Why is there serious overcrowding in New South Wales jails?
“Prisons in NSW are at the breaking point,” a government news article reports. Prisoners are increasingly becoming frustrated with the overcrowding at its 34 jails. It is not uncommon to see three prisoners housed in one small cell and prisons like the Parklea Correctional Centre are busting at 51% over capacity, according to an article by the NSW Sydney Morning Herald.
Advocates are calling for prisoners to strike until state Government agrees to meet with them. Brett Collins co-founder of Justice Action is “encouraging prisoners to refuse to complete prison labour because . . . the State Government has not responded to its requests for a meeting about prisoner concerns” such as the overcrowding in the jails and the lack of education programs.
According to The Australian Bureau of Statistics, there are approximately 35,467 prisoners currently in custody in Australia, which is up 40% from a decade ago. A prison labour strike could end up costing the state an estimated $25 million in lost labour.
Is overcrowding to blame for the recent spate of Prison Escapes?
There has been a suggestion that overcrowding in our jails may be playing a part in the recent spike in prison breaks.
“Overcrowding had led to frustrated inmates and a lack of staff to keep an eye on them. Many prisoners were “fast-tracked” into minimum-¬security jails to free up beds in maximum- security facilities”, said Public Service Association Prison Officer Vocational Branch head Steve McMahon.
He continued: “In some cases they fast-track inmates who we normally would’ve been much more cautious about putting into minimum security as that’s where the beds are. What we don’t have a lot of in NSW is ¬medium-security jails. There’s only maximum and minimum security.
“There are other pressures on inmates ¬because they’re squeezed into the jails and are restless.”
Tougher Bail Laws causing overcrowding?
Another factor in the overcrowding of NSW jails is the toughening of the state’s bail laws. Since September 2014 the number of people refused bail in NSW jails rose by a staggering 25%.
Since the introduction to “show cause” provisions of the Bail Act, it has been increasingly difficult to have bail granted to a defendant charged with serious criminal offences, regardless of his personal circumstances, or the strength of the prosecution case.
Magistrates and Judges have recently often struggled with the new bail laws that seem to have been made hastily without a thought as to the effects they would have on our jails.
Punishment as opposed to Rehabilitation
Until the 1990s the goal of prisons in Australia was to rehabilitate offenders and help integrate them back into the community once their sentence had been completed.
However, as the American Psychological Association points out “a combination of strict sentencing guidelines, budget shortfalls and a punitive philosophy of corrections has made today’s prisons . . . much less likely to rehabilitate their inhabitants.”
What are the effects of overcrowding in NSW jails?
“It costs on average over $100,000 a year to keep someone behind bars (Philipson, 2015).” From an economic rationalist perspective, cutting services and supports to prisoners is a necessary cost saving measure. However, this knee jerk response to the pressures on the penal system may actually cost prison administration more in the long run.
The lack of space and privacy in overcrowded jails can cause or exacerbate mental health problems, resulting in an increase in prison violence, self-harm and suicide rates among prisoners. Overcrowding also has a big impact on prisoners’ physical health including the spreading of illnesses/disease, as well as higher incidents of alcohol and drug abuse. It also has a “dehumanizing effect on correctional staff as they fight to keep up.
Having prisoners overcrowded of NSW jails not only contravenes public health regulations, it also goes against prisoners’ basic human rights. According to Australia Human Rights Commission all prisoners are citizens and as such still have “the right to be treated with humanity, dignity and respect while in detention.”
Instead of tougher bail laws and “tough on crime” legislation in an attempt to win votes, lawmakers should look at policies that reduce the rate that offenders return to behind bars as a real way to reduce the overcrowding in NSW jails.