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The National Clamour to Build more Prison Beds

The current conversation around the proposed (or inevitable) new Tasmanian prison to be built at Westbury has one hell of an elephant in the room – Australians demand more people to be held in custody (with and without conviction) for longer periods of time and with ever greater security investment. That is (a) expensive, and (b) spiralling. In short, some town has to get that new prison and it looks like Westbury.

The Rising Tide of Incarceration Rates in Australia

Three snapshots from the Australian Bureau of Statistics tell the story of incarceration rates. There has been a dramatic rise in the number of prisoners, both sentenced and on remand. That means overcrowding and then ultimately beds. Beds requires a greater investment in prison infrastructure and ongoing costs of running those institutions. You can see where this goes.

Snapshot 2000

There has been a 32% increase in the adult imprisonment rate, from 112 to 148 prisoners per 100,000 adult population, during the 10 years from 1990 to 2000, according to figures released today by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).

The increase in the adult imprisonment rate between 1999 and 2000 was 2%. Australia’s prisoner population has increased by 52% since 1990 to reach 21,714 people as at 30 June 2000 (the increase between 1999 and 2000 was less than 1%).Australian Bureau of Statistics

If you read that correctly. In the decade from 1990-2000 the prison population in Australia increased by 52%. It later says that 17% of the total prisoner population was on remand (neither tried or convicted of their offences).

Snapshot 2008

At 30 June 2008 there were 27,615 prisoners (sentenced and unsentenced) in Australian prisons, an increase of 1% (391 prisoners) since 30 June 2007. This represented an imprisonment rate of 169 prisoners per 100,000 adult population. The median aggregate sentence length for all prisoners was three years.

Unsentenced prisoners comprised 23% (6,340) of the total prisoner population, an increase of 4% (244 prisoners) from 30 June 2007.Australian Bureau of Statistics

Snapshot 2019

In the June quarter 2019, the average daily number of prisoners in Australia was 43,306 compared with 43,320 in the March quarter 2019.Australian Bureau of Statistics

If you are following, those three snapshots explain that over 19 years the number of prisoners in Australia has risen from 21,000 human beings to a whopping (and growing) 43,000 human beings.

Take into Account a Rising Population & Other Variables

In 2000 the population in Australia was 19.15 million. In 2008 the population was 21.25 million. The 2019 population of Australia is 25.2 million. If you want to point to the rising population rate of Australia to explain the greater incarceration rate then you need to look again. That is not why our prisons are getting fuller.

Better policing doesn’t explain it, either. Yes, more people are being caught for crime for which they would have earlier not been caught. Including historical cases. But that’s not filling our prison systems all by itself. The homicide rate continues to decline, as does the armed robbery rate. The great increase is for illicit drug offences and sexual assault and related offences (63% of the national increase in prison population). But, still, that’s only about bums going in the door and a large proportion fall under the War on Drugs.

You might also notice on that previous linked-to page that the proportion of unsentenced prisoners in custody is rising in relation to sentenced prisoners. If prison populations are rising and the proportion of unsentenced to sentenced prisoners is increasing then we have another problem – we’re locking up more and more people without trial or conviction. Most likely, the poor who can’t make bail. Courts are remanding prisoners into custody at a rate faster than the rate of sentenced prisoners within the prison system.

And then we have the Perfect Storm

We have a kind of perfect storm for prisons at the moment. Underpinning the problem was a removal of nearly all remissions for good behaviour during the 1990s. Previously, most prisoners with longer sentences were being released years before their court sentence end date. In most cases this was automatic. Australians, finding this counter-intuitive and egged-on by media and political lobbying, demanded longer sentences. Ignoring, of course, the fact that sentencing courts were aware of remissions and sentenced accordingly. So, Australia, every prisoner who does not leave early with remissions continues to occupy a bed for those months or years.

Then we demanded that parole be more difficult to achieve. Rather than having the common sense to see that parole is an assisted living avenue for prisoners likely to reoffend (a rehabilitative role of Justice) that addresses recidivism to some degree, parole was relegated to replace in many ways the good behaviour remissions system. So bad prisoners no longer get paroled. Which is an extremely naive idea. These prisoners are also remaining in custody taking up a bed.

And we have impacts on prison populations from a national housing crisis. If you are released from prison into homelessness, the clothes on your back and a dole cheque the day you hit the streets (with half a dole check the following fortnight) directly feed into the recidivism rate. If your sentence is longer, you cannot be paroled into homelessness. Again, more beds where prisoners languish.

I’d also add into that mixing pot the very real impact on recidivism resulting from mandatory police checks on most jobs (and nowadays rental contracts) that lock an awful lot of otherwise free people into poverty cycles and homelessness. If 43,000 people are currently in Australian prisons AND about 50,000 face court every year, and all those people accumulate over decades into unemployability (that we pay Centrelink to police)… you are going to need new prisons. That’s poverty 101.

And, back to Westbury and that new prison they don’t want, someone is going to wake up more often as time goes on with another new prison outside their town. Yes, it’s employment for the win. Yes, it’s going to devalue your assets for the lose. But you demanded it. Over and over. Publicly and privately. Until we change how we look at and view crime and prisons there will be more new prisons.

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About the Author

Steven Clark Steven Clark - the stand up guy on this site

My name is Steven Clark (aka nortypig) and I live in Southern Tasmania. I have an MBA (Specialisation) and a Bachelor of Computing from the University of Tasmania. I'm a photographer making pictures with film. A web developer for money. A business consultant for fun. A journalist on paper. Dreams of owning the World. Idea champion. Paradox. Life partner to Megan.

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