Building Bridges, not Walls:Prisons & The Justice System

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Catholic Social Justice Statement 2011-2012

by Doug Rutledge, a regular visitor to prisons
Prisoners are among the forgotten people in society. We hear of them only when they make a good media story : a riot in prison, a ‘celebrity’ criminal being sentenced, or as in the recent Carl Williams case, murdered. Sometimes we hear of the ‘luxury’ conditions in prison, and the outrage that prisoners can have their own television and shower. The most common comments from political parties propose “getting tougher on crime”, even though the sorts of policies which are trotted out have rarely been shown to be effective in the real world.

And yet prisoners are as much an integral part of our society as anyone else. In the words of the recent Social Justice Statement from the Australian Catholic Bishops, “It is time for all Australians to revisit the needs of prisoners, their loved ones, and those who work with them. It is time to recommit ourselves to reducing the number of Australians held in prison, making better provision for ex-prisoners to become law-abiding and constructive citizens.”

How very different would our attitude to prisons and prisoners be if we knew them as human beings? They are all someone’s son or daughter or husband or partner or father or mother. Recognising the humanity of prisoners in no way condones their actions, or excuses them from the responsibility of accounting for them, nor is it ‘going soft on crime’ in that much-loved phrase so often bandied about in the media.

The Bishops begin with some pertinent statistics pointing out that although crime is decreasing, the number of prisoners in jail as a proportion of the population has almost doubled since 1984. Of particular concern is a fourfold increase in the proportion, in the prison population, of those in remand, sometimes for a number of years. Stricter bail conditions and a slowness in bring matters to court are factors contributing to this increase. It is not surprising that those from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds are often unable to meet bail conditions. That much-vaunted principle of ‘being considered innocent until proven guilty’ appears to be observed in the breach in NSW where nearly 30 per cent of those on remand are later acquitted.

At the other end of their sentence, those who lack demonstrated support and somewhere to live are unlikely to be granted parole. The Bishops draw our attention to the disproportionate rates of imprisonment for Indigenous prisoners, particularly in Western Australia and the Northern Territory. In spite of pledges by our governments to make a real difference, the percentage of Indigenous prisoners rose from 14 per cent to 25 per cent between 1991 and 2008.

In the second section of their Statement, the Bishops consider the Church’s teaching on crime and punishment. They begin with “All of us are called to respect the human dignity of every person, including those who have committed serious crimes. State limitations on freedom always require justification. Punishment of offenders can help to preserve public order and safety, but it should also assist the rehabilitation of offenders and protect their human rights.”. There is probably no more challenging environment in which to apply the most fundamental principle of the Church’s Social Teaching, Human Dignity. But if we fail this test, then we call into question the whole basis for this teaching and the importance of a right relationship with each other. The Bishops pose five challenges for us and our society:

  •  Countering fear campaigns about law and order
  • Addressing social factors that contribute to crime
  • Maintaining the dignity of those in prison
  • Providing practical help for those coming out of prison
  • Providing realistic alternatives to prison.

There is much useful information in the Statement on each of these challenges. It is no secret that most prisoners come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Many have suffered childhood abuse, and mental illness is common, as is substance addiction. In Victoria, more than 90 per cent had not completed secondary schooling,and only 20 per cent were employed when they entered prison. For some prisoners, a term in prison provides an opportunity to address some of the behaviours which led to their offending because they are removed from the
environment where these took place.

Sadly suitable programs in prison are not always available or accessible, even though rehabilitation is supposed to be a core purpose of the justice system. Prisons are generally under-resourced to provide good rehabilitation and to deal with the complex needs of many prisoners. As the Bishops ask, “Those who have been brutalised and denied proper care and rehabilitation in prison will one day return to our communities.
What will be our response?”. The prisoners concerned will hardly be encouraged to return to society as responsible citizens, or to acknowledge the damage caused to victims of crime. For those leaving prison, the challenges are enormous : Where will they live? Where will they find work? How will they access treatment for addiction or mental illness? Clearly, insufficient support at this stage will almost inevitably lead to re-offending.

The Bishops outline some of the alternatives to custodial sentences, such as restorative justice conferencing and drug courts. Money saved from imprisonment could much more usefully be spent on programs which address the circumstances which led to criminal behaviour. One study has shown that a ten per cent reduction in the rate of re-imprisonment would reduce the prison population by about 830, and save $28 million in recurrent costs.

In the final section of the Statement, the Bishops ask “What is our response as Christians?”. There is much here to think about, both as individuals and as a community, but their concluding comment is “Let us build more bridges”.  Clearly, our current prison and justice system is failing in its objectives to deter and rehabilitate people. In 2010, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that 55 per cent of prisoners and 58 per cent of those sentenced in the past twelve months had served a previous sentence in an adult prison. Most of us will never be so unfortunate as to have to have personal experience of a custodial sentence in our prison system, or to suffer its consequences. The Bishops’ Social Justice Statement for 2011-2012 provides a welcome resource, improving understanding for all of us of what a prison term might entail and what new approach we need to take as a Christian community, so that the words of the 1988 statement by the major Australian Churches, Prison, The Last Resort: A Christian Response to Australian Prisons, might become a reality.

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