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Prison policy: have we got it wrong?

Senior Prison Chaplain Mrs Beatriz Skippen

It’s not only the total number of residents that’s exploding in sunny Queensland, the prison population is booming too, but the nagging question remains as to whether there is more to prison than punishment and whether this is the best way to keep the community safe in the long-term.

Global trends are moving towards “decarceration” as the most effective mechanism for combating crime.
Meanwhile, the Queensland Government pursues a “lock ’em up” approach with the intention to build a new 4000 bed “super prison” at a projected cost of $2.2 billion.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that in Queensland there are 177 per 100,000 of population currently in prison with an increase of 212% between 1994 and 2004 – nearly five times the national increase in the same period.

The Department for Corrective Services describes its strategic approach as “strengthening community safety through managing growth in prisoner numbers” but groups such as the INCorrections Network and Sisters Inside are convinced that increasing prison beds is not a viable solution and that efficient and effective alternatives exist.

Heather den Houting from the Queensland Synod’s Office of the Social Responsibility Advocate is convinced that there are alternative programs such as victim-offender mediation that do work.

“Here in Queensland we have some fantastic programs in the youth justice sector which are using the community conferencing process.”

Churches in Queensland have responded both by providing pastoral care for prisoners and their families and by engaging in dialogue with the state government about prison and rehabilitation issues.

There are currently around 80 volunteer and accredited chaplains from many denominations who are giving an average of three to four days per week in the various correctional centres around Queensland.

If they were all remunerated at the rate of a minister’s stipend this would translate to around $1.8 million per annum. This represents a significant investment in the care of prisoners and families.

Churches have also pressured the State Government and the Department for Corrective Services to reassess their current policy direction.

The UnitingCare Centre for Social Justice in Queensland was instrumental in the production of the INCorrections report which called for major reforms in the way prisoners are rehabilitated into the community.

Prison Ministries Senior Chaplain Mrs Beatriz Skippen says about 500 inmates will leave the prison system in South East Queensland each month.

“That’s about 6000 in a year. With some estimating a recidivism rate of over 50% we can expect to see about 3000 re-offending within two years,” she said.

“It seems that much more needs to be done to assist inmates in making a successful transition back into the community.”

Queensland Uniting Church Moderator Rev Dr David Pitman has spoken with Premier Peter Beattie about the “super prison” proposal as well as rehabilitation and prisoner release schemes.

The rate of imprisonment is not beyond government control and is influenced by political choice and departmental policy as well as crime rates and court decisions.

Over the course of a decade Queensland has gone from having an imprisonment rate that is below the national average to having one that is significantly higher and the State Government must own its share of the responsibility for failing to implement successful strategies to reduce prisoner numbers.

While Minister for Police and Corrective Services Judy Spence predicts a further 90% increase over the next ten years, such growth in prison numbers is neither inevitable nor obligatory. 

Photo : Senior Prison Chaplain Mrs Beatriz Skippen