Stanhope / The panicky minister and his half-baked prison

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ON February 15, the Minister for Corrections, Shane Rattenbury, made announcements about the pathway to the future for ACT corrective services

I had assumed on the day of the announcement that the backdrop to the statements the minister made was the release, in close succession, of the December Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Report on “Imprisonment in Australia” and January’s report on corrective services by the Productivity Commission.

Jon Stanhope
Jon Stanhope.

The ABS confirmed that last year the ACT overtook WA as the jurisdiction with the highest Aboriginal incarceration rate in Australia. This shameful honour was compounded by further ABS findings that the ACT also had the highest rate of increase in the rate of indigenous incarceration in Australia, the highest indigenous recidivism rate in Australia and the highest number of detainees on remand in Australia.

The Productivity Commission report on the performance of corrective services across Australia added to this tale of woe and failure with a range of additional data. For example, it found that the AMC, a much-heralded, human-rights-compliant and rehabilitation-focused prison has, over the last two years, established a reputation as the most violent prison in Australia.

The Productivity Commission also determined that the AMC has the lowest time out of cells of any jurisdiction in Australia with a detainee in the AMC being confined to their cell, on average throughout the year, for 16 hours a day. The ACT auditor-general in a swingeing report on rehabilitation services at the AMC made similar findings.

The Productivity Commission also revealed that the real net operating expenditure per prisoner and per offender per day in the ACT suffered the biggest reduction of any jurisdiction falling from $337.94 in 2011-12 to $283.48 in 2017-18. This represents a drop in expenditure at the AMC of just on $20,000 per prisoner per year over the last seven years or, in other words, during the time that Shane Rattenbury has been Minister for Corrections.

I had assumed therefore that it was this sorry record of failure that the minister had in mind when he outlined his vision for the future of corrections in the ACT.

However, it now transpires that unbeknownst to all of us, the minister also had in his possession the first detailed report by ACT Inspector of Correctional Services Neil McAllister of the treatment of detainees in the AMC. Suffice to say, the report is absolutely damning and it is almost certain it was this report, more so than the ABS or Productivity report, that panicked the minister into his half-baked and frankly incoherent pronouncements.

The central thrust of the proposed new approach to managing corrections was, the minister said, the importance of not increasing the size of the AMC.

In his press release and in media interviews he stated repeatedly that: “$14.5 million of funds (will be) redirected away from prison expansion into community programs.”

“This is the first time an Australian jurisdiction has committed to reinvesting what would otherwise be millions of dollars towards expanding prisons; instead these funds will be directed to rehabilitative programs.

“In taking this decision not to simply expand the jail, the ACT government has clearly affirmed that… we want to urgently stem the flow of people into the prison.

“With prison rates on the increase, we cannot-in good conscience-maintain the status quo.”

However, with his next breath, the minister announced that the government had committed $997,000 for the planning and design of an expansion to the AMC of an additional 80 cells. This new prison is described in the Minister’s press release as a “minimum security facility” and will be known as the Alexander Maconochie Reintegration Centre (AMRC).

Unfortunately, the minister has not given any indication of the expected capital or recurrent cost of this 80-cell expansion. What is certain is that it will cost an awful lot more than the $14.5 million that the minister tells us he has “redirected away from prison expansion”.

When built, the people imprisoned in the AMRC will undoubtedly find a more pertinent name for it, perhaps something along the lines of the Canberra Clayton’s Prison or the prison you have when you don’t have a prison or the prison you have when you have made a complete stuff up of the one you have and you need a quick diversion.

Seriously, the question is why the minister thinks that the AMRC will be successful in delivering rehabilitation programs that will address the causes of criminal behaviour, reduce recidivism, address alcohol, drug and tobacco use and addiction and make detainees employment-ready when leaving the prison when his record and that of the AMC on these issues in the decade since the AMC opened is simply dismal.

The minister’s priority should be to demand of his officers that they concentrate on ensuring that the AMC be governed and managed in a way consistent with the clear vision and legislation that underpinned its establishment.

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Jon Stanhope
Jon Stanhope was Chief Minister from 2001 to 2011 and represented Ginninderra for the Labor Party from 1998. He is the only Chief Minister to have governed with a majority in the Assembly.

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