The last time Australians took a shine to the death penalty (or at least preferred it to imprisonment as a punishment for murder) was in 1988. Since then, public opposition towards capital punishment has only hardened. However, legislative action to ban the practice was not always in lockstep with popular opinion. In 1973, when federal laws were first passed to fell the death penalty, Australians saw it on comparable terms to incarceration. Meanwhile the states, which had each banned the practice decades earlier, faced a public that preferred it to imprisonment.
Today, capital punishment is generally treated as inhumane, retributive and ineffective at deterring crime. And rightly so. But the question we should now ask ourselves is: when will we see prisons in the same light?
After all, it’s certainly unlikely that the prime minister’s last-ditch mercy appeal to Indonesian president Joko Widodo, over the fate of the Bali Nine, will be matched in either rhetoric or policy towards those languishing, or dying in our own custody.
2014 marked a decade-long high for our national prison population, with a spike of nearly 10% from 2013. Given prison demographics barely budge year after year, it’s likely you’re familiar with the fact that more than a quarter of prisoners are Aboriginal, despite Indigenous people making up only 3% of the population. The statistics also bear out that over three quarters of Indigenous persons in prison had previously served custodial sentences; of the non-Indigenous prison population, half had previously served time.
Prisons themselves are sites of violence, neglect and psychological trauma. As recently as last year conditions in a regional prison in Western Australia were described as ‘intolerable and inhumane’ by an Inspector of Custodial Services. Inmates endured temperatures upwards of 40 degrees without effective air-conditioning, paired with limited airflow. Former senior guard Adrian Commons went on record to reveal institutional complicity to fighting and systemic abuses of authority in other prisons. Research shows that a third of prisoners suffer from chronic health conditions and a fifth have a history of self-harm.
Even budget hawks would have a tough time defending mass incarceration. A report from the Australian Institute of Criminology, released in 2012, found ‘for every $1 spent per offender per day in community corrections, $11 was spent on offenders in prison’. Last year, corrective services racked up a bill of $2.6 billion according to the Productivity Commission.
In a piece defending the death penalty , conservative writer Mark Fletcher raised the contemporary prison project to dress down opponents of capital punishment (his rebuttal to his own argument is also worth a read):
Life imprisonment is the death penalty performed slowly. The felon dies of indefinite incarceration following a lengthy period of time in which their liberties were curtailed and which radically reduced their quality of life. It is flatly barbaric: we treat animals with more dignity than we treat people.
The West Kimberley Regional Prison offers a stark alternative to mainstream jailing. Visiting the country’s first Indigenous self-care prison, Law Report host Damien Carrick said the compound looked ‘like a brand-new high school… colourful architect-designed buildings, clad in colour-bond, surrounded by a lot of green areas, and basketball courts, an oval.’
The jail’s inmates are given responsibilities, receive mentoring and counselling and are encouraged to remain accountable to the prison community. Compared to other prisons in Western Australia, its inmates agree it is a stark improvement.
Asked how the site compared to others, one prisoner remarked that it was ‘one of the best probably… you get to walk around, just like you’re walking around in the bush.’
On the other hand another inmate, who was serving a sixteen-month custodial sentence, soberly noted the prison was still a prison. ‘At the end of the day I want to go home, I’d rather be home, I’d rather be with my kids,’ she said.
Her experience animates the beliefs of Griffith University academic John Rynne, who remains skeptical of prison reform that tinkers around the edges of incarceration:
Prisoners know that if they take one step out of line they’ll be put down in the detention unit or they’ll be breached or they’ll be sent out… Just because you serve time in a prison that is more humane or at least more decent doesn’t mean it’s still not a prison.
Accordingly, prison abolition activists cite harm prevention, intervention and reparation, and community transformation as guiding principles to radically reconfigure the justice system. Rather than a destination, abolition in this context is used as a framework to assist those already imprisoned while tearing down social, economic and political incarceration structures. In this way, the abolition movement distinguishes itself from reformists who prefer the continued construction of ‘more humane’ prisons.
Lawyers and governmental bodies have alternately recommended justice reinvestment programs (which would see resources redirected from building prisons towards social housing, job and skills training, mental health services) as an additional circuit-breaker to high recidivism rates. At a state level, pilot initiatives have been tentatively endorsed by the NSW Government and the Opposition in a rare break from the usual bipartisan machismo on ‘law and order’ issues.
For now, the everyday tactics of abolitionists – minimising police intervention, seeking therapeutic justice solutions and reducing social isolation and alienation – are particularly attractive given politicians’ coolness towards prison expansion. On the other side of the country, comments from Western Australia’s Corrective Services Minister Joe Francis, in response to a question on the state’s ballooning incarceration rate, underline the difficulty of engaging policymakers.
‘It’s a statistic,’ he said dispassionately. ‘I don’t think it’s any different to watching the odometer ticking over in a car.’