Western democracies are addicted to Jails #

Jails don’t male better citizens; they produce better criminals.

Governments outsource most of their responsibilities looking for the most simplistic solutions to complex problems, pandering to the lowest of basic instincts instead of historically evidence based enlightened practices.

This is a compilation of cherry-picked comments on recent disturbing trends in attempting to restore order from chaos. Enlightened leaders, like Egyptian pharaohs, Hammurabi, Solon, Plato, Shakespeare realised that prosperous, harmonious and cohesive societies emerge from equity and justice. The greater the disparity of distributive wealth of a tribe, the greater the injustice and social upheaval.

Prisons were designed as correctional facilities but have morphed into industrial complexes; a network of government agencies and private industry that foster, benefit from, and contribute to mass incarceration, the imprisonment of large numbers of people in overcrowded facilities compromising their founding purpose.

In most western countries, especially America, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and England, crime rates have fallen, incarceration have increased.

Greg Barns writes: despite the fact that just about every skerrick of empirical data available in this country, and other jurisdictions such as the US, Canada and the UK shows that jailing people is generally inefficient and therefore a waste of taxpayers’ money compared to non-custodial alternatives, our politicians just aren’t taking any notice.

I suggest they are pandering to base instincts.

Stephen King, professor, Monash University also claims, Across Australia, the rate of imprisonment has climbed by about 25% in the past decade, over a time in which the rate of offending has dived 18%.

One obvious – but incorrect – explanation for rising imprisonment at a time of falling crime might be that rising prison numbers are deterring crime. But the best evidence from Australia and overseas shows little if any such connection.

Poll driven “Tough on crime” policies are making us send people to prison for crimes that previously would have led to a fine or suspended sentence. I might add, productive community service. The changes might be appropriate. Perpetrators of violent crime can destroy lives, and they make up almost 60% of the prison population.

However, a lot of prisoners have committed more minor offences with little risk of harm to others. Over one third of prisoners have sentences of less than six months and 60 per cent have been in prison before.

Many of the repeat prisoners are stuck on a treadmill of prison, minor crime, prison with untreated drug or alcohol problems, untreated mental illness, and few if any employment prospects. Locking up low level offenders just to have them churn through prison again and again is costly.

There is also the argument put forward by theorists such as criminologist Elliott Currie that a secure community is built on equality of opportunity and the development of strong social capital, which simply means creating more resilient and more vibrant communities that leave no-one behind. This would include building and embedding culturally-safe programs that are led by First Nations communities.

Children, our most precious and valuable natural and national resource, as young as ten, are being jailed and sometimes in solitary confinement which causes lasting mental health issues.

There’s an African proverb that essentially says,

“A child not embraced by the village, will burn it down to feel its warmth.”

They are our children. This is our village.

How did we become this dumb?

As criminal justice scholar Bronwyn Naylor has written, imprisonment is a political choice. It’s worth repeating her call to invest:

“much more in schools, families and communities, and much less in prisons”.

Alternatives are cheaper and more effective #

Among them are home detention with electronic monitoring, and diversion programs where offenders receive community-based treatment for their addiction or illness. Most community service organisations are crying out for volunteers - low risk offenders could help.

Rehabilitation facilities like The Glen Centre on the Central coast of NSW is socially and financially much more effective..

The number of people in jail has increased by 20% in the past decade at a cost of $120,000 per inmate. Injustice is always more expensive than justice.

Robert Tickner, former Minister of Aboriginal affairs, who initiated the Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody, is disappointed that little has changed. Jailing is failing, as the over-use of prisons is fundamentally harmful to those in prison, their families and friends. And the broader community.

James Ogloff, Professor of Forensic Behavioural Science, Swinburne University of Technology claims a new Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report on the health of people in Australian prisons reveals that compared to the general population, people in prison have higher rates of mental health conditions, chronic disease, communicable disease, and acquired brain injury. This is despite the fact the prison population is relatively young.

We have an opportunity to target people entering prisons to increase their health care and health literacy. Health care, and particularly mental health care, are critical ingredients in enhancing prisoners’ wellbeing, their health literacy and their continuity of care upon release.

History of Prisons #


From the birth of modern civilization in 3rd millennia BC, almost every major ancient civilization used concept of prisons as a mean to detain and remove personal freedoms of incarcerated people. In those early periods of history, prisons were often used as a temporary stopgap before sentencing to death or life of slavery, but as time went on and our civilization developed, prisons started morphing into correctional facilities that started implementing the concept of rehabilitation and reform of prisoners. In addition of holding convicted or suspected criminals, prisons were often used for holding political prisoners, enemies of the state and prisoners of war.

The earliest records of prisons come from the 1st millennia BC, located on the areas of mighty ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt. During those times, prisons were almost always stationed in the underground dungeons where guilty or suspected criminals spent their life either awaiting death sentence, or a command to become slaves (often working as galley slaves).

Exception from that rule comes from the home of modern democracy - Greece. There, prisoners were held in the poorly isolated buildings where they could often be visited by their friends and family. Primary source of their detention were not dungeons, high walls or bars, but simple wooden blocks that were attached to their feet.

Ancient Roman Empire however continued to use harsher methods. Their prisons were built almost exclusively underground, with tight and claustrophobic passageways and cells. Prisoners themselves were held either in simple cells or chained to the walls, for life or for time. As slavery was accepted norm in those days, majority of prisoners that were not sentenced to death were sold as slaves or used by the Roman government as workforce.

One of the most famous uses for the slaves in Roman Empire was as “gladiators”. In addition to fighting in the arena (sometimes after lifetime of training in the special gladiator training houses, or Luduses), many slaves were tasked as a support workforce that enabled smoother run of the popular gladiator business. The most famous Gladiator battleground, the mighty Colosseum Arena in Rome had a slave army of 224 slaves that worked daily as a power source of the complicated network of 24 elevators that transported gladiators and their wild animal opponents from the underground dungeons to the arena floor.

The conditions in the European prisons remained harsh until English royalty started being more involved with their justice system. Henry II commissioned the construction of first prison in 1166, together with the first draft of English legal system that used concept of jury.

One of the most historic prison legislation was introduced in 1215, when King John signed Magna Carta which stated that no man could be imprisoned without trial. With the rise of the industry between 16 and 18th century English prisons became overcrowded, and new penal measures started being implemented - military pardon and penal transportations (during the end of 18th century, over 50 thousand prisoners were transported from England to penal colonies in North America and Australia). France even continued their practice of penal colonies until the middle of 20th century (most notably in French Guiana and its infamous prison Devil’s Island), and Russia also used remote penal colonies in the frozen north-east Siberia.

The age of modern prisons that we know today started with the several prison reforms in 19th century England. During that time prisoners started receiving more care, concept of rehabilitation was introduced and governments around the world (especially in UK and US) started reconsidering their views on solitary confinement (which was primary source of the increased numbers of insane, suicidal and catatonic prisoners).

Wars that engulfed the world in the beginning of 20th century brought the formation of large amounts of war prison camps and concentration camps. Most famous examples of those types of prisons happened during World War 2, when Nazi government formed over 300 detention centers in which political opponents, Jews, gypsies, criminals and others were detained without judicial process. Majority of them was eventually killed on an unprecedented massive scale that is today estimated to be between 11 and 17 million people.

During the end of 20th century, modern prison system was finalized. Concept of “Probation Service” was introduced in 1991, and three years before that first prison intended solely for the holding of inmates in permanent isolation was formed. Those “supermax” prisons became widespread across the entire United States, with over 40 of them being active in the year 2005. Inmates in those prisons are held in the 23h long periods of cell isolation, with occasional communal yard time, work, educational programs and meals in cafeteria. As of 2006, it is estimated that over 9 million people are imprisoned worldwide with United States leading in the rate of incarceration (743 per 100.000 people).

Queensland provides a good case study. From 2003 to 2012, the state’s imprisonment rate fell at the same time as violent and property crime rates were in decline. Other countries, such as Finland, enjoy a very low crime rate and a very low imprisonment rate at the same time.

Conversely, until the mid-1990s, the United States had a very high crime rate and continues to have a very high imprisonment rate. But when New York, New Jersey and California reduced their prison populations by some 25% in recent years, their crime rates generally declined at a faster pace than the national average.

Canada’s Michael Spratt Canadian Legal Newswire writes:

We send people to jail as punishment, not for punishment. And for heaven’s sake, we don’t want politicians arbitrarily deciding case-by-case punishments based on public sentiment or their personal feelings.

We might all crave vengeance, but that’s not how our justice or correctional systems operate.

Revenge and the rule of law are like oil and water; they don’t mix. Any politicians who abandon the rule of law and exploit public confusion and anger for their political gain should be swiftly removed from positions of power.

As Crikey ’s Emma Elsworthy writes, “recidivism does not typically make headlines”, despite Australia’s rate of reoffending sitting at 60 per cent.

Greg Bearup reported that despite a decline in crime rates, imprisonment rates are the highest they’ve been in more than a century.

Michael Spratt Canadian Legal Newswire 18 Dec 2023 writes again:

We must give our justice system more tools to address misconduct by prison officials

In the intricate web of Canada’s criminal justice system, where underfunding, court delays, and societal neglect intersect, a profound darkness overshadows all – the helplessness in the face of rampant injustice within our correctional system.

Let’s not sugarcoat it – there is a palpable injustice within the walls of Canada’s prisons. If you’ve waded into the correctional investigator’s annual reports, you’re well-acquainted with the litany of grievances: punitive use of solitary confinement, inadequate access to healthcare and mental health support, incidents of discrimination and racism, and the haunting prevalence of sexual violence. These tragic abuses aren’t confined to the pages of a report; they echo in the voices of my clients and their families. The frustration of hearing their stories is compounded by the realization that, often, very little can be done to seek justice.

Consider this plausible scenario: an inmate with mental health issues languishes in a “structured intervention unit,” or as we used to call it, solitary confinement, for longer than the statutory limit of 15 days, deprived of humane treatment. Or worse, as detailed by experts at a recent Senate hearing, an inmate removed from solitary confinement after 14 days for one hour to restart the statutory clock, then rehoused in solitary confinement or even housed in a ghost cell (an off-the-books solitary cell). In any of these cases, the avenues for recourse are limited.

Individuals in custody cannot often advocate for themselves, and even if they do, internal complaints are discouraged. Reports to the correctional investigator may shed light on systemic issues, but they offer scant relief to those seeking justice on an individual level.

Contacting a lawyer becomes a Herculean task, as bureaucratic barriers and a shroud of secrecy impede progress. Even when information is obtained, pursuing a human rights complaint or civil action becomes a protracted, convoluted, and expensive endeavour with no guarantee of timely resolution.

It’s a bizarre reality that there is no mechanism allowing individuals to return to the sentencing judge to address abuses occurring while serving the sentence. Instead, we handcuff ourselves with artificial restraints with pretentious Latin names – functus officio, they call it – to prevent judges from overseeing adult penitentiary sentencing they impose. Except we allow judges to vary all kinds of sentences in other situations. So, why not when there is torturous treatment while a person is serving a sentence?

Indeed, the sentencing judge, armed with knowledge about the offence and the offender’s circumstances, is in the best place to grant a remedy when people they have sentenced are subjected to inhumane treatment.

Right now, the Senate’s legal and constitutional affairs committee is considering legislation from Senator Kim Pate that would allow judges to do just that – modify a sentence they impose if there is misconduct by prison officials.

This is badly needed legislation. The absence of recourse for those in custody, facing inhumane and illegal treatment, not only risks health and safety but also encourages disparities within our justice system.

Judges can consider pre-sentencing jail conditions, collateral consequences, and state misconduct when imposing a sentence, yet find themselves impotent when similar situations occur post-sentencing. Senator Pate’s bill promises to expedite remedies and ensure uniform treatment for individuals experiencing injustice behind bars, irrespective of when the injustice transpires.

A mechanism allowing sentencing courts to review the administration of a sentence would empower them to scrutinize documents, assess the circumstances of potential abuses, and ensure fairness expeditiously.

It’s time to unveil the cloak of secrecy shrouding our correctional system and demand a more just and equitable path forward.

Ignoring the violations of human rights in prison, condoning degrading treatment, allowing prison officials to operate outside the law, and denying all possibility of accountability and transparency says a lot about us as a society – and none of it is good. It’s time to step out of the shadows and confront the reality of our correctional system, demanding change that aligns with Canadian principles of justice and humanity.

The Winnipeg Free Press’ Erik Pindera reported (14/02/2023):

William Walter Ahmo was alone in a common area in the Headingley jail when correctional officers pepper sprayed him before a team in riot gear “swarmed and pinned him,” beating the man with batons until he was unconscious, a lawsuit alleges.

Ahmo, 45, and a member of Sagkeeng First Nation, was airlifted Feb. 7, 2021, to Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg. He never regained consciousness and died a week later.

The lawsuit alleges the provincial government and Headingley Correctional Centre guards were negligent and breached their duty of care for the inmate, among other claims of mistreatment and racism.

Lindt Café Siege

Depending upon how you select your salient issues, there are a number of lessons to be learnt from the 2014 Lindt Café Siege, which saw the tragic death of two innocent people.

It turns out that Man Haron Monis was merely a disturbed criminal from Iran, living in Sydney since 1996, driven to a desperate cause by his treatment by the justice system, not connected to any terrorist group and therefore a homegrown nutter.

What was it that radicalised him to the extent he was prepared to resort to terrorist tactics?

Manus’s original lawyer, Manny Conditsis contends it is vital to understand what possessed Monis.

“You have to walk in his shoes a little bit; not in sympathy, but to comprehend what happened. It’s very hard if you try to bring a Western understanding to what this guy did.”

Monis had fled a corrupt Iranian regime in 1996, forced to leave his then wife and children behind, “where people would lose their heads and hands if they didn’t do what they were told”. (That same regime told Australia that it wanted Monis returned to face charges over a $200,000 fraud, but Australia has no extradition treaty with Iran.) Monis had been through the rigours of the refugee process and was found to be genuine.

Before he was bailed on the accessory to murder charges, in December 2013, Monis alleged prison officers bashed him and threw excrement on the wall and floor of his cell and made him stand in or around it. “They told him it was because he had written the letters to the families of their ‘brothers’,” says Manny Conditsis, who saw him the next day.

“It was the only time I’ve seen him break down and cry. He cried like a baby. He was a broken person when I saw him, I can tell you that.”

With the multiple charges against him, Monis knew it was highly likely he would be going back to prison - and for a long time.

This may have driven him to desperate measures, turning him into a home grown terrorist.

Has there been any attempt to identify the prison officers to hold them to account? What efforts have been put in place to train prison officers in more responsible procedures?

Inquests #

Language becomes the first casualty in all combat, All authorities are charged with keeping our language intact. When activists described Ms Dhu, an Australian aboriginal death in custody,

“as being dragged “like a dead kangaroo” from her cell, down the corridor, to the hospital’, a coroner merely described it as “inhumane” and “unprofessional”.

CCTV vision of Ms Dhu being carried and dropped was “profoundly disturbing”.

The coroner, euphemistically, considered the matter “unfortunate” some 25 times. (Fortuna is an unlikely suspect – it was more likely procedural non-compliance or systemic Police brutality.)

It was “regrettable” 11 times. “Sad”, 12 times.

Not professionally culpable? Indictable? Not criminal? No sanctions?

Pathology became a way to avoid blame – disguising violence as disadvantage or doom. Canadian Aboriginal scholars suggest that inquests see Indigenous bodies in custody as “already dead” and their suffering as nothing but “sad, timely deaths – “the only thing we can expect from a disappearing race.” US scholars investigating police violence suggest that it “masks systemic harm”, turning “systemic government misconduct” into “anecdotes”.

All citizens need to pressure our elected representatives to shoulder their responsibilities to oversee better standards of professional performance from prison officials, police and the judiciary.

Politicians have both the mandate and duty to enforce acceptable responses through accountability.