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Prisons need rehabilitation: Here's how

by The Ethics Centre
04 August 2017
An ex-prisoner, victim’s advocate, barrister and businessman walk into a room... And they argue about jail.

Four debaters and an audience of 1000 contested the statement “Prisons work” at this week’s Intelligence Squared program in Sydney Town Hall. 64% of the audience voted prisons don’t work but all debaters agreed we can’t do without them. We’ve collected the questions we’ll need to answer to make sure jail is doing its job.


Kerrie Thompson works to support victims of crime both emotionally and practically through the police and court systems. She argued prison gives victims necessary closure. Knowing offenders are locked behind bars and out of the community provides them with a crucial sense of security.
Thompson sees victims find solace in the perpetrator’s imprisonment. She told the story of one victim who remarked that seeing her offender being away from society was “all that matters”.
Thompson canvassed the ongoing effects of crime – especially violent crime – on victims: a constant sense of danger, flashbacks and nightmares, to name a few. Prisons, she argued, grant victims respite from ongoing trauma.

"Underneath the surface, there is a desire for vengeance." – Julian Burnside

On the other hand, Julian Burnside believes there is an instinct for revenge at work in wanting people in prison and this results in recidivism. The prominent barrister argued you go to prison as punishment, not for punishment. He pointed to the abuse at Don Dale as example of prisoners being subjected to inhumane treatment on top of being deprived of their liberty. For Burnside, this highlights a desire to use the prison system for revenge. 
Thompson suggests another way of thinking about it. Perhaps what’s driving the community’s desire to see offenders locked up is a need for justice rather than vengeance? But if that’s the case, we need to think about what the demands of justice say about the conditions in prison. Do they need to be as unpleasant as they are?


Aboriginal business leader Nyunggai Warren Mundine, who chaired a recent inquiry into Corrective Services in South Australia, said “to know whether prisons work, we need to know what we want them to achieve”. Knowing the purpose of prisons also helps us to identify possible alternatives.
Usually, prisons are seen as having four main purposes: deterrence, rehabilitation, punishment and community safety. Mundine argued deterrence and rehabilitation isn’t happening. Although a former prisoner in the audience said his sentence was exactly what he needed to stop reoffending and rehabilitate.  
Victims’ advocate Thompson agreed, arguing “if society had no serious punishment for crime and wrongdoing, more people would do the wrong thing”.

“Sometimes people are so broken from trauma, they’ve given up on trying to find themselves. Prison can help.” – Kerry Tucker 

Deterrence aside, the other three purposes were all seen as important – in particular, rehabilitation.

Kerry Tucker, a former prisoner who is now a lecturer and advocate for female prisoners, received her university degree whilst in prison. She sees real potential for prisoners – especially women who are often escaping from toxic environments outside jail – as having an opportunity to start afresh during their incarceration.

"I’ve lost count of the inquiries into prisons." – Warren Mundine 

Burnside agrees rehabilitation needs to be a central purpose but he doesn’t see prison is necessary to achieving that goal. He suggested house arrest as a solution. He argued when coupled with community service, it would be more successful for rehabilitation as better meet the goals of justice and community safety.
Burnside’s approach though might seem heavy on rehabilitation and light on punishment. Several speakers acknowledged the importance of a punishment that meets community expectations. Does house arrest hit that standard for you?


Both sides of the debate found common ground on juvenile imprisonment and agreed it is not an adequate form of discipline for minors. Mundine said, “juveniles who go to prison stay there for life”. He added there is an 80% recidivism rate amongst youngsters. This suggests if we don’t find a successful way to address serious youth criminality we risk losing young offenders in a justice system they have little chance of getting out of.

"If society had no serious punishment for crime and wrongdoing, more people would do the wrong thing." – Kerrie Thompson

Thompson suggested juveniles are better served through therapy which is aware of the trauma they may have suffered by being imprisoned. Indeed, an understanding of the past trauma of offenders was identified as a critical dimension of the prison debate. 


Based on the evidence presented in the debate, crime begets crime. Tucker highlighted the startling number of women who were victims before becoming offenders. 94% of women arriving to correctional facilities were victims of domestic abuse, she said. And 72% were diagnosed with mental health issues. 

“If your car started 50% of the time, would you say that it works?” – Julian Burnside, on the recidivism rate. 

Tucker believes at their best, prisons foster a community that heals and helps inmates find solidarity in others who have had similar experiences. They can receive therapy, counselling and education to overcome the traumas of their past. “Sometimes people are so broken from trauma, they’ve given up on trying to find themselves. Prison can help”, she said.
Mundine doesn’t believe prisons play this role for men – who are a much larger group in the prison population. Focussing on his insights from the South Australian correctional system, he told the audience 50% of non-Indigenous and 70% of Indigenous prisoners had been served time before. This does away with the notion jail can reform and suggests it entrenches criminality instead.
However, there may be other factors making people more likely to commit crime after time in prison. Several ex-prisoners in the audience spoke of their difficulties finding work after leaving.
One researcher in the audience said people face homelessness when they leave prison, and more so before they go in. Tucker called this “a second sentence”, suggesting there might be nowhere else for people to go than back to crime – or even back to safety of the community they found in prison.


If the recidivism rate in Australia were a glass of water, would we see it as half full or half empty? The current national recidivism rate is 56%. Tucker thinks those who do successfully rehabilitate aren’t featured in the national discussion about prisons. “Non-recidivists are often overlooked and rarely discussed in media”, she said.
In reply, Burnside suggested the failure rate is more important. “If your car started 50% of the time, is that a success?” he asks.
It seems like there’s a long road ahead for prisons. If we can start by determining what it would look like for prisons to work, we might be able to figure out a path forward.

Missed out on this event? Come to our next IQ2 debate, ‘Humanity is designing its own demise’. Tickets here.

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