THE Alexander Maconochie Correctional Centre began with the excellent, enlightened attitudes toward prison reform of its pioneering namesake on the notorious penal colony of Norfolk Island.
But that was three years ago – and that’s how long it took before the British Government of the day sacked the reformer and returned to the bad old days.
There are indications that history is repeating itself.
It was a splendid idea to follow in Maconochie’s footsteps. The initiative came, I suspect, from the then-Chief Minister Jon Stanhope, who had been Deputy Administrator and official secretary of Norfolk Island for three years from 1991. He is a history buff and (since there’s not much else to do on Norfolk) he would have read of Maconochie’s brave attempt to bring a modicum of decency to the island’s penal system.
Coincidentally, I too became fascinated by Norfolk’s history and have recently published the results in “Dark Paradise – Norfolk – Isolation, Savagery, Mystery and Murder”.
It is a scarifying story but, as I discovered, the one beacon of light is Capt Maconochie who arrived there in 1840 with his family and a radical plan.
Instead of torturing the prisoners with the lash and without hope of release, he began a system of “marks”, which they earned by their behaviour and hard work. And when they achieved certain totals (depending on the severity of their original sentences) they received their tickets of leave, or parole, back into the NSW community.
It worked. During his administration some 1500 prisoners earned their way out of jail and their rate of recidivism was less than five per cent.However, at Westminster, the Tories returned to power. They were determined that Norfolk should be a place of “terror” that would deter the convicts on the mainland from rebelling against their slave-driving overlords. And they laughed in the face of those who advocated rehabilitation.
I am not suggesting that the Government of Katy Gallagher has changed tack and is now using the jail like a Norfolk Island hellhole. But I am saying that unless governments keep pressing jail authorities to live up to the policies of enlightenment, the turnkeys will revert to their traditional habits of corruption, contempt and oppression of those in their charge.
The jail’s website is the public window into the centre and our best indicator of the mindset of the administrators. At first they were assiduous at keeping us up to date. That has now gone by the board. The last posting took place on July 28, 2012. And when journalists (including myself) have sought to tour the facility and report our findings we have been ignored or deferred indefinitely.
Instead, they have been caught in a ridiculous spat over whether to provide free needles to the inmates, a big percentage of whom are drug users. Residence in the jail is the perfect opportunity to break the habit and arguments about their “human rights” to continue injecting are quite absurd. Alexander Maconochie believed in collective responsibility.
Free needles are exactly the opposite.