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Does the correctional system really correct?

In November 2004 the results of a comprehensive investigation into prison release practice and policy in Queensland was released.

Given that 99.9% of prisoners in the Queensland prisons will one day return to life on the “outside”, the INCorrections study initiated by the UnitingCare Queensland Centre for Social Justice focused on the impact of the correctional system on community safety.

Speaking with ABC Radio’s Steve Austin at the time the report was released, Former Supreme Court Judge and special adviser to the project Hon W C Carter QC stressed that almost every prisoner will one day return to the community – “perhaps to an address near you”.

“The question is how do we best organise that process in the interest of community safety to ensure that when those people do come back into the community they are better adjusted, better equipped, better able to handle the problems of life, and better able to get on with their lives in a way which is offence free,” he said.

The report’s author, Tamara Walsh from the Queensland University of Technology’s Law Faculty, said the aim of the report was to investigate whether the correctional system was actually ‘correcting’.

“We call it the ‘corrections system’ and we hope it will be doing some ‘correcting’,” said Ms Walsh whose report made 50 recommendations for improvements to the Queensland correctional system.

Former Director of the Centre for Social Justice Rev Dr Noel Preston described the prisoner rehabilitation process as completely ineffective.

“They come out unprepared and more likely to be a danger. More than 60% go back to prison and this is the highest rate in Australia,” he said.

Mr Carter, who is also a former Chair of the Parole Board, told of dramatic changes to release programs after the 1988 Kennedy Report was implemented.

“The implications for the community were absolutely monumental because here there was a new process within the system. We had a corrections system properly so-called,” he said.

“If we could use the custodial system as an opportunity to introduce programs to correct, then the person could go out hopefully a changed person.”

The INCorrections report indicated the the gains made in the early to mid-1990s had been significantly eroded.

After a delay of almost a year, the Queensland Department of Corrective Services released a written response to INCorrections in September 2005.

The Department was defensive of its work and critical of the INCorrections research methodology, and it labelled the report as containing old, recycled and unsubstantiated claims.

Independent investigator and former Director General of Corrective Services in Queensland Mr Keith Hamburger defended the report at a community forum in October 2005 saying he had great personal and professional respect for the people responsible for the INCorrections project.

“We have a report in which a tremendous amount of intellectual capital has been invested by very committed, professional, learned and highly respected people who think deeply about social issues and who have come to conclusions about the state of corrective services in Queensland,” he said.

As department head responsible for implementing the Kennedy Reform agenda from 1988 to 1997 Mr Hamburger pointed out that if it was possible to punish crime away, the United States of America (with four times the imprisonment rate of Australia) would be well on the way to being a crime-free society.

Mr Hamburger said it is the care and support for offenders that “distinguishes a humane and civilised corrections system that reduces crime, from a prison system of inhumane human storage that increases crime.”

The INCorrections report concludes that while prisoners agree that prisons should not be five-star resorts and acknowledge that they deserve punishment, the flaws in the current correctional system and current recidivism statistics demonstrate that “correction” is not occurring.

It calls on Queensland prisons to protect prisoners from brutality and sodomy, provide drug treatment, medical treatment and counselling and create a system of progressive increase in liberty and participation in the community.

Ms Walsh says she hopes that in the future the Department will be more willing to listen to the stories of the prisoners in its care.

“It is they who know the system best and it is they whose lives are most affected by it.”