Over 2014 –15, we had 2903 complaints about prisons, which is over 20 per cent of all jurisdictional matters dealt with by my staff. Forty years after the first Ombudsman’s annual report, the numbers are no longer surprising. Victoria’s prison population has risen dramatically in recent times — by 25.8 per cent between 2012 and 2014 — peaking at a record 6506 incarcerated in January this year.
My role in providing independent scrutiny of administrative actions stems from the imbalance of power between the individual and the State. The situation of prisoners must be the widest possible illustration of that power imbalance: beyond depriving prisoners of their liberty, the State also decides what and when they eat, who they can communicate with, what they can read, and so on.
As Victorian Ombudsman I also consider whether administrative actions are incompatible with human rights in the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006 — including the right to humane treatment when deprived of liberty.
When I began my term as Ombudsman in 2014, I was concerned about the increase in prisoner numbers and complaints — and although prisons have been the subject of numerous Ombudsman reports over the years, what had not been considered was what the corrections system in Victoria was doing to prevent further offending. So I commenced an investigation into the rehabilitation and reintegration of prisoners in Victoria.
My investigation looked at the drivers behind the rise in the prison population, including parole, sentencing and bail reforms, and Victoria’s recidivism rate — the number of prisoners returning to custody within two years of release — now sitting at 44.1 per cent, a sharp increase after nearly a decade in which this telling metric was falling.
The cost of the system is also increasing sharply: now over $1 billion a year, up 31 per cent in five years. That’s $270 a day per prisoner, or about $98 000 a year.
Yet when nearly half of those prisoners are back inside within two years, are we getting value for money? My investigation also found that many prisoners are unable to access programs: drug and alcohol treatment and anger management courses, among many others, that address some of the causes of their original offending. And the links between disadvantage and imprisonment are clear — low educational attainment, mental health problems and substance abuse are rife within the prison population.
Over 99 per cent of prisoners will be released at some point. The community is not made safer by the cycle of locking people up and releasing them without working to address the behaviour that saw them imprisoned in the first place.
The full report of my investigation is available on our website. It has 25 recommendations, including the need for a whole-of-government approach — one that takes into account not only the justice system but also education, health, housing and employment, looking at the causes of crime, not simply its consequences. Few of the answers to Victoria’s prison problems lie within the walls of our jails.
The Victorian government accepted the recommendations of my report in principle and has recently begun taking some steps to put them into action. All Victorian prisoners will now be assessed for literacy and numeracy and will be given the opportunity to improve those life skills — a good start. But the effort must not only be sustained, but expanded, paying particular attention to groups like women prisoners, young people and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners who are significantly over-represented in the system.
Justice reinvestment approaches — diverting funds from prisons towards projects to reduce offending — have been successful elsewhere, and Victoria already has good examples of alternative approaches, such as the Drug Court and Neighbourhood Justice Centre, that are worth expanding. The current system is not sustainable and we risk being trapped in a loop of paying more to warehouse people who come out as bad, if not worse, than they went in.
This isn’t right, either for prisoners or for those on the outside. We don’t want to end up having to choose between prison beds and hospital beds, new jail wings or new classrooms.
DEBORAH GLASS is Ombudsman for Victoria.
© 2015 Deborah Glass