s death was undoubtedly a tragedy, the reactive response by Corrections Victoria to drastically restrict parole for all inmates has had dire consequences for conditions inside prisons.
A March 2014 report by the Victorian Ombudsman found that, due to overcrowding, rates of violence in Victoria’s prisons are at their highest in over a decade, staff are at greater risk of being assaulted, rates of self-harm and inmate-on-inmate violence have risen, and sexual exploitation was on the increase.
In a recent Arena article, Deakin University Criminologist Richard Evans drew attention to the taboo topic of prison rape in Australia. He argued it was endemic, with vulnerable young men and the mentally ill frequently targeted.
Rape is merely one of various facets of the incarceration experience that fall outside the realm of legally-sanctioned punishment, alongside extortion, violence, intimidation, and daily fear, all of which have been worsened by parole curtailment and subsequent overcrowding.
Meanwhile there has been scant government investment in improving conditions or introducing programs in prisons, largely due to the lack of pressure from the public.
Prisons are overcrowded and increasingly violent not because more people are committing crimes – Victoria Police statistics actually report a decrease in most major crimes – but because the plight of prisoners has no political currency.
When the average citizen is in favour of tougher sentencing and a downscaling of remedial and skills programs, why bother improving prisons?
One simply answer is that we should improve prisons because, sooner or later, a vast majority of these prisoners will re-enter the community. The myopic trend toward U.S-style punitive models and sentencing strictures means that the contemporary prison experience in Victoria has become more traumatic, which has implications for a prisoner’s ability to re-enter the community effectively upon release.
When prospects for rehabilitation are so greatly diminished, notions of ‘reform’ and ‘rehabilitation’ become redundant.
While there had to be a tangible political response to appease the justified public outrage at the slew of abhorrent crimes committed by parolees over recent years, curtailing parole wholesale is not the answer, and the Parole Board needs to acknowledge this.
It is a knee-jerk reaction that creates a more volatile prison population, which in turn creates more volatile individuals who are less likely to be able to adapt to life ‘outside’: by default, it is a decision that will result in an increase in reoffending.
The public and governmental desire to see more and more people incarcerated for longer periods of time is creating a time-bomb – or, perhaps, time-bombs.
Victoria’s twelth prison is set to be constructed at Ravenshall, and officials say this will alleviate overcrowding. Yet, given the Napthine government’s determination to appear tough on crime, it is foreseeable the Ravenswood prison too will soon be ‘racking and stacking’ prisoners on its bunks.
Winding back parole may win votes from a public that feels a marked antipathy towards the incarcerated but it will only perpetuate crime.