Nick Cater in The Australian, February 23, 2013
A BED at $531 a night is a little on the steep side, even for Canberra, but then human rights-compliant correctional centres don’t come cheap. The ACT has the most expensive prisons in the country, the Productivity Commission reported last year. The South Australians will lock you away for a fraction of the cost – $254 – but then the screws at Yatala Labour Prison do not have to worry about the ACT Human Rights Act.
Canberra’s Alexander Maconochie Centre is the first modern prison in Australia to be designed by do-gooders. Late last year it also became the first prison in Australia to be raided by police investigating a child pornography ring. Designing a model prison is the easy part; finding model prisoners is another matter altogether. What’s the criminal class coming to when you can’t give them a laptop and an email address without them getting up to no good?
It claims to be the first prison in Australia to provide prophylactics, but evidently with mixed success. One inmate in the mixed-sex facility is in the process of applying for early release on the grounds that she is expecting a baby at Easter, a month before the end of her 12-month sentence.
Let’s hope ACT Human Rights Commissioner Helen Watchirs has better luck with the needle exchange program likely to begin soon, despite opposition from prison officers. As Watchirs sees it: “To deny protection against disease transmission in such a high-prevalence and closed population in prison may be viewed as inhumane.”
Illegal drugs are, of course, illegal, even if administered within prison walls. Before ACT detention centres were made human rights-compliant, prison officers strip-searched prisoners after every visit, since experience showed that illegal substances did not just materialise out of thin air. They would search cells at random and make prisoners pee into bottles.
These barbaric practices are frowned upon by Watchirs who, for reasons best known to the ACT government, seems to have an inordinate influence when it comes to running prisons, or “centres” as she prefers to call them. Strip-searching and urine-sampling are “intrusions into privacy”, says Watchirs, and inmates find them “inherently degrading”. Prisoners subjected to random cell searches “were unhappy that their belongings ended up strewn in a messy pile, sometimes on the floor”.
Watchirs’s very modern views on incarceration were set out a length in 2007 audit of ACT correctional facilities conducted by the ACT Human Rights Commission. Progressive-thinking readers of a dreamy disposition will find her ideas for a “healthy prison” inspiring; others may regard them as utterly bonkers.
The ACT Correctional Service must “shift from a culture that privileges control and security over detainees’ needs,” she says. “The emphasis should be on ‘dynamic security’ – that is, security based on good professional relationships between staff and detainees rather than physical barriers, uses of force and the use of restraints. Instead, meeting detainees’ needs (is) to be acknowledged as assisting to maintain security and order in the prison.”
The customer is always right, even if he or she is doing time. Criminals are ready to mend their ways if we ask them nicely. With that in mind, anti-bullying and harassment training is recommended for all corrective services officers. Naturally, as with all visionary cultural reforms, there will need to be “procedures”. We once took it for granted that stopping prisoners brawling was part of a day’s work for a prison guard. Nowadays, says Watchirs, we need a “procedure on inter-detainee violence and bullying which formalises good staff practices of actively watching for and acting on signs of bullying”. Mindful of prisoners’ house-proud dispositions, there must be “a more orderly and respectful procedure” for searching cells. Guards once got through the day by looking tough and carrying a truncheon; now we require procedures to assess their ability “to maintain effective relationships with detainees”.
Naturally, an order to disrobe and touch your toes is no longer appropriate. Watchirs called for a new strip-search procedure that “will be less confronting for people”, a procedure that avoids “the complete removal of all clothing”. In other words, a Clayton’s strip search: the way to get nude without getting your gear off. It is no laughing matter, however. Watchirs reminds us that the European Court has found routine strip-searches violate the prohibition of torture and cruel or degrading treatment or punishment in the European Convention on Human Rights.
In the topsy-turvy world of the ACT Human Rights Commission, prison guards are reinvented as service providers and criminals are transformed into victims.
To suggest that a prisoner might choose to put a needle in their arm, or not, would be unfair.
In 2007, Watchirs and her staff conducted lengthy interviews with a group of 36 prisoners and asked them what the worst thing was about being locked up. The most common answer was boredom and loss of liberty, followed by a loss of privacy, which might suggest that the prison was doing its intended job.
Not so, says Watchirs, who told a meeting of human rights lawyers in Sydney three years ago: “People in detention are extremely vulnerable to abuses of power, and this power imbalance imposes a continual moral duty on authorities and officials to act justly, eg abuses of power – Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.”
The stakes are clearly higher than we thought.