What we can learn from our own inmates

Prisons attract a lot of media attention and interest from the public about how they operate and what occurs within them – particularly if it’s about newsworthy subjects like riots, violence, drugs and other contraband.

In the ACT the decision to have a jail in which to incacerate our own was a decision born out of political disagreement. When the decision was made, the Canberra Liberals opposed it saying that it was a waste of money, mixed with their own philosophical view that members of the ACT community serving a sentence should be sent interstate, away from families and support nextworks, to do their time. The Labor Government disagreed with this view then and we do now.

Our decision to build the AMC was never one  influenced by political motivations. I don’t think there is any political gains from owning and operating a jail. Indeed it’s quite probably the opposite.

For anyone who has visited the AMC over the past 2 years, I think there would be universal agreement that the facilities and services are a vast improvement overall from what was able to  be offered to prisoners in NSW and Victoria. That’s not to say that there haven’t been issues or problems during the early years of the jail’s operations. There have been. But there has also been a lot of effort put into reviewing systems, responding to problems when they arise and working on a path of continuous improvement to constantly aim for standards higher than any other jail in Australia.

One of the positive results of having a relatively stable prison population in the one location is that we are able to better understand prisoners’ needs and try to respond to those. This is particuarly important in relation to prisoners’ health needs. All the available evidence internationally and nationally will tell us that prisoners are generally from disadvantaged backgrounds, have poor health status often complicated by drug, alcohol and mental health issues. What we haven’t been able to do before is survey our prisoner population and then tailor health responses around priority areas identified by that survey.

So what does the 2010 Inmate Health Survey tell us?

135 inmates participated in the survey and the key findings are

  • 91 per cent of inmates reported having used illicit drugs with 67 per cent of those who reported they had used drugs, saying they had injected drugs;
  • Of those who had injected drugs, 74 per cent had accessed community-based needle/syringe programs;
  • 85 per cent of respondents were current smokers;
  • 61 per cent were classified as overweight according to their measured body mass index;
  • per cent had experienced suicidal throughts and of those, 69 per cent had attempted suicide;< /li>
  • Access to hepatitis B and C testing was greater than a comparable group in New South Wales; hepatitis B immunisation is higher than any other reported high-risk group;
  • The diets of ACT surveyed prisoners better approximate the community recommendations, than a comparable New South Wales population group;
  • 38 per cent of surveyed prisoners were placed in care before 16 years of age and 19 per cent had either parent incarcerated when he/she was a child

We also know that a majority of prisoners come from socially disadvantaged backgrounds, many with a history of abuse, neglect and trauma, poor education, parental incarceration, and limited employment opportunities. Of the survey participants, 42 per cent had spent some time in detention as youths, 68 per cent had been excluded from school, and more than half were unemployed in the six months leading up to their imprisonment. This tells us that early intervention is critical, as is providing employment and training opportunities, support for finding jobs and support for at-risk families. It is a whole of government and indeed whole of community response.

The information collated in this report will be used by the government to target health assistance to inmates and with our own social determinants data we will be in a stronger position to intervene and support families earlier and hopefully prior to any offence is commited.  Based on the key findings priority areas for further work includes smoking cessation programs, healthy eating and exercise and drug and alcohol education and support.

As I said earlier, the establishment of the AMC has not been without controversy, particularly from our political opponents who opposed the building of the jail and who have opposed the Human Rights Commission and the Human Rights Act which helps guide improvements in the jail. However, I firmly believe that looking after our own is an important part of any communities responsibility to their own citizens even if those citizens are doing time.