By KIERAN FINNANE
There is anecdotal evidence that some prisoners “sentenced to a job”, under former Corrections Minister John Elferink’s flagship rehabilitation scheme, were declining parole so that they could keep their paid work, while others wanted to return to prison to get their jobs back.
Right: Corrections Commissioner Mark Payne and Director Tim Cross at a Public Accounts Committee hearing in February.
Not quite the bright future envisioned by Mr Elferink, yet predictable enough without the “throughcare” to help released prisoners find work on the outside.
This “perverse consequence” is but one of the flaws of NT Corrections’ approach to rehabilitation highlighted by the Hamburger review, the executive summary and recommendations of which were released last Friday by the Territory Government.
The review, led by former Director-General of Queensland Corrective Sevices, Keith Hamburger, was commissioned by Mr Elferink. However, the executive summary makes clear that it was the new Corrections Commissioner – Mark Payne, replacing Ken Middlebrook in December 2015 – who saw the necessity for the review. It was he who identified the department’s lack of a Strategic Plan and a “number of critical high risk areas” across the system, including in its now notorious youth detention centres. The review describes Mr Payne’s leadership skills as “impressive”.
The review says the Sentenced to a Job scheme (see note below) was over-emphasised at the cost of other programs “critical to supporting the rehabilitation of offenders”.
These included sex offender treatment programs that were under-resourced; violent offender treatment programs whose effectiveness had not been formally evaluated; and substance abuse programs that were not meeting offenders’ treatment needs.
Whatever their value, some programs and work are probably better than none. Extraordinarily, 18 months into the life of the $500m Darwin Correctional Centre at Holtze 50% of its inmates were not engaged in either programs or work, an outcome the review describes as “unacceptable”.
It says that prison industries in the Darwin Correctional Centre are running at a “considerable loss”, while in Alice Springs the viability of both work programs and industries is described as “tenuous”.
Left: Prisoners at work in the laundry at the Alice Springs gaol.
This situation should be addressed as “a matter of urgency”.
The location of female units within the perimeter of both prisons is “unsatisfactory”, says the review, while the programs and employment opportunities for female prisoners in both centres are “inadequate”. (According to a local NGO, work for female prisoners in Alice – supposed to give them useful experience – consists of putting breakfast cereal into plastic bags and tying them off, as well as some cleaning tasks.)
Despite the over-crowding in the Alice Springs Correctional Centre, the review says it has a “better mood and healthier atmosphere” due to much greater interaction between staff and prisoners.
As the majority (85%) of the NT prison population is Indigenous, Indigenous considerations must be mainstreamed, says the review. Given that many Indigenous offenders come from disadvantaged and dysfunctional families and communities, and will return to them upon release, work with those families and communities is essential. One bridge to them was the work of Aboriginal Liaison Officers, whose positions were actually removed by the department, with the consequent loss of good will. The review recommends their reinstatement.
The review acknowledges some positives: the “considerable progress” by Corrections and Health to overcome the deficiencies in primary health care for prisoners; the introduction of work camps, a concept which has the potential to be developed into a “cultural healing and rehabilitation model” that could be used as a way of diverting offenders from “secure custody”. Such programs could be provided by Indigenous people.
Community Corrections is unique in Australia, says the review, for supervising both adults and youth in the community, including those with bail conditions and under suspended sentence. It acknowledges the commitment of staff to “individualised case management”, which can involve undertaking long journeys to remote communities.
But once again, the review notes a lack of appropriate programs in Community Corrections, and recommends their development as well as the establishment of psychologist positions in Alice Springs, Casuarina and Palmerston.
In some respects the review’s recommendations have been overtaken by events. For example, it recommends the establishment of a new statutory authority to deliver both adult corrections and youth justice services, with discrete divisions for each.
The new Territory Government has already made their reorganising moves, with adult corrections moving to the Department of Attorney-General and Justice, while youth justice is now the responsibility of Territory Families.
The review also recommends that corrections officers no longer be rostered to youth detention facilities, and be replaced by youth justice officers. Again, this is already being acted upon, as is “joined up” case management for young people coming into contact with the protection and justice systems.
A statement from the Department of Attorney-General and Justice in response to the review says many of its recommendations are reflected in the government’s plans for reform. Some have significant budget implications but they will be considered alongside the recommendations of the Royal Commission expected in the first half of next year.
In the time available, the Hamburger review could not cost its recommendations (which include purpose built youth detention facilities) but it urged government to look at the costs as an investment in future savings across the whole of its budget, through a reduction in the incarceration rate, the highest in the nation.
The review also acknowledges the “significant pressure” NT Corrections is under, with “severe loss of agency reputation” nationally and internationally. In this context its further criticism of a range of systems and outcomes is “unfortunate”, but it hopes its recommendations will help the department to become “a leader in correctional services in this country”. It notes the commitment of the overwhelming majority of staff, with many working “above and beyond the normal call of duty in difficult and at times dangerous circumstances.”
Note: Sentenced to a Job gets a glowing review in Corrections’ 2015-16 annual report: over the year 747 prisoners, some 90% of them Indigenous, took part in the scheme in Darwin, Alice Springs, Tennant Creek and Nhulunbuy. The average number of prisoners in paid work each week was 85 (a small fraction of the total population), and 63 were released from prison with paid work. There is no mention of “throughcare” in relation to the scheme specifically, but “an integrated model of offender throughcare” features as a strategy for sentence management.
The average daily number of prisoners in 2015-16 was 1664.