Some years ago I toured the Ashley Youth Detention Centre for a barbecue with inmates and staff, including a female staffer who had a bruised cheek and a bloodied fat lip, after a teenage inmate jobbed her hours earlier.
It was a fine afternoon.
Staff handed out small prizes for inmates who had excelled in something.
They named one shy prizewinner but got no answer.
He was hiding at the back of the group. He finally emerged clumsily.
It was probably the first time he had ever been recognised for an achievement, and at that moment I realised how stupid it was to incarcerate kids.
In the past week notable Australians, including former governor-generals, police commissioners and retired judges, have formed a group called the Justice Reform Initiative.
The group aims to push governments into diverting more prisoners, not considered a threat to society, into community sentencing options.
My instinctive, conditioned response, was to dismiss this as eminent judicial hippies turning thousands of jailbirds loose on innocent victims.
A fair swag of society wants criminals to do the time and I’m sure many of those within the fair swag of society have done time themselves and don’t want to see others get off.
That afternoon at Ashley taught me to humour my instincts, with a realisation that perhaps these eminent hippies might be right.
I once interviewed a convicted murderer in jail, who had attended my bogan primary school.
Everybody picked on him because he was poor.
At our fourth grade class Secret Santa party someone got a grubby, used cake of soap as a mystery gift.
Everyone knew he was the Secret Santa.
The interview at Risdon jail lasted about four hours with no interruptions.
We reminisced about our school days and then he gave me a minute-by-minute account of how and why he drunkenly pumped about 10 rounds from a .22 semi-automatic rifle into somebody he had never met.
He got parole the following year and I guess that was part of the reason why he agreed to my interview.
Years later I picked up my kids from a coach and to my shock he got off the bus.
I was horrified that my kids were on the same bus as a murderer, my old school mate.
He rang me a year or two later and asked could he come and stay a while but I politely said no.
I doubt he would be a poster boy for community sentencing under the rules of the Justice Reform Initiative.
He served time for about 11 years and suddenly he was expected to integrate as no threat to society.
There is still a part of me that responds warmly to the tough-on-crime mantra, but I’ve had to front up to a few home truths.
Ashley Detention Centre should be closed, in favour of halfway houses such as prison farms, where academic or vocational education is taught.
I was bewildered when former State Greens leader Nick McKim closed the Hayes Prison Farm at New Norfolk while he was Corrective Services Minister.
Tasmania has a high recidivist rate.
The percentage of former inmates returning to jail or community correction orders within two years for a new crime is higher in Tasmania than the national average.
How do you stop re-offending?
I’m torn with this one because you want to reform prisoners but you also don’t want to reward bad behaviour.
Some potential criminals will ponder what’s on offer in jail and realise it’s worth the risk.
That jail is far better than being on the streets and trying to get ahead on your own.
At least in jail you’re institutionalised and your future is taxpayer funded.
Do the crime, do the time and make a dime.
As at June last year Risdon jail had 690 inmates, mostly males who gave prison staff such a hard time the staff’s workers compensation days lost skyrocketed from 593 cases to 2388 in the space of a year.
Even after they build the Westbury prison to regionalise incarceration Tasmania’s prison system couldn’t house every law-breaker.
By 2029 when the Westbury jail is at full capacity Tasmania could sustain up to 700 inmates.
But last year alone there were 27,842 offences recorded, including more than 3500 assaults and sexual assaults.
We might need a bigger prison by 2029, or, bigger hearts presiding on the bench.
I once thought Magistrate Reg Marron was one of those justice reform hippies but he may have been right all along.
He famously slammed Risdon jail earlier this year, saying it was like putting a jug of milk in a cupboard and thinking it would be okay to drink six months later.
That’s the whole debate about crime and punishment in a nutshell.
If you’re going to make jail the default prescription for law-breakers you’ll get Reg’s sour milk every time.
- Barry Prismall is a former The Examiner deputy editor and Liberal adviser