Prisons cost us four times national average


Sir – The Productivity Commission Report on Government Services raises alarm bells about the unsustainable spend on prisons across Australia which are at 96% capacity. Some are operating beyond capacity.
It costs more than $100,000 to jail one person for one year and $200,000 to lock up a young person for a year.
Reoffending data shows that almost one in two people released from prison are back within two years.
If the prison spend across situation is cause for concern, the Northern Territory is at crisis point.
Its imprisonment rate is five times the national average. The NT spends $553 per head of the NT population per year on our prison system, compared to the national average of $139 per head.
The cost to run NT Police illustrates an even larger contrast: $1,166 per head in the NT, compared to $416 nationally.
The NT’s imprisonment rate has increased 72% in the last 10 years. It costs the NT $100 million per year in operational costs to run our prisons.
Darwin’s new prison (set to open later this year) cost $500 million and on current projections we will need another new prison in 2016 and yet another by 2020.
This will costs us another $1 billion just to build these new prisons, not including operational costs.
The proportion of Aboriginal people in Australian jails vastly exceeds that of non-Aboriginal people. While Indigenous people make up around 2% of Australia’s population, they provide 27.5% of the prison population.
In the Northern Territory, Aboriginal people make up 30% of the overall population, yet 84% of adults in prison and 98% of young people in detention.
This is a national outrage. Mandatory sentencing and punitive bail laws are two examples of laws that exacerbate issues of over-incarceration in the NT, and that particularly affect Aboriginal people.
In 2013, the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee released its report about ‘Value of a justice reinvestment’ which is about putting resources at the front end, to target the causes for offending.
Communities with high levels of incarceration are targeted and funds are “reinvested” into education, housing, health services, jobs, counselling services and non-custodial sentencing options.
The question that needs to be answered is what areas, like health and education, are not getting enough resources because prisons are draining the budget dry?
It is time for justice reinvestment to be urgently implemented across Australia.
Priscilla Collins
CEO, North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency


  1. So what is your answer Ms Collins? Leave the criminals on the streets? These people KNOWINGLY break the law, and need to be kept out of society for this reason. Would you rescind all laws so these people can do exactly as they like? Would you put all law abiding folk at risk?
    So it’s expensive to protect the people of the NT from wrongdoers, so what? Who cares? I would much sooner pay than allow my family to live in fear.

  2. Terry. You ask Ms Collins for her answer to high levels of incarceration but it is right in front of you – please read through to the last 4 sentences.

  3. People go to goal because they break the law. In the Territory, a high percentage of inmates has committed offences of violence, mostly against women. The number in goal isn’t as important as the fact that while in goal, even if they are recidivists, they aren’t offending.
    Less pain for women and everyone else. Many of the indigenous prisoners are better off in goal (sadly) than they are in their communities; they get three decent meals per day, no grog, no violence, free medical, dental, optical and other services.
    And if they are smart, they attend literacy, numeracy and trade training and come out smarter and better equipped than they were when they entered. The numbers are only part of the story.

  4. Ray, there is no inconsistency between what Priscilla Collins says, and what the Productivity Commission says in the ABC report you cite. They are both correct: The NT spends $553 per head of the NT population per year on our prison system (compared to the national average of $139 per head), whereas the ACT’s daily cost per prisoner in 2012-13 was almost $465, while the national figure was $297.
    Even though we in the NT have far more prisoners per capita than any other jurisdiction, we actually spend less per prisoner per day than any other jurisdiction. Why is that? Because we spend less money per prisoner on prison rehabilitation: the NT has the lowest proportion of its prison population in the country doing education, training and employment programs.
    NT prisons are, tragically, more like holding pens or warehouses than, as they should be, places of ‘correction’.
    This is, in essence, because we are so overwhelmed by the numbers, it is all we can do to keep our prisoners under lock and key. The NT government is to be commended for its ‘Sentenced to a Job’ program, which gives the lucky few an opportunity to go to work while they are doing their time. But so far, only 5% of our prisoners are in that program. Which means 95% are not.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here