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State of imprisonment: can ACT achieve a ‘human rights’ prison?

The ACT’s new prison did not take long to fill up, which has tested the capacity of corrections authorities to live up to their stated high ideals. AAP/Lukas Coch

This article is part of The Conversation’s series, State of Imprisonment, which provides snapshots of imprisonment trends in each state and territory. The intention is to provide a basis for informed public discussion of imprisonment policies and of the costs and consequences for Australia of rising rates of incarceration.

The first prison in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), the Alexander Maconochie Centre (AMC), opened in March 2009. The AMC is an open-campus 300-bed facility, which accommodates all unsentenced and sentenced male and female prisoners.

The ACT Corrective Services website states:

The Alexander Maconochie Centre emphasises rehabilitation, compliance with human rights principles and adherance to the Healthy Prison Concept.

According to the website, a healthy prison is one in which everyone:

  • is and feels safe

  • is treated with respect and as a fellow human being

  • is encouraged to improve him/herself and is given every opportunity to do so through the provision of purposeful activity

  • is enabled to maintain contact with their families and is prepared for release.

About 40% of prisoners (including all women inmates) live in cottages with separate bedrooms, a kitchen, bathroom, laundry, living area and patio. Apart from a one-hour lunchtime lockdown, prisoners can move about freely. They are locked in the cottages at night.

In spite of this, recent figures indicate that the AMC performs poorly in terms of prisoners’ time out of cells and participation in employment.

The ACT also has the highest proportion of prisoners previously imprisoned (72%, compared with a national average of 59%). On the other hand, it has the highest proportion of prisoners in education, at 83%, compared with a national average of just 33%.

A 2014 human rights audit of the treatment of women at the AMC was generally positive, but made 61 recommendations for improvement. The government has accepted most of these recommendations.

However, others have suggested that more needs to be done to meet the needs of female prisoners.

Prison numbers skyrocket

The prison rapidly filled to capacity. The AMC had 343 people in full-time custody in the December 2014 quarter.

Of these, 27% were unsentenced, 19% were Indigenous and 5% were female. The imprisonment rate was 114 per 100,000, well below the national rate of 190.

However, the ACT imprisonment rate has risen 25% over the last two years, compared with a national increase of 12%. Over this time, the number of ACT prisoners increased by 28%, compared with a national increase of 16%. Notably, the number of Indigenous prisoners increased by 47%, compared with 17% nationally.

Within five years of opening in 2009, the ACT’s only prison is having to be expanded. AAP/Alan Porritt

In April 2014, the ACT government announced it would spend $54 million building a new 56-cell block with 80 beds and a 30-bed special care centre for detainees requiring intensive support. The special care centre is due to open in late 2015 and the cell block in mid-2016.

Significantly, prisoner costs are already the highest in the country, at $394 per day, compared with a national average of $292.

Key policy developments


In December 2011, the government agreed to an extended Throughcare policy framework to “better support offenders’ re-integration into the community”. The program was piloted in 2012-13, with a further $2.2 million allocated in the 2014-15 budget. According to the corrections minister, the program:

identifies support needs across the areas of housing, health, income and basic life skills and then works intensively with former detainees to reintegrate back into the community.

There has been some initial success in keeping extended Throughcare clients from returning to custody. This is mainly due to the intensive case management. The program will be independently evaluated in 2015.

Legislative Assembly inquiry

On March 24 2015, the Legislative Assembly Standing Committee on Justice and Community Safety released a 400-page report on its inquiry into sentencing in the ACT. The committee’s recommendations include that the government:

  • introduce an adequately resourced intensive correction orders regime
  • increase the alternatives to remand
  • evaluate all prisoner rehabilitation programs and ensure evaluation is part of future program planning and delivery
  • assess the resources required to adequately fund the Throughcare program and apply that level of resourcing to the program
  • institute enhanced reporting on recidivism and focus on measuring performance against those figures
  • amend legislation to require courts to consider the Indigenous status of offenders at sentencing
  • engage the ACT Indigenous community and provide diverse sentencing options to reduce rates of Indigenous imprisonment
  • legislate to allow the conditional release of detainees who are the primary carer of young children to serve their sentence away from the AMC
  • legislate to enable courts to make parole orders and set parole conditions at the time the offender is sentenced for shorter sentences.

In addition, the committee recommended that services and programs available to sentenced prisoners be made available on a voluntary basis to accused persons on bail and prisoners on remand.

Abolition of periodic detention

In March 2014, the government announced it would abolish periodic detention by 2016-17. Defence lawyers were not consulted and criticised the decision.

In November 2014, the government passed legislation to prevent courts from combining periodic detention with full-time imprisonment or imposing a periodic detention order that would extend beyond June 30 2016.

Justice Reform Strategy and Justice Reinvestment Strategy

In May 2014, the government announced it would “pursue a new justice reform strategy focused on enhancing the legal framework for sentencing and restorative justice”. The attorney-general stated:

The reforms will give the ACT a state-of-the-art approach to dealing with criminal behaviour and reducing recidivism.

The government committed $734,000 to the initiative, including $250,000 for research and evaluation. The strategy is informed by an advisory group, with representatives from government agencies, the justice sector and academia.

The group’s terms of reference include consideration of:

  • innovations in sentencing nationally and internationally

  • the principle that imprisonment should only be used where no other penalty is appropriate

  • how restorative justice can be expanded

  • how therapeutic jurisprudence principles can be supported and

  • the over-representation of Indigenous people in the justice system.

Ministers were due to receive the first-stage report by the end of March 2015. This report is to provide recommendations on legislative and other measures for a new community-based sentencing alternative to imprisonment.

The second-stage report is to be delivered by the end of July 2016. It will provide recommendations on legislative and other options to reform sentencing laws and practice in the ACT. These include options that relate to restorative justice and therapeutic jurisprudence.

This strategy is separate from but intersects with the Justice Reinvestment Strategy. Also funded in the 2014-15 budget, this involves a four-year “whole-of-government justice reinvestment approach aimed at reducing recidivism and diverting offenders, and those at risk of becoming offenders, from the justice system”.

This project will identify drivers of crime and criminal justice costs. It will then develop and implement new ways of reinvesting scarce resources – both in the community and within the prison system – to achieve a more cost-beneficial impact on public safety.

This initiative is likewise informed by an advisory group. Its terms of reference are currently being developed.


As in many other Australian jurisdictions, the use of imprisonment in the ACT has increased dramatically in recent years. The impact on Indigenous people in particular is significant.

The government is now taking some innovative steps. However, it remains to be seen whether these will meet the promise of delivering a “state of the art” approach to criminal justice.

Addendum: After this article was published, the ACT auditor-general released a report on the rehabilitation of male prisoners at the Alexander Maconochie Centre. The report found that:

  • AMC planning for rehabilitation is ineffective as there is no rehabilitation planning framework, no evaluation framework and no finalised case management policy framework.

  • Proposed levels of rehabilitation activities and services, as anticipated in planning (prior to the opening of the AMC), were assessed and found to be inadequate. Importantly this means a “structured day” with “purposeful activity” is not being achieved for many detainees. It is therefore likely that some detainees are bored and this can compromise their rehabilitation.

  • The information management systems used at the AMC are inadequate.

The report made 10 recommendations, including that ACT Corrective Services develop a rehabilitation framework for the prison.

The report prompted a critical editorial in The Canberra Times. This described the lack of rehabilitation framework as “another failure of sizeable proportion”. It also suggested: “The misfortunes surrounding the planning, construction and operation of the Alexander Maconochie Centre have become legion, and there are few signs of a let-up.”

You can read other articles in the series here.

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