The rate of imprisonment in Australia continues to skyrocket. It is now its highest in a hundred years! The curve turned upwards in the 1980s. Since then, the number of people per 100,000 who are locked up has doubled. The steepest increase occurred this century. While these rates imply a crime wave, think again! Over the same period, crime rates fell: murder down 59% and kidnapping 42%. For property theft the downward trend is more pronounced: robbery down 62%, motor vehicle theft down 69% and unlawful entry with intent down 70%. Last October, the Productivity Commission released a report titled Australia’s Prison Dilemma. It is packed with compelling evidence. In every state and territory, offending is down while imprisonment rates are up.
It’s all about government policy. Another trend has been taking place concurrently — a frenzy of neoliberal privatisation and outsourcing, reduced community services, increased police powers, and both major parties competing to be the toughest on crime! Governments routinely react to a high profile crime by introducing mandatory sentencing, making it harder to get bail and parole, or building more prisons. Policy choices made by governments have led to Australia’s imprisonment growth rate being the third highest in the OECD.
The 2018 violent car attack by James Gargasoulas prompted the Victorian government to change bail laws to shift the burden of proof onto the person seeking bail. Gargasoulas has been jailed for life, but it is poor women and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women who continue to suffer the severe impact of the bail changes. Many are denied bail because they are at risk of family violence, homelessness or mental illness. There are also more being imprisoned on remand, when their trial is yet to be completed or even started. In Victoria in 2001, the average time jailed while on remand was 4.5 months; now it is up to 5.7 months. Had these changes not been made, Yorta Yorta woman Ms Nelson-Walker may still be alive. The well respected 37-year-old Collingwood resident had no legal representation to help her in court on New Year’s Day 2020. She was denied bail, sent to the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre (DPFS) and found dead in her cell the next day.
More lives shattered. Last November, Ms Calgaret lost her life at Sunshine Hospital after being transferred from DPFC. Prisoners at the centre complain that requests for medical care are handled inadequately, their feelings of pain routinely dismissed. Ms Calgaret, a much loved mother of four young children, had been eligible for parole since December 2020. A factor contributing to Victoria’s bloated prison population is the tough parole laws that were introduced after the 2013 murder of Jill Meagher in Brunswick. Today, fewer people are paroled, with women and First Nations people the least likely to be released. Only 5% of those on parole in Victoria are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders, despite First peoples comprising about 10% of those incarcerated. In parole matters, people in prison have no right to legal representation — many have to prepare their own application. Having access to stable and secure accomodation is also a factor considered by the parole board.
Instead of improving bail and parole procedures, the state government plans to expand its jail capacity for women by spending $188.9 million to build 106 new beds. The DPFC has already grown by 270% over the last 20 years! More than half the women leaving prison expect to be homeless. Lack of access to safe and permanent housing contributes to difficulty accessing bail and parole. We support the Homes Not Prisons campaign to redirect funds earmarked for prison construction to building 1,000 new public homes. This would contribute to a much-needed mass public housing program.
Stop the tough-on-crime brigade that drives the agenda! For Ms Nelson-Walker, Ms Calgaret and thousands more, join us in the fightback to build a movement with concrete demands to solve problems of social deprivation and stop the growth of imprisonment.