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Corrections Amendment (Prisoner Remission) Bill 2018

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP

Dr Rosalie Woodruff MP  -  Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Tags: Justice, Custodial Inspector

Dr WOODRUFF (Franklin) - Mr Deputy Speaker, this bill that comes back into our place was roundly rejected by the Greens last time. The bill is in exactly the same form as it was. Despite the fact that there was more opportunity to consult than with the initial 2017 amendment bill, it seems the minister has failed to listen to the concerns raised in a number of the submissions, albeit very hastily prepared submissions because the consultation process for the last amendment bill 2017 was very poor. It was rushed and did not allow stakeholders to have the time required to do their submissions justice. When I say that, I am not reflecting on the quality of the submissions made; just that it did not provide all potential stakeholders the time they would need to write the submissions that they might have.

Given there has been time now for the minister to reflect on those submissions, it is very poor that the Government is continuing to rehash this commitment essentially by the Liberals to further provide more combustible situations in the prison in Tasmania. What we are seeing is a decision to park money into locking people up instead of rehabilitative justice.

Restorative justice and therapeutic interventions are the approach to managing crime that is used in countries that are successfully lowering their crime rate. It is those countries that are successfully making their societies safer places for their residents to live. That is what we want.

The Greens support policies that will make Tasmania a safer place to live. What this Liberal Government is doing with their increasingly punitive legislative agenda is to continue down the path of a populist 'tough on crime' approach that is not effective because it is not based on evidence.

The evidence is that we need to put the focus before people are sent to courts, in the pre-trial stage, and the focus should be put before people are charged in the drug diversion stage. We need to focus on people when they are in prison and in the therapeutic intervention opportunities they have at their disposal. We have to put focus on people when they leave prison, so they are supported to move into society, contribute to their community, find housing, employment, reconnect with their families, children and people they have not spent time with for months and sometimes years or tens of years. It is all that work that needs to be done to make sure people do not reoffend and to prevent people offending in the first place.

The view of the Greens is that this bill and what it contains will make sure the prison system, particularly Risdon Prison, will continue to have situations that will lead to discontent amongst prisoners and lead to potentially explosive events happening, as we have seen at Risdon Prison recently.

It is the clear cultural shift that occurred from the previous minister for corrections, Vanessa Goodwin, who managed to charter a course of justice in her very powerful and strong and evidence based management of the prison system, compared to Mr Guy Barnett, who took over and referred to life in the prison system in Tasmania as prisoners thinking they were in Club Med. That speaks volumes about the punitive, lock them up and throw away the key approach Mr Barnett brought to his portfolio. He was not a leader for rehabilitative justice and does not understand what we need to do toward therapeutic interventions, reconnecting with families, providing people with jobs and houses; as the known mechanisms in helping to people to not reoffend.

Unfortunately, we see the current minister continuing to work in the line of previous minister, Mr Barnett. Instead of setting the culture toward restorative justice and putting the money into those baskets, we have a Liberal Government that came to the election promising to waste $270 million on a northern prison. They are promising to waste $270 million in a way that we know, from experiences of other societies, is a disaster. Countries around the world are starting to move away from prisons altogether. They have sophisticated but simple approaches to disciplining and containing people to keep the community safe. They are so sophisticated that some countries have established effective hotels where prisoners live. They are in such low security settings because of the effectiveness of their interventions. It is a very long way from the Greens' corrections minister, Mr Nick McKim, in 2010 to 2014, who effectively brought down the recidivism rates in Tasmania. That trajectory is now increasing toward locking people up and increasingly looking for opportunities for punitive and ineffectual responses to problems with behaviour in prisons.

The Greens will not be supporting this bill. It is shabby legislation and it will lead to an increase in that pressure cooker situation at Risdon Prison we have seen a number of times, resulting in an explosion of violence that has threatened others prisoners and staff. A bill like this is not good enough for the safety of Tasmanians or the welfare of people in prison; the staff and the prisoners.

The remission mechanism is used as a method of maintaining order and discipline within the systems. This is not being used as a product of concern for the prisoners but it is used as a carrot and stick method by officers in order to control prisoners within the prison environment. It also provides an incentive for prisoners to practise good behaviour. The two parts to the remission system provide prison officers with leverage in a situation to help them to encourage appropriate conduct in a person's behaviour during their time within the prison system.

Currently, the Director of Prisons can reduce the sentence of a prisoner by one-third, up to a maximum of three months, as long as that does not reduce the sentence to less than three years. At the moment, a prisoner will be ineligible for remission if they have been convicted of an escape, attempted escape, or if the prisoner's sentence was three months or less. A record is kept of the misconduct of each prisoner and detainee and the contents of that record must be considered when computing the amount of previous remission that can be granted to an individual prisoner or detainee.

It is relevant to raise the comments the Women's Legal Service made in their submission for the 2017 amendment version of this bill. They noted that they believed there should be greater transparency around the reasons that remissions are granted. We support that view and, in saying that, we do not support the removal of remission this bill seeks to provide. That is not to say we do not think there cannot be an improvement in the processes and documentation of the current system.

We do think that is the case. The Women's Legal Service was of the view that information should be available to the courts in future as to the understanding of why a person has been rewarded a remission, what good behaviour they exhibited, and that information should be documented.

If a person is released from prison and he commits another crime, the court can look at the record of their time within the prison and know whether they have exhibited good behaviour or as poorly behaved inside the prison as they were outside, which has led them to commit another crime.

That is the sort of transparency that would be important in the remission board determining whether a remission should be granted and may be valuable for a court.

The Women's Legal Service also noted that women tend to serve shorter sentences than men and it may impact upon their ability to participate in rehabilitative or approved, purposeful activities and therefore may be less likely to be granted a remission. This relates to women who are currently in the prison who will continue to be eligible for remissions regardless of this legislation.

If this legislation was passed and proclaimed, remissions would not be available for anybody sentenced for a time in prison. The Women's Legal Service in its submission raised the point that with shorter sentences you are potentially going to put women at a disadvantage because they do not have the time to participate in rehabilitation programs or the opportunity to participate in other activities that might mean the Director of Prisons gives you an early day out on remission as a result of your good behaviour in the understanding that we want prisons to rehabilitate and make people better when they leave than when they came into the prison. That is an important point to understand. What is the purpose of putting people into prison? The purpose is twofold: to keep the community safe, and to ensure the people who are in prison for the period they have been sentenced will be provided every opportunity to rehabilitate, adjust their behaviour and change their responses so when they are released from prison they will not reoffend. That is the bottom line and that is what we want.

Unfortunately, without a proper investment in the right place in prisons and prison programs, we see that aim is essentially a dream. It is a dream in the eyes of the Greens, that we would be putting people into prison to keep the community safe and to rehabilitate the people who are there so they come out and do not reoffend, but the reality under the Liberals is that people go into prison and into a situation where, if this amendment bill is passed, one extra tool in the box of tools that officers and staff have to manage behaviour in the prison and to give encouragement for good behaviour will be removed from them.

Although this bill could seek to improve the remission system, it does not do that. Instead, it removes it entirely as an option without any replacement. In the view of the Greens that is inviting a disaster because it will be prison officers, other prisoners and ultimately the wider community that will be affected by taking this position. It will have an effect on the orderly functioning of the prisons and therefore on the safety of all prisoners and prison officers. It means prison officers will need to step up their response and resort to more reactive forms of punishment to maintain order.

That would have significant implications for the potential of rehabilitation and the safety of the prison. It is taxpayers who will foot the bill of this approach. We will need additional staff to maintain order and there will be increased payouts for workers compensation claims as prison officers are likely to be subjected to an increasingly unsafe workplace.

Last year when this remissions amendment bill was debated, we had had a situation where there was a period of substantial numbers of prison staff on sick leave who were making claims for workers compensation. I am not sure where that situation is up to. Perhaps the minister could inform us exactly what proportion of staff are on sick leave and whether there are claims for workers compensation.

Ms Archer - It has nothing to do with remission.

Dr WOODRUFF - I think this is very germane to the issue of remissions because it is about the culture of the prison and the working conditions for staff within it and their ability to manage a workplace where one of their tools of behaviour management and discipline would be removed from them.

We do not want to be involved in introducing legislation which will add to a situation that is already under so much pressure. We need to look at this bill in the broader context of what is going on in the prison. Last year's annual report shows that there has been a downward trajectory in the management of the Tasmanian prison system since the Liberals have been in Government and it reveals a situation of a prison and corrections system that is essentially in a crisis situation. It is a crisis where the 'tough on crime' policies of the Government have been turning one-time offenders into serial criminals, making the community less safe. I note that the Liberals' mismanagement of the justice system was identified in the Custodial Inspector's annual report late last year where the Custodial Inspector concluded that Tasmania's prison population increased 10 per cent in that report, which followed a 15 per cent increase the year before with no indication that the trend was going to slow down.

What we have seen under this Liberal Government so far is a year on year more than 10 per cent increase in the number of people going to prison. We know that for every person going to prison there is in the order of a 40 per cent to 50 per cent recidivism rate. That means 40 per cent to 50 per cent of people who are released will come back to prison. We have to take that seriously.

It is a matter of concern that in the last two years of information that we have there has been a 10 per cent and, before that, a 15 per cent increase in the number of people going to prison.

Almost every prison facility in the state was reported to be overcrowded in the Custodial Inspector's report and all the services were beyond stretched. The key findings were that there double and triple bunking of inmates in some cells, minimum security prisoners were being placed in medium and maximum security prisons and that there was not enough access to rehabilitation programs. That is no surprise. That has been a consistent story under the Liberals since they have been in government.

There is not enough access to health services in the prison and the Custodial Inspector also pointed out there is not enough access to post release care into the community. He also said there was unsatisfactory time outside cells for prisoners because of excessive lockdowns that were caused by staff shortages.

The Custodial Inspector made it very clear that the prison's infrastructure in Tasmania is not fit for its purpose. There are issues with plumbing, electrical systems, cell temperatures and lack of access for elderly and infirm prisoners to appropriate services. The Ron Barwick minimum security prison was only to be used in the short to medium term for minimum security prisoners after the Legislative Council select committee report in 1999, but 19 years later there is still no forward plan for its replacement.

The minister might like to say this happened under the previous government but that would be her Government now because that is what I have heard from -

Ms Archer - Are you putting words into my mouth now?


Dr WOODRUFF - correction ministers over the past nearly four and a half years. They are always pointing backwards. It is well past time for this Government to show where they are in the corrections system and unfortunately they are showing they are committed to going down a punitive 'tough on crime' approach which we know does not work. By all the measures that we should care about, which are community safety, effective rehabilitation of prisoners into the community and low recidivism rates - all the measures a reasonable person in the community would expect a measure of a successful corrections system to be - this Government is failing. They are especially failing by their election commitment to spend $270 million to build a northern prison. I note they are not now proposing to do that, but it was a great way of buying a populist election slogan. There is only a $45 million commitment to that, thank goodness. The Greens would support $270 million going into restorative justice. What an amazing corrections system we would have if we put $270 million into the poorest parts of Tasmania - into drug treatment, therapeutic interventions.

What an amazing state we could live in.

You would get a lot of community support from low income areas. What about the north-west coast? What about the north-east coast? What about the far south? What about all the places that miss out on those services? The focus on concrete, mortar, jobs and growth was to shore up votes in an electorate where it was needed, and they are not even going to honour the promise. It would have been awful for Tasmania if they had. I would like to hear the response from the minister to the Custodial Inspector's reports and the actions that have been taken. When people are double and triple bunking and minimum security prisoners being placed in medium and maximum security prisons then you are putting pressure on a system and there is going to be bad behaviour and explosive events.

The Government is setting itself up to leave a legacy of rising serious crime rates and a crumbling corrections system that will demand more from our budget and divert resources away from other areas, such as health. Spending $270 million in the health system would be a fantastic use of taxpayers' money.

The housing situation is critical. The other day I met a single mother with three children. Her landlord had just jacked up her rent $100 per week. She had to leave the house that she has with her three children near their school. I hear these stories all the time. There are so many critical issues we need to focus on. In terms of this bill, the most critical thing the minister could do would be to take that $45 million and direct it into restorative justice.

This is a retrograde bill. It is going to compound the pressure cooker in the prison system. It removes the capacity of staff to use a carrot and stick approach to behaviour management. The evidence is that it works elsewhere. It will reduce the ability of corrections officers to rehabilitate offenders. It will make the communities less safe. We do not support this bill.