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Prison Remissions need to be Reconsidered

In the 1990s the Tasmanian Government embarked on prison reform. One key change in that reform was a political decision that prisoners didn’t deserve their one-third automatic remissions for good behaviour. So prisoners’ good behaviour remissions were removed. The Government, appeasing Victims of Crime advocates, deemed that prisoners could in future only earn a maximum of three months remissions for good behaviour on any sentence.

Inevitably, the Tasmanian prison system spent the next twenty years turning into an even bigger pile of violent overpopulated shit.

The trouble with removing good behaviour incentives for long-term prisoners inside the system should be obvious. A prisoner serving 10 years would have had 3 years and 4 months remissions to lose if he assaulted a guard or burned down the education section. Or raped little Timmy, the sixteen year old stamp thief.

Whereas, the current incentive for a man serving 10 years is a wheedling 3 months. So if the prisoner doesn’t get parole, or isn’t seeking parole, the difference between being good and being bad (whether to rape young Timmy) – if no other external sentences are incurred – is next to nothing in prison terms. The incentive to be good is small; the disincentive to be bad is almost non-existent.

A valid response to this argument is that prisoners owe society to be good for the sake of being good. Their good behaviour shouldn’t have to be bribed by time off the sentence imposed by the courts. Sadly, that naive view overlooks the tension and complexities involved in keeping human beings prisoner. It’s a bad place.

As a direct consequence of shorter possible remissions there was a corresponding increase in prison population. Higher prison populations mean more interactions and a higher likelihood of prisoner-to-prisoner and prisoner-to-guard violence. The guard-to-prisoner violence is institutionalised so it also rises as paramilitary style guards armed with gas and batons entrench into anti-prisoner behaviour. And guard on prisoner violence naturally escalates where it’s unchecked. That’s the nature of Power.

So the Government has a rising population of unhappy prisoners without adequate incentives alongside a continually arming-up paramilitary force, the guards. Violence gives birth to more violence.

Now I want to add one more complexity to that mix based on my fifteen years experience as a sentenced convict. The psychology of doing Big Time.

Judges know that five years inside separates a prisoner from any relationship with family, including children. They become strangers you know. It feels like these people are actors. And by ten years the Supreme Court Justices refer to crushing sentences where another ten years is needed on parole to return somebody to a semblance of social normalcy. Prison is a messed up place; it’s not FIFO (Fly In Fly Out) work. It’s hard time. A decade is colloquially referred to as doing a brick, for good reason.

So this prisoner doing a five or twenty year sentence (and a maximum three months remissions for good behaviour) is going to lose sight of the big picture. Years become forever. The outside ceases to be real. It feels like forces within the System will always block the road out to freedom. It becomes about doing time; not reaching the end.

And that’s where things get scary crazy very fast. Prison involves fear and tension and people with guns that don’t like you. Prisons are about continual states of violence and personal defilement. Don’t ever think that what happens on that hill is a Jolly Summer Club for the unfortunate. It’s about Power. Control. And violence.

In my time at Risdon Prison, when remissions for good behaviour were one-third of any but the smallest sentences, we couldn’t easily intimidate other prisoners into risking what amounted to extra years inside Risdon. That is a whole lot of currency on the table. Nobody rioted in my entire fifteen years incarceration… and since the removal of one-third remissions for good behaviour there has been endless trouble.

Prisoner remissions are the cost of doing business if a Government wants to run a peaceful prison. Until the Tasmanian Government can come to grips with the idea that one-third remissions for good behaviour weren’t a gift to the undeserving then our prisons will overpopulate and escalate in violence. But only because of short sighted anti-prisoner lobbyists and weak-willed populist politicians. It’s time to return those remissions… and restore prison security.

We should admit that the anti-remissions strategy was a political failure and there is no incentive to be a good prisoner as powerful as freedom.

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About the Author

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

My name is Steven Clark and I live in the Derwent Valley in Southern Tasmania. I have an MBA (Specialisation) and a Bachelor of Computing from the University of Tasmania. I'm a mazer & a yeast farmer (making beer, fruit wine and mead as by-products of continuous improvement in my farming practices). I'm a photographer, although my film cameras are currently silent. I do not tolerate idiots. I do not tolerate bigotry. I do not tolerate excuses. Let's be clear, if you sit with my enemies you my are my enemy for life.

Blogger. Thinker. Brewer. Drinker. Life partner to the amazing and incredible Megan.

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