The CES 2008 Series of Prison Forums

In the first half of 2008, Christians for an Ethical Society held three forums on prisons.  This was in response to the anticipated opening in 2008 of the first prison in the Australian Capital Territory (A.C.T.). After some delays the new ACT prison was finally opened early 2009.

European settlement of Australia started in 1788 with a prison colony, thus making prisons the oldest Australian institution.  Until this year, those sent to prison in the Australian Capital Territory have served their sentence in the state of New South Wales.  The new prison, the Alexander Maconochie Centre (AMC), which was due to open in August 2008, will change this. (The opening was delayed until January 2009 due to with the development of the software running the security systems).

The establishment of this prison within the Canberra community is a development that for three reasons Christians cannot ignore:  

concern for the outcast, justice to the disadvantaged and the need for healing for the victim and the community. Additional information on Christian Ethics and Prisons.

Who was Alexander Maconochie?
The ACT prison is named after Alexander Maconochie, the superintendent of Norfolk Island from 1840 to 1844.  Maconochie believed that cruel treatment of convicts debased both the person who suffered it and the society that inflicted  it.  Prisoners should not be deprived of self respect.  The object of punishment should be to strengthen a prisoner's desire and capacity to observe social constraints. Maconochie is best remembered for the marks system that he introduced by which prisoners would progress though a range of tasks and ultimately earn their freedom.  Freed convicts who served under him were referred to as "Maconochie's gentlemen".

His ideas were derided in his day and, in spite of the apparent success of his methods and the good order that prevailed on the island, the Colonial Office in London recalled him.  In recent years, tough-on-crime approaches have seen political parties vying with each other to take stronger measures against criminals.  In this environment, Maconochie's ideas may once again seem idealistic and impractical.  In particular, truth in sentencing, which in some jurisdictions has removed the possibility of remission, offends against Maconchie's belief that people should not be sent to prison for fixed periods.

Some Updates

A frustrated Magistrate in Canberra (Grant Lalor) has recently stated publicly (Canberra Times) that Governments were expecting the Courts to do the work of the Mental Health Service. Have a look at what is being done in Memphis TN USA.


The UK Justice Committee which is appointed by the House of Commons to examine policy has signaled a reversal of sentencing policy - view report. (dated 14 Jan 2010)


In May 2009, the Women's Centre for Health Matters, published the report "ACT Women and Prisons, Invisible Bars: The Stories behind the Stats" written by Deb Wybron and Kiri Dicker. The report is available for viewing/downloading. It was launched by the ACT Minister for Women, Katy Gallagher. An MP3 recording of the launch can be listened to/downloaded here.


United Nations Economic and Social Council on access by injecting drug users

The United Nations Economic and Social Council passed a most important resolution at its  recent session in July on access by injecting drugs users, whether in or outside prison, to a comprehensive package of measures to combat HIV and other blood borne diseases. This resolution and the endorsed Technical Guide has direct application to Australian prisons and thus to the AMC. Paragraph 19 of the resolution reads:
'Recognizes the need for UNAIDS to significantly expand and strengthen its work  with national governments and to work with all groups of civil society to address the gap in access to services for injecting drug users in all settings, including prisons; to develop comprehensive models of appropriate service delivery for injecting drug users; to tackle the issues of stigmatization and discrimination; and to support increased capacity and resources for the provision of a comprehensive package of services for injecting drug users including harm reduction programmes in relation to HIV as elaborated in the WHO/UNODC/UNAIDS: Technical Guide  for countries to set targets for Universal Access to HIV prevention, treatment and care for injecting drug users , in accordance with relevant national circumstances;'

Cigarette smoking ban. The ACT government is considering introducing cigarette smoking restriction when the new prison opens. You may wish to read some recent articles and correspondence published in the Canberra Time.


Strip Searches (August 2008) - In the last sitting week before the election, the Government hurried legislation through the Legislative Assembly to expand the power to strip search detainees in the ACT. For more information, including suggestions as to what you can do, visit the ACT Community Coalition on Corrections website.


Letters to the editor of The Canberra Times:

"Jail with no drugs or no rights?"

 "Strip-searching prisoner legislation undermines goals"



During the debate in the assembly, Deb Foskey, retiring Greens member for Molonglo, had this to say:  (some extracts)


"What does a strip search involve? A university study describes it thus:

After having her clothes inspected, a prisoner is told to open her mouth for inspection, run her fingers through her hair, lift up both arms for inspection, as well as to spread her fingers and lift her breasts for inspection. She is then asked to turn her back to the officers, lift up one leg at a time and wriggle her toes to dislodge any hidden material. Finally, she must spread her legs and bend over for a vaginal and anal inspection. If an inmate is menstruating she may be required to take out her tampon and show it to the guards before placing it in a bag and being issued a new one."

The Human Rights Commission describes the process in the ACT as being very similar, except that the detainee will be half-clothed. I doubt that that will make the experience much less humiliating, traumatic or disempowering. This is what the Assembly is now being asked to authorise where a corrections officer considers that it is prudent. In reality, corrections officers will treat this power as reinstating their power to order routine strip searches. And how often is it likely to be prudent? According to the Canberra Times, the Human Rights Commission reports that ACT detainees are subjected to numerous strip searches. If regularly visited, for example, it would be possible that a detainee could be subjected to 10 strip searches a week. Five visits in one week would involve 10 strip searches, one before each visit and one afterwards. Three visits in one week, a court attendance and a cell search would involve nine strip searches. Detainees who were receiving regular visits from family members said they were strip-searched several times each week. Prisoners at high risk of self-harm are to be strip-searched every night before they are locked in their cell. Taking of urine samples for drug testing, which occurs on a routine, random and compulsory basis, involves further stripping. The detainee is strip-searched and then has to urinate in the presence of two officers."


"Anna Bogdanic, of Monash University, reports that over a four-year period there were 41,728 strip searches at the Brisbane Women’s Correctional Centre. This led to only two discoveries of illicit drugs. Over a 27-month period, 35,288 searches at the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre in Victoria produced only 20 items of unspecified contraband. Bogdanic observes that, in spite of that intense effort, the presence of illicit drug use is still significantly high in both Queensland and Victorian women’s prisons."


"Strip searching is bad enough for men, but for women its impacts are extreme. Many experience it as rape, particularly those who have suffered sexual abuse. A Queensland survey revealed:

… a high number of female prisoners report sexual abuse prior to the age of 16 years (37%). An even higher number reported some form of non–consensual sexual activity (42.5%). In a number of cases, the abuse occurred before the age of 10 years (35%). More than a third of these abused women were subject to multiple episodes of attempted or completed intercourse before the age of 10. Among the women who had been sexually abused, the abuse continued in some cases for more than five years …

By contrast in the greater population, 8.8% of Queensland women aged 18 or more report being the victim of rape or sexual assault."

"For many women, being strip-searched is similar to a state-sanctioned sexual assault. Some symptoms of being strip-searched include feelings of anger, depression, anxiety and self-blame. Flashbacks and nightmares are not uncommon. Sexual dysfunctions are a common response in victims of rape. Women who are strip-searched often experience the same. For these women the trauma of strip searching induces in them feelings of disgust towards their own bodies. Perhaps it is meant to.

The emotions of women who are raped are often directed inwards and lead to depression and self-harm. For some women, strip searching makes it more likely that they will self-harm or even commit suicide. Most women detainees are not security risks. Are the negative dimensions of routine strip searching in pursuit of a flawed drugs policy worth the costs? These provisions will lead to greater sharing of syringes and greater transmission of blood-borne diseases.

We need to ask if we are meeting our duty of care to these women, who are as much our constituents as the burghers of O’Malley and Red Hill. In my opinion, the answer is no; we are failing them yet again.

A Queensland inquiry found that a significant number of women elected not to have contact visits from family and friends, mainly because they knew that they would have to be strip-searched afterwards. Not surprisingly, families and friends think twice about visiting detainees, and are traumatised when they realise the consequences for the person they visit. It makes a bit of a mockery of the government’s claim that prisoners will have greater accessibility to and interaction with family and other supports to assist in their rehabilitation and to maintain family unity.

What we are possibly witnessing is the government retreating from its commitment to a human rights compliant prison before it has even opened. I invite the government to prove me wrong; I want to be proved wrong. But the signs are not encouraging that it recognises that a break needs to be made from existing failed corrections practices if its vision of a rehabilitative corrections environment is to be realised."


The full debate can be accessed on page 3815 of Hansard for the ACT Legislative Assembly. Remember to visit the ACT Community Coalition on Corrections website for more information. Audio downloads will also be available shortly from that site of a public forum regarding strip searching.


Interview with Deb Wybron, Convener ACT Women and Prisons Group

Deb Wybron spoke to the CES in early May 2008.


Reference information on Corrections

This page contains an assortment of reference information on Prisons


Getting involved with Prisons

What can you do to help?


Prison CES Focus Group

A small group of CES supporters meet about once a month to keep a 'watching brief' on the operation of the AMC and to ensure that the implemented operational policy reflects the various aspirations and pronouncements made prior to its opening. They also discuss various ways in which CES supporters can become further involved. If you would like to join this group please email the group convener.


Prison Forums:

Forum 1:  "Prisons - Can they be Human - Can they even Rehabilitate"?
26 February 2008

Professor Tony Vinson AM

Professor Vinson, AM, is Emeritus Professor at the University of NSW, Honorary Professor in the Faculty of Education and Social Work at Sydney University and one of Australia's leading social scientists and outspoken public intellectuals.  Beginning his public service as a parole officer in the NSW Department of Prisons, Professor Vinson was later appointed chairman of the NSW Corrective Services Commission and undertook sweeping reforms following the Nagle Royal Commission into the state's prison system.  He has been outspoken about the ever-expanding NSW prison system in response to social and educational disadvantage.

Professor Vinson warned that the ACT will be deluding itself if it believes that its new prison will produce much in the way of rehabilitation.  Prison are more likely to harm those detained. Sending someone to prison should be a last resort.  The world's best prisons that he had visited did not pretend to rehabilitate.  Rather, they had a much more realistic goal: "if you manage to put people out the back door no worse than they were when they came in the front door, that would be a big achievement."

"The first priority - everything I have been involved in from day one tells me this, I just become more committed to the idea the older I get - is that we must deal first of all with the social roots of offending.  You can have the shiniest, best prison in the world but, if we are not moving upstream to try to do something about the very readily identified factors that seem to put people on the path to breaking the law, then what's the use of the prison?"

Even so, Professor Vinson accepted the need of a prison to protect the community.  His address identified how the prison should operate if it is to be true to the modest but realistic goal he proposed of turning out people in no worse condition than when they entered.

A full transcript of Professor Vinson's speech and handouts he provided are available. An audio recording of proceedings (including Questions and Answers from the floor) and a PDF version of the speech are available to listen to or download from our download page. View the Media Release here.

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Forum 2:  Part A - "The new ACT prison - How the ACT compares"

19 March 2008

Professor David Biles OAM  "How the ACT compares - facts and figures in Australia"


Professor Biles is an internationally-renowned criminologist.  He has been Deputy Director of the Australian Institute of Criminology in Canberra, head of research in the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Melbourne.  He has also worked as an educational officer in four different prisons in Victoria over eleven years.  Recently, he has worked as a full-time consultant for the United Nations, AusAid,  Australasian Correctional Management Pty Ltd and for the Victorian, the New South Wales and the ACT governments.  He is Professorial Associate in Corrections of Charles Sturt University for whom he teaches courses in correctional management. 

There has been an enormous increase in imprisonment in Australia from below 9,500 prisoners in the whole of Australia 24 years ago to 26,500 prisoners now.  This matches increases throughout the western world.  There continues to be a shameful over-representation of indigenous people in our prisons.  Women prisoners have increased from 2.5% of all persons in prison to 7.5% now.  Between 17 and 18% of all prisoners in Australia are now held in private prisons.

Professor Biles drew attention to the significant fact that, for the last 20-30 years, the imprisonment rate of NSW has been twice as high as that of Victoria.

The extraordinarily-low imprisonment rate in the ACT of 68 per 100,000 compares to the national average of 164.  There are reasons for believing that this rate may well rise with the opening of the prison, so that the 300-bed capacity of the new prison may be outgrown within five-to-ten years rather than the planned for twenty-to-thirty years.


A full transcript of Professor Biles' speech is available. An audio recording of proceedings (including Questions and Answers from the floor) and a PDF version of the speech are available to listen to or download from our download page. View the Media Release here.


Forum 2:  Part B - "The new ACT prison: what is planned and what it will achieve"

Simon Corbell MLA

Simon Corbell has been the Australian Labor Party Member for the seat of Molonglo since 1997 and has been a Minister in the Stanhope Labor Government since its election in 2001.  He is currently Attorney General, which includes Corrections, and Minister for Police and Emergency Services, as well as Manager of Government Business.  Mr Corbell is responsible for the establishment of the Alexander Maconochie Centre, the ACT's first prison.  He established the ACT Human Rights Commission and, at different times, has been Minister with responsibility for the portfolios of Health, Planning and Land Management, the Environment, Communications and Information Technology, Youth Affairs and Public Administration as well as Education and Community Services.

The Government agrees with the statement that offenders should be sent to prison as punishment not for punishment.  It rejects the prevalent view that corrections should be about retribution and punishment.  It is committed to building the prison in accordance with human rights legislation and principles.  It believes in the inherent dignity and value of each human person and belief in the possibility of rehabilitation and redemption.

This approach is reflected in both the physical design of the prison and its operating philosophy.  Thus, cell and cell-block design maximises light and natural ventilation.  There are no bars on windows.

Operation of the prison will be based on the healthy-prison concept which emphasises the importance of providing an environment where everyone is and feels safe, everyone is treated with respect as a fellow human being and everyone is encouraged to improve him or herself. Everyone will be enabled to maintain contact with their families and be prepared for release. The operation of the prison will emphasis rehabilitation and re-integration.


A full transcript of Simon Corbell's speech is available. An audio recording of proceedings (including Questions and Answers from the floor) including a PDF version of the speech are available to listen to or download from our download page.

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Forum 3:  The ACT prison: a de facto mental institution?
12 June 2008


Senator Gary Humphries

Australian Liberal Party Senator for the ACT, Co-chair of the Senate Select Committee into Mental Health, Minister responsible for corrections in previous Liberal Governments of the ACT.

Because the vast majority of those sent to prison have a mental health problem, we cannot isolate mental illness and its treatment from the operation of a prison.  We have to accept that mental illness based on these figures is more than just a coincidence.  It is almost certainly the cause of a very substantial amount of criminal behaviour.  People are in prison because they are mentally ill or their mental illness is, at the very least, a major factor in their imprisonment.  There is a high rate of recidivism in Australia: "you've easily got 50% of people going through prisons coming back again and that's a grand admission of failure, of the nature of our prison system in Australia today.  Frankly, I think the single most important reason we can put that down to is a failure of prisons to deal with underlying issues of mental illness."

We need to begin to get people to think and, certainly, policy makers to begin to think of prisons as a kind of hospital where those who enter are, for the most part, sick and where they need to be treated humanely and appropriately according to the nature and severity of their illness.  To this end, Senator Humphries put forward five proposals:

1.  Every prisoner must be treated, prima facie, as a person with a mental illness and assessed;
2.  The link between drug addiction and mental health should be looked at;
3.  Staff should be trained to identify and cope with mental illness;
4.  Prisoners should be given a range of day-to-day activities;
5.  The nature of sentencing should be reconsidered with, for example, parole made conditional on following a treatment plan.

A full transcript of Senator Gary Humphries speech is available. An audio recording of proceedings (including Questions and Answers from the floor) including a PDF version of the speech are available to listen to or download from our download page.


Justice Richard Refshauge
Judge of the ACT Supreme Court and former ACT Director of Public Prosecutions

Justice Richard Refshauge took issue with the idea that prisons should be a considered as anything like a mental health hospital.  He urged us not to try to "transform our prisons into being suddenly the cure-alls" for those who enter them.  There should be a clear distinction between criminal justice and mental health systems.  The criminal justice system seeks to hold people accountable for what they do.  "We should not simply assume that people have no free will, have no opportunity to take responsibility for their own actions."  He warned that prisons "should not be converted into hospitals or quasi-hospitals because, at the end of the day, that will revert to the cycle of incarceration of those who have mental health issues."

Having said that he agreed "that everyone who goes into the criminal justice system, at least to the level of incarceration, is entitled to and should have proper mental health assessment and treatment flowing from that proper mental health assessment."

He observed that "most of the problems that judicial officers and prosecutors and defenders’ counsels see when they come into the criminal justice system are issues that have been generated by the circumstances of people's situations well before they come to the criminal justice system and well before the criminal justice system has an opportunity to intervene."

A full transcript of Justice Richard Refshauge's speech is available. An audio recording of proceedings (including Questions and Answers from the floor) including a PDF version of the speech are available to listen to or download from our download page.

Mr Ron Cahill
Chief Magistrate and President of the ACT Mental Health Tribunal

Mr Cahill talked about the practical implications of mental health issues for his work and how they might work out in a prison. He observed how mental health issues arise as early as bail hearings and described the services that are available to advise the court.  He distinguished between people with a mental illness who were responsible for their actions and convicted of a crime, and "someone found not guilty on the grounds of mental impairment."

The post-release treatment of prisoners on parole or probation should, he said, be treated holistically.  Problems of mental illness will probably continue long after the period of imprisonment.  Supported accommodation provided by community organisations fulfil an important role.  Often, though, mentally-ill people find themselves unable to comply with the rules of the house.  He urged more support for community organisations providing such services.  With more of these services, there would be fewer people in prison.

For the prison, he urged the development of individual case plans for prisoners encompassing their mental health, substance abuse and other needs.  He also pointed to the special needs of those with intellectual disabilities who are more vulnerable.

A full transcript of Ron Cahill's speech is available. An audio recording of proceedings (including Questions and Answers from the floor) including a PDF version of the speech are available to listen to or download from our download page.