Clive Williams August 29, 2012
Methadone, syringe and counselling programs are politically soft options, CLIVE WILLIAMS writes
Security dilemmas of prisons (the politically correct term is correctional centres) include the twin challenges of keeping inmates in, and contraband items out.
The focus in most Australian jails is on rehabilitation, rather than punishment, whereas the US approach is punishment and discipline-oriented. Most Australians would probably prefer to see us adopt the American system for repeat offenders, particularly in the ACT where the courts seem to be especially lenient. In the US, ''three-strike-laws'' mandate courts impose life sentences on persons convicted of three or more serious criminal offenses.
The Alexander Maconochie Centre, named after the early penal reformer, is the ACT's prison for persons who are sentenced to full-time imprisonment and remand. It is a prison built to reform not punish, and emphasises prisoner rehabilitation. It was Australia's first prison built to meet Australia's human rights obligations.
The capacity of the AMC is 300. Before 2009, ACT prisoners - such as convicted murderer David Eastman - were transferred to NSW prisons. The AMC starting accepting ACT prisoners in March, 2009.
AMC accommodation includes cell blocks, domestic-style cottages, a medical centre and crisis support unit, a 14-bed management unit and a transitional release centre. Male, female, remand and sentenced detainees from low to high security classifications can be accommodated. About 50 per cent of the accommodation is in five-bedroom cottages. The self-contained cottages are for lower security detainees. They are designed to enable detainees to develop and practise living skills. There are no female cells.
Mondays to Fridays, detainees rise, shower, dress, have breakfast and leave their accommodation to undertake daily activities. They return to their units for meals between activity sessions.
The AMC has come at a high financial cost. Its construction and opening delays cost ACT taxpayers at least $130 million. In January 2010 it was reported that the average cost of housing an inmate at the AMC was $504 a day or nearly $184,000 a year - more than double the amount the NSW government charged the ACT for housing inmates before the AMC opened. Critics claim ACT prisoners now live better than residents in some of the ACT's aged persons homes.
Management of prison populations often takes account of a balance between what prisoners will accept without rioting and engaging in violent behaviour and what prison officers will accept for working in a potentially dangerous environment. This often leads to tolerance of contraband items, including illicit drugs, within a prison system.
Interestingly, New Zealand made its prisons non-smoking environments from June 2011 because of concerns about the health effects of tobacco on inmates and prison officers. There were stark warnings from prisoners, prison advocates, and prison officers of riots and disorder. Since then, scientists have reported a 50 per cent rise in prison air quality and - to everyone's surprise - there have been no major incidents since the big stub-out. In fact, prisons have reported a ''calmer'' environment with fewer ''standover'' incidents since tobacco was taken out of circulation. The main problem has been new inmates trying to smoke their nicotine patches.
The Australian Government's Health of Australian Prisoners Study 2010 noted that the ACT had the highest proportion of prison entrants who reported illicit drug use in the previous 12 months ( 92 per cent), with the Northern Territory the lowest (40 per cent).
An Inmate Health Survey in May 2010 indicated that as many as two thirds of AMC inmates could be addicted to heroin. This suggests illicit drug management could be more of a challenge in the AMC than is the case in other Australian prisons. Indeed, according to one inmate at the AMC, non-addicts there are pressured to become addicts. Urine checks for heroin, cannabis, speed, cocaine, ecstasy, LSD/acid and methadone/buprenorphine can be an indicator of current addiction levels if conducted on all prisoners twice a week.
The ACT government approach has been to encourage implementation of a needle and syringe program trial at the AMC to reduce the incidence of shared needle-related communicable diseases, mainly viral hepatitis, rather than try to eliminate illicit drugs in the prison system, which is conveniently seen as a separate issue.
An alternative policy would be to stop illicit drugs from entering the AMC and treat drug addiction in a controlled environment, as was done in New Zealand. Despite some assertions that there have always been illicit drugs in prisons, it should be possible to prevent their entry. There are limited ways illicit drugs can enter any prison: mainly through prison officers, visitors, support staff, incoming prisoners, food deliveries, items sent to prisoners, or being thrown in. The most likely avenue for their entry at the AMC is through visitors.
That avenue could be blocked by physically separating prisoners and visitors, or strip and body-cavity searching prisoners leaving the visiting area. One Japanese prison I visited allowed one 15-minute visit a day, one visitor per visit, physical separation of the visitor and prisoner by a glass panel, and a prison officer with each prisoner during the visit. Needless to say, illicit drugs were not an issue in that prison.
NSPs, opioid substitution therapies and drug counselling are politically soft options. A no-tolerance regime at the AMC would no doubt lead to prisoner management problems and attempts to break out, but would have health and crime-prevention benefits.
One of the outcomes of having prisoners discharged as unreformed addicts is that before long they will be back after committing further offences to sustain their addiction. Another drug-related issue is crime committed to pay off jail drug debts. However, any hardline approach on illicit drugs would have to be agreed between politicians, prison management, health professionals and prison officers to stand any chance of succeeding.
Clive Williams is a security specialist at Macquarie University's Centre for Policing, Intelligence and Counter Terrorism, and a Visiting Professor at the Australian National University's Australian Centre for Military and Security Law.