Type
Article
Category
open letter
Prison

Build Homes not Prisons: an open letter to the Victorian government

Don’t expand Dame Phyllis Frost prison for women: Build Homes not Prisons

You can sign the open letter here.

We, the undersigned, call on the Andrews Government to:

  • Stop the proposed 106 bed expansion of the Dame Phyllis Frost women’s prison in Melbourne’s north west announced by the Andrews Government on 19 March 2021
  • Divert the funds for expansion of the women’s prison to building and supporting 1,000 new public homes

The budget for expansion of Dame Phyllis Frost is $188.9 million. This would build 1,000 new public homes.[i] Operating costs for the 106 new cells will be at least $12.5 million a year[ii] – enough for basic operating costs for 1,614 public homes [iii]

We accept there is a need to improve visits, health and other facilities at Dame Phyllis Frost but we oppose any increase in capacity.

Homes, not prisons, for a safer Victoria

Prisons are harmful and violent places. Women in prison are overwhelmingly victim/survivors of trauma, sexual assault and family violence.[iv] Prison compounds this trauma and does not provide a safe space for healing. Prison cannot reunite families, resolve drug use or support mental health. Prisons expose women to practices that worsen trauma, including strip searching and solitary confinement. Healing and support cannot happen in such a damaging and disruptive cycle of incarceration.

Even a short stint in prison can land the children of imprisoned mothers in out-of-home care and, from there, into the pipeline of juvenile detention and prison. More than half of people who are imprisoned return to prison within two years.[v] The harms are pervasive and intergenerational.

Evidence shows jurisdictions that spend more on prisons and less on housing and social services have higher crime rates. Increased spending on housing is associated with decreased violent crime and lower rates of incarceration.[vi]

Stop imprisoning Aboriginal women: Stop deaths in custody

It has been 30 years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody recommended governments use imprisonment as a “sanction of last resort”. In Victoria, the opposite has happened[vii], with changes to bail, parole and sentencing laws making imprisonment the default.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are the fastest growing group in Victorian prisons. In the ten years to June 2018, the number of Aboriginal women in prison grew by over 400 per cent.[viii] Aboriginal women are 10 per cent of women in prison but only 0.4 per cent of the general population.[ix]

The justice targets in the 2020 Closing the Gap Agreement include reducing the rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults incarcerated by at least 15 per cent.

The first milestone in Phase 4 of the Aboriginal Justice Agreement between the Victorian Government and the Victorian Aboriginal community is “to reduce the average daily number of Aboriginal adults under justice supervision in prison and community corrections by at least 344 by 2023”.[x]

So why is the Victorian Government spending billions to expand Victorian prisons when it will inevitably worsen Aboriginal imprisonment rates and Australia’s disgracefully high rates of Aboriginal deaths in custody.[xi]

Victoria must reckon with the impacts of colonisation and institutionalised racism and take meaningful steps to address the over-imprisonment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Aboriginal self-determination is the key. The Victorian government must allocate adequate and sustainable funds to Aboriginal community-controlled organisations (ACCOs) to delivery culturally safe legal, prevention and rehabilitation services for individuals, families and communities. Recommendations made by ACCOs on how to reduce imprisonment rates of Aboriginal women should be respected and implemented.

Reverse Victoria’s spiralling rates of women’s imprisonment

Dame Phyllis Frost prison has a 604-bed capacity. Over the last twenty years, capacity has grown by 440 beds, or 270 per cent, and the number of women increased 212 per cent, from 183 women on 30 June 2000 to a peak of 575 on 30 June 2019.

When new cells are built they get filled.

COVID showed it’s possible to reduce imprisonment rates. At the height of the pandemic in June 2020 the number of women at Dame Phyllis Frost dropped for the first time in decades, to 333. But numbers are steadily rising again as arrests and court operations ramp up. At the beginning of April 2021 there were 380 women at Dame Phyllis.

Increasing capacity from 604 to 710 beds is a huge step in the wrong direction.

Over 40 per cent of women in the prison are unsentenced and many will not ultimately receive a prison sentence. In 2019-20, two thirds of women in the prison spent less than a month there. Corrections Victoria’s own analysis suggests that a significant proportion of women spend weeks in pre-trial detention for non-violent offences that do not warrant a term of imprisonment and are driven by homelessness, poverty and poor health.[xii]

Don’t put women in solitary

Tender documents for the expansion of Dame Phyllis Frost prison include two new 20-bed “management units” – code for segregation and solitary confinement cells. Solitary confinement is torture[xiii] and should be banned, not expanded.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and women with cognitive impairment, mental ill health and drug dependency are always over-represented in solitary confinement cells. The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody found 30 years ago that it is “undesirable in the highest degree” for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander to be segregated.[xiv]

Create jobs building communities, not prisons

The primary benefit the Andrews Government claims for the expansion of the prison is the creation of 130 jobs during construction.

Construction of public and Aboriginal community-controlled housing would create more and better jobs, both in construction and in support for the women and children who will live there.

All workers – whether we are builders, social workers, nurses, architects, educators, carers, labourers, doctors, therapists, gardeners, lawyers, counsellors, artists or planners – want jobs that build and strengthen our communities, not jobs that cause harm.

A Big Public Housing Build, not a Big Prison Build

We welcome the Andrews Government’s announcement of $5.3 billion Big Housing Build in the 2020/21 state budget. But the initiative is focussed on expanding privately owned and operated “community” and “affordable” housing – not public housing. The only new public housing in the package replaces public housing that has been demolished in the Public Housing Renewal Program under which private developers have been funded to replace public housing with “social housing”.[xv]

Most community and “affordable” private housing is not accessible to criminalised women and their children because:

  • rents are not capped at 25% of income and that a significant proportion excludes tenants with criminal histories, drug dependencies and even mental illness.
  • Tenancies are more insecure, with much higher eviction rates for households struggling with extreme poverty, family violence, alcohol and other drugs and poor mental health.
  • Community housing providers are not under the same obligations as government to give priority access to applicants who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.
  • Rooming houses can be classified as “community housing”. They are short-term, insecure, often dangerous and unsuitable for women, especially women with children

Without safe and permanent housing, women cannot access bail, parole or successfully complete community corrections orders.

We need a program to provide more housing on Housing First[xvi] principles, including:

  • Access to permanent, safe, self-contained homes that meets people’s cultural and social needs – including Aboriginal community-controlled housing
  • No treatment or behavioural eligibility pre-conditions
  • Full tenancy rights and standard rental conditions with security of tenure
  • Intensive support, independent of housing management, that focuses on social and community inclusion and is provided as long as needed

More than half of women leaving prison expect to be homeless on release.[xvii] The lack of safe and secure housing for women exiting prison puts them at increased risk returning to custody.[xviii]

We urge the Andrews Government to address this issue and divert funds from a Big Prison Build to Big Public Housing Build, for a better, fairer, safer state.

You can sign the open letter here.

 

[i] Lawson, J., Pawson, H., Troy, L., van den Nouwelant, R. and Hamilton, C. (2018) Social housing as infrastructure: an investment pathway, AHURI Final Report 306, Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute Limited, Melbourne, http://www.ahuri.edu.au/research/final-reports/306 (@ page 5 – estimated cost of construction of public housing dwellings in Victoria 2017 was $170,000 – $442,000 per dwelling)

[ii] Productivity Commission Report on Government Services 2021, Part C, Section 8: Corrective Services, Table 8A.19, https://www.pc.gov.au/research/ongoing/report-on-government-services/2021/justice/corrective-services  (Net recurrent operational expenditure per person in prison in Victoria 2019-20 was $323.45 per day, or $12.54 million per year for 106 prisoners.)

[iii] Productivity Commission Report on Government Services 2021, Part G, Section 18: Housing, Table 18A.43, https://www.pc.gov.au/research/ongoing/report-on-government-services/2021/justice/corrective-services  (Government recurrent expenditure on public housing in Victoria 2019-20, per dwelling, was $7,751 per year.)

[iv] ANROWS (2020) Women’s imprisonment and domestic, family, and sexual violence, online,  https://www.anrows.org.au/publication/womens-imprisonment-and-domestic-family-and-sexual-violence/; Corrections Victoria (2019) Women in the Victorian prison system, online, https://www.corrections.vic.gov.au/women-in-the-victorian-prison-system

[v] Productivity Commission Report on Government Services 2021, Part C, Section 8: Corrective Services

[vi] Justice Policy Institute (2007) Housing and Public Safety, http://www.justicepolicy.org/uploads/justicepolicy/documents/07-11_rep_housingpublicsafety_ac-ps.pdf

[vii] Vic Indigenous incarceration rate surges, Georgie Moore, The Canberra Times July 14 2020

[viii] See Corrections Victoria, Annual Prisoner Statistical Profile 2009-10 to 2019-20 (Department of Justice and Community Safety, 2021) table 2.3 online, accessed 26 March 2021, https://www.corrections.vic.gov.au/annual-prisoner-statistical-profile-2009-10-to-2019-20; http://www.corrections.vic.gov.au/utility/publications+manuals+and+statistics/annual+prisoner+statistical+profile+2006-07+to+2017-18 Table 1.4.

[ix] Corrections Victoria, Annual Prisoner Statistical Profile 2009-10 to 2019-20 (Department of Justice and Community Safety, 2021) table 1.2 online, accessed 26 March 2021, https://www.corrections.vic.gov.au/annual-prisoner-statistical-profile-2009-10-to-2019-20; Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2016 Census Quickstats – Victoria, online, accessed 23 March 2021, https://quickstats.censusdata.abs.gov.au/census_services/getproduct/census/2016/quickstat/2?opendocument

[x] Victorian Government (2018), Burra Lotjpa Dunguludja: The Victorian Aboriginal Justice Agreement Phase 4: Milestones, https://www.aboriginaljustice.vic.gov.au/the-agreement/burra-lotjpa-dunguludja-the-aboriginal-justice-agreement-phase-4/how-we-will-know-if

[xi] Doherty, L., Bricknell, S. (2020) Deaths in custody in Australia 2018-19, Australian Institute of Criminology, Australian Government.

[xii] Russell, E., Carlton, B., Tyson, D., Zhou, H., Pearce, M., Faulkner, J. (2020) A Constellation of Circumstances: The Drivers of Women’s Increasing Rates of Remand in Victoria, Fitzroy Legal Service and the La Trobe Centre for Health, Law and Society: Melbourne.

[xiii] Mussell, L. and Rampersaud, M. Solitary confinement by any other name is still torture, The Conversation, November 19, 2020

[xiv] RCIADIC Recommendation 181: Corrective Services should recognise that it is undesirable in the highest degree that an Aboriginal prisoner should be placed in segregation or isolated detention… https://humanrights.gov.au/our-work/indigenous-deaths-custody-chapter-8-custodial-conditions

[xv] Budget’s big social housing plan lacks public housing pillar, The Age, 25 November 2020

[xvi] Homelessness Australia, Housing First Principles for Australia, https://www.homelessnessaustralia.org.au/campaigns/housing-first-australia

[xvii] Australian Institute of Health & Welfare (2019) The health of Australia’s prisoners 2018, online, https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/prisoners/health-australia-prisoners-2018

[xviii] ANROWS (2018) The forgotten victims: Prisoner experiences of victimisation and engagement with the criminal justice system, online, https://www.anrows.org.au/publication/the-forgotten-victims-prisoner-experience-of-victimisation-and-engagement-with-the-criminal-justice-system-key-findings-and-future-directions/; Australian Law Reform Commission (2017) Pathways to justice – inquiry into the incarceration rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, online, https://www.alrc.gov.au/publication/pathways-to-justice-inquiry-into-the-incarceration-rate-of-aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander-peoples-alrc-report-133/

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Flat Out is a state-wide homelessness support and advocacy service for women 18+ (with/without children), who have had contact with the criminal justice and/or prison system in Victoria.

More by

Comments

  1. We are still using the same thinking about the poor that commenced the colonisation of this country. Jail is a punishment for a wide range of crimes that we must work harder at preventing. Poverty, lack of education, joblessness, homelessness, drug use and forensic causes such as mental health. Dont build cells, deal with the causes and drivers.

    Great campaign for good sense and stronger communities.

  2. There’s no doubt our authoritarian hungry leaders take advice from corporate consultants and their quivering number crunchers.
    And most of them have been trained and numbrained in the American way.
    CAPITALSCHISM.

  3. I’ve seen first hand in various walks of my life that jail and punishment are not the answer but rather a response to the failures of the system to support those most in need and only lead to worse outcomes for individuals, their loved ones and all of us as a community. Put money into housing, mental health services, education and community engagement- NOT prisons!!! What a better world we could see!!!

  4. A brilliant letter … so comprehensive and evidence based!!! This provides a great model letter which could be used in other states and territories. Thanks heaps for your hard work!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.