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Unlocking Australia's incarceration culture


Man slumped against prison barsThe Commonwealth and the Victorian state budgets this year were marked by a contradiction. Both committed more money to incarceration — immigration detention centres and prisons; and both limited programs to help the people confined there. Such contradictions are usually signs of a bad policy that flows from shallow cultural values.

The myth of incarceration says that prisons hold only bad and dangerous people. The reality, evident to anyone who spends time in places of incarceration, is that most people there suffer from some form of mental illness, often accompanied by addiction, a great number have also had traumatic experiences in childhood, and almost all have very loose and precarious connections to family and society.

These deficiencies, rather than inherent badness, shape the ways in which they behave.

It requires little insight to guess the effects of incarceration on people with such backgrounds and experiences. Psychologist Patrick McGorry famously described immigration detention centres as factories for producing mental illness. He might also have been speaking of prisons.

To hold vulnerable people in prisons is like keeping alcoholics in a pub. Mental illness thrives there. Nor, for all the dedication of staff and counselors, can mental illnesses and addictions be treated effectively there. If you take away someone's freedom, you also diminish their sense of responsibility for their own betterment.

Incarceration also weakens people's already precarious connections with family and with their local society. In addition to forced separation, the stigma of imprisonment and its erosion of self-esteem erode people's frail personal relationships and their connections with workplaces.

Connections made in prisons can help sustain some prisoners during their sentences. But for others the most significant connections made promote anti-social attitudes and skills.

When people are freed from jails their underlying mental illness and lack of respect for themselves will not have been addressed. They will be unable to maintain or build on relationships already weakened by separation. They will struggle to find work. So they will seek comfort in the bad company and environments where they lived before. As a result of being in jail they will be more, not less, likely to offend again and return to jail.

Prisons are certainly necessary to protect society from the actions of people who seriously threaten it. But most people in prisons wish to live more ordered lives. So given the effects of incarceration it is a mystery why any society would spend money expanding and running prisons that prepare vulnerable people only for further prison time, instead of addressing seriously the factors that underlie their anti-social behaviour.

The answer to this problem may be sought in social and cultural attitudes commonly shared by citizens and politicians. Prisons are symbols of the way in which we see human beings and human priorities.

In our society the emphasis on custodial sentences and on building more prisons flows from a view of society as composed of individuals, who make ourselves by our own choices and measure ourselves by material prosperity. The relationships and connections we form and keep are not seen as given, but as a matter of choice.

If we are simply what we choose to be, the horizon of our lives is the present moment, or at most the span of our individual lives. We owe no respect to the past and have no responsibility for the future. We can take sole credit for who we are and for the prosperity we enjoy.

From this perspective the world is divided into winners and losers, and the business of government is to provide security to citizens, especially in the face of the threat from losers. So we all have a personal stake in prisons.

When we focus on the present welfare of the individual, and disregard our natural connection to other human beings and our responsibility for them, we shall also naturally resist any increase in taxes, and particularly any government expenditure that will change the life path of people who are disadvantaged.

It is also dangerous to focus on the present welfare of the individual without acknowledging what we have been given by the past and owe to the future. We inevitably fail to learn from experience that  to imprison people without caring for them makes it likely that they will return to prison.

Nor shall we consider the cost to society of the subsequent actions of prisoners who are corrupted by time in prison. All that is necessary is that we have guarantees of our own security.

Just as churches, with their statement of the connection between worshippers themselves, between kings and commoners, and our connection to a reality beyond the graspable world, were the signatures of a religious society, so the proliferation of prisons is an emblem of a society that canonises individual choice.

They symbolise and entrench the gap between winners and losers, celebrate the business of locking people up as a source of private profit, and fly the flag of perceived interest over that of shared experience and reflection.

Deeper thinking about human beings and society would surely lead to better ways of doing justice. 

Andrew Hamilton smilingAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street

Prison bars image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, prisons, detention centres, Patrick McGorry



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Existing comments

"The myth of incarceration says that prisons hold only bad and dangerous people. The reality ... is that most people there suffer from some form of mental illness..." Remember the promising banner of de-institutionalisation as people suffering from mental illness were released from purpose-built institutions and returned to the community? Passage of time has proven that it wasn't de-institutionalisation so much as a change of institution. While in earlier decades, many people had been committed to institutes for the mentally ill who would have been better off living in the community, clearly the situation has now reversed. And because care for the vulnerable and treatment of the mentally ill are not the primary functions of prisons, the likelihood of recovery and rehabilitation in prison is extremely low. While our resistance to increased taxation to provide necessary support to individual persons is probably ingrained, so is our resentment of misuse of our tax dollars. Provision of adequate care and treatment for the mentally ill, whether in mental hospitals or in community day-care centres, is a far better use of taxpayers' money than locking up people who are ill.

Ian Fraser | 23 May 2013  

Andrew and Ian, thanks. Both beautifully put, and both quite right! Under the new "Bishop of Rome" I do hope this becomes a front and centre issue for the Catholic Church. Time we moved from the bedroom to other things.

Eugene | 23 May 2013  

I have come to a much deeper understanding of the influence our genetic inheritance and our past experiences influence the choices we make and the things we do. Confinement should be the solution only when this is needed to protect the community. When we experience love we are much more likely to make choices which do not halm others. I evn suspect that when we "meet" God after we die we will experience a love so profound that we will see even ourselves as God sees us and though sincerely regretting those times we fell short of the ideal we will see all the reasons we were weak and be able to see truth but forgive even ourselves and our worst actions

Patricia Ryan | 23 May 2013  

To what extent too is Australia's incarceration culture shaped and perhaps formed by our very beginnings as either incarcerated people or those who kept the keys?

Bron Williams | 23 May 2013  

politicians are very fond of "law and order" policies. They suppose you can cure criminality with threats of punishment and locking people up in prison. The reality is that criminality comes from social disfunction especially in the home. These days governments use church based social agencies in welfare because they with their networks of human resources are cheaper and more efficient than using public servants. Churches attract people into their communities not through "Indoctrination" but through being loving and caring and offering a whole new lifestyle that changes their whole being.

john ozanne | 23 May 2013  

Let's face it, we are still a penal colony.

Val | 02 August 2013  

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