Opinion — 15 February 2016

THE mantra of “rack-em, pack-em and stack-em” has been locked up and the key thrown away by our Corrections Minister.

It’s great news. Why? Because sometimes imprisonment is necessary for public safety and an appropriate form of punishment but, at all times, putting someone in prison — treating any life like a grocery item to be racked, packed and stacked — diminishes our civility. It is also a remarkably useless way to prevent people returning to prison and the $97,000 a year it costs to lock someone in a cell in the delusion that four walls will magic them into a law-abiding life on release.

What should be the new philosophy?

A long-serving warden of the Yatala Labour Prison tells me the occupants of the cells he’s watched over are often afflicted by addictions, cognitive impairments or psychiatric disorders.

Mental, physical and social ill-health is rife among prison populations.

Prisoners are often considered to be medically geriatric at the age of 50. A third of prisoners have long-term health issues that limit their daily activities and affect education and employment.

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Fifty per cent of prisoners have been in prison more than once. The figure is 77 per cent among the Aboriginal prison population.

 When ill-health is added to reoffending it is obvious that better health should underpin the new philosophy for prisons. Ill-health is a fundamental reason why our prisons are overcrowded and an economic burden on the State.

The criminal justice system seeks custodial sentences that not only fit the crime but the offender. Courts and government have developed diversionary programs that “divert” offenders with mental health, drug and gambling issues to treatment programs before sentencing. Government and Corrections offer education and skills programs to inmates.

For these and other programs to work, the key is improved health. Health gives options. It removes dependence. It allows for education and employment. It gives a person a chance. Prosecutors and defence lawyers agree that, very often, the reason a person comes before the criminal courts is because life has offered them few chances. For many prisoners, crime is where they ended up, not what they aimed to do.

Many of us do it tough but abide the law. We do that because taking the easy option is a cop-out. But it’s a cop-out to think prisoners should rot. Let’s listen to the experience of wardens and doctors. There are better ways to spend $97,000. Bricks and mortar don’t rehabilitate and we know there are prisoners for whom a second chance should be a real chance. The hard decision is, as British Prime Minister David Cameron recently suggested, to not see prisoners as simply liabilities to be managed, but as potential assets to be harnessed.

Healthy people are safer to have in the community, less likely to reoffend and less expensive for our State. Our prison system should concentrate on better health for inmates, so that it treats the cause of offending not the symptom and gives real prospects for rehabilitation.

DAVID CARUSO IS SA LAW SOCIETY PRESIDENT

This article first appeared on ‘Adelaide Now’ 14 February 2016.

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