Opinion: Our jails are little more than reoffender factories
THE place of prisons in our penal system has long had us on a hiding to nothing.
Overcrowded and outdated, the way they are run guarantees a continual clientele because the inmates are highly likely to be there more than once.
In Queensland, the long-awaited shift of 17-year-olds - who for a generation have been sent to adult prisons - to juvenile facilities next week has been delayed because every single one of our jails is bursting at the seams.
In fact, in every state, prisons are over capacity, forcing two or three to share a cell designed for one.
The problem is not that there is more crime - the rates overall have dropped and there are fewer offenders - but that more offenders are being jailed.
Nationally, there are about 36,000 prisoners, kept at a cost of more than $2.5 billion a year.
It is internationally recognised as the most expensive and least effective form of reducing crime.
The political obsession with being tough on crime satisfies a public that bays for blood, but is shortsighted, with stocking prison cells the apparent goal.
The cycle has to stop. We need to demand better. Because, for most offenders, jail is not working. They keep coming back.
Australia-wide, almost half of those prisoners released in 2014-15 were back behind bars two years later, either on remand or convicted.
In many ways, we model our corrections systems on the US, but they are hardly an exemplar.
They have 4 per cent of the world's population and 22 per cent of its prisoners. At any one time, 1 per cent of Americans are behind bars.
There, more than half are rearrested within a year of release, two thirds after three years and three quarters within five.
Critics will say that prisoners are treated too well and that is why they return. But they ignore the fact that those who commit even low-level crime come disproportionately from homes heavy on violence and light on good parenting.
Foster placements, learning difficulties and disrupted schooling also feature heavily in their histories. Drug involvement is almost always there.
But then, when they go to jail, they have to conform to an anti-social, warped lifestyle that does very little to change their behaviour once they are released.
There is no excuse for crime, but the community is not served by the jailing of people for some offences.
After a couple of years of incarceration, they lose any chance of becoming functional contributors to our society.
The new Queensland Corrective Services commissioner said last month that everything was on the table in an effort to solve the thorny overcrowding problem. Other states are echoing the same.
Human Rights Watch's report on prisoners with disabilities this month was damning. It found people with disabilities are over represented in the prison population and some of the conditions they find themselves in Queensland and Western Australia - where new research released this week revealed nine out of ten youngsters in juvenile detention have severe cognitive impairment - are revolting. HRW found they are routinely physical and sexually abused, attacked, harassed and stood over for their medication.
This is hard to monitor and harder to change such a damaging culture in an overcrowded facility.
While it is recognised prisoners with disabilities have special needs, once behind bars, they get few of the support and services they require to properly manage their disability.
Of course, to cut down on prisoner numbers, finally and maturely addressing recidivism is a no-brainer.
Almost all prisoners are jailed for less than two years. That means they are warehoused instead of corrected, and schooled by their cellmates instead of learning skills that might help them be functional. Many of these would be better served with intensive supervision orders that work in other jurisdictions.
Repentance and payback are important, but so is the involvement of teams that include police, educators and social services.
Prisons and their alternative punishments should be a chance for redemption. That is the intention, or else why are they called corrections departments?
To be safer and to alleviate overcrowding due to recidivism, the community needs those jailed to be released better than when they went in.
The aim should be that our prisoners should be released punished, literate, drug-free and with basic life skills.
As a result, we would all be safer and our prisons will turn from reoffender factories to the correctional centres they should always have been.
Dr Jane Fynes-Clinton is a journalist and journalism lecturer at the University of the Sunshine Coast.