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State of imprisonment: Tasmania escapes ‘law and order’ infection

Most of Tasmania’s relatively small prison population is housed at Risdon Prison Complex. Wikimedia Commons/'Risdon' by Wiki ian

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.

Imprisonment rates in Tasmania have steadily declined over the past decade – the only state or territory where this has happened. From a high of almost 150 prisoners per 100,000 adults in 2005, present rates are around 112 per 100,000. This translates to fewer than 500 people.

The correctional project in Tasmania is therefore quite small compared to other Australian states.

This is reflected in the Tasmanian Corrections infrastructure: Risdon Prison Complex (which includes medium- and maximum-security units), Ron Barwick Minimum-Security Prison and Mary Hutchinson Women’s Prison, all on the same general site in Hobart. Hobart Reception Prison (in the CBD) and Launceston Reception Prison also provide secure containment facilities.

Nonetheless, corrective services spending per prisoner per day, as measured by net recurrent and capital costs, is among the highest in the country. Compared with alternatives offered by community corrections, incarceration costs a lot.

This high cost, in turn, raises issues of value for money (can other sanctions reduce re-offending and do so more cheaply?) and the desirability of using imprisonment more generally (does the expenditure lead to less or more crime?).

What has Tasmania done to cut imprisonment rates?

Partly in response to these questions, the shrinking of the prison population has been accompanied by several measures:

  • expansion of better support services within the corrections system
  • establishment of innovative projects that engage offenders
  • use of systemic measures that encourage rehabilitation ideals.

Examples of support and rehabilitation programs include:

  • focused health programs to limit the spread of Hepatitis C
  • tailored rehabilitation programs for prisoners convicted of sex offences
  • literacy and parenting projects such as “Storybook Dads” to enable inmates to read and record stories for their children
  • a community garden.

In another indication of recent enlightened penal practice, prisoners have a wide variety of opportunities to “give back” to the wider community. The Tasmanian Prison Service has consciously fostered the participation of prisoners in community-oriented activities.

In 2013-2014, over 18,900 leave permits were granted. This is a massive increase from the 589 permits granted in 2009-2010.

Some of these have involved helping local residents and farmers with bushfire recovery efforts. Other initiatives have included environmental restoration projects. Prisoners also provide a welcome and ready pool of umpires for local cricket and football games.

Progressive, cost-effective policy has a context

These changes in Tasmania have taken place in a particular economic, political and cultural context.

One aspect of this is that Tasmania has a population of around half a million people. The tax base is correspondingly small.

Tasmania is, not surprisingly then, a “poor” state in terms of state finances. There simply is not a lot of money to go around, so anything that constitutes a drain on the budget is problematic.

Nor is Tasmania a particularly punitive place. Most elections do not feature the “law and order auctions” characteristic of mainland states.

For most of the past decade there has been bipartisan support for progressive policy. Initiatives include better rehabilitative support for prisoners, an emphasis on diversion for offenders with drug and mental health issues and on greater opportunity for offenders to repair the harm. Whether a Green/Labor or Liberal justice minister, most of the rhetoric, most of the time, has been broadly supportive of decarceration and desistance strategies.

The relatively progressive approach to matters of crime and punishment has been reinforced at important institutional points.

The general approach of the Tasmanian Police has been measured and generally appropriate to circumstance. It has incorporated aspects such as youth diversion, respectful but authoritative responses to domestic violence, and educational campaigns to reduce harmful behaviour.

The Magistrates Court has adopted measures such as court-mandated drug diversion and mental health court lists. These have incorporated therapeutic responses to problems formerly perceived in solely criminal justice terms.

Senior bureaucrats in the Department of Justice and within the prison service have gelled in terms of broad philosophical approach. They have worked with other agencies and relevant ministers to forge pathways that offer greater promise for reducing the numbers of prisoners and helping those who remain to desist from re-offending.

Across the criminal justice enterprises, staff have been carefully recruited to ensure persons of integrity, capacity and the right skill sets are employed. Recruitment processes, and the quality and quantity of pre-service and in-service training and education, remain important components of the wider cultural changes in recent years.

Making progress on inevitable problems

Any system that is based, inherently, upon coercion and containment is always going to encounter difficulties. Prison-related issues continue to bubble away.

Some problems are due to the “natural” rhythms of such institutions, such as inmate-officer conflict. The key issue here is whether such conflict is particular to specific prisoner or prison officer interactions, or endemic to the institution because of the wider occupational culture.

More can always be done to support this or that program or project. Yet by and large Tasmania has, for the moment, got things right as far as the general trend is going. Locking up fewer people, and doing something positive with those inside, is an important achievement and ongoing mission.

Attorney-General Vanessa Goodwin wants to abolish suspended sentences, but has wisely sought advice on how to avoid increasing prisoner numbers as a result. Tasmanian Government, CC BY-NC

Present endeavours and tendencies are nonetheless fragile and potentially under threat. The attorney-general, for instance, has foreshadowed the abolition of suspended sentences.

Fortunately, she has asked the Sentencing Advisory Council for advice so that prisoner numbers do not increase as a consequence. What is legislated at the end of the day remains to be seen.

Furthermore, budgetary pressures at the whole-of-government level have translated into significant fiscal bumps. At the specific institutional level, the prison service has not been immune. This is hamstringing expansion of existing initiatives and curtailing other possible rehabilitative directions.

Even so, widespread community support for prisoner leave programs continues. Thankfully, punitive politics remains muted in the Tasmanian political landscape.

You can read other articles in the State of Imprisonment series here.

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