Take no prisoners

If I asked you to imagine what prison in NSW looks like, chances are, you’d probably picture something a little like Orange is the New Black, or reflect on that time you watched a season of America’s Hardest Prisons in an effort to procrastinate from exams. If you’ve never been to prison, and don’t know…

If I asked you to imagine what prison in NSW looks like, chances are, you’d probably picture something a little like Orange is the New Black, or reflect on that time you watched a season of America’s Hardest Prisons in an effort to procrastinate from exams. If you’ve never been to prison, and don’t know someone who has, your reflections are most likely grounded in popular culture, if it’s ever something you’ve considered at all.

When I found out about a ‘prison visit’ excursion scheduled for one of my classes, I honestly had no idea what to expect. Our state statistics tell a story of a 43 per cent recidivism rate, an inmate population of 11,000 and rising; as well as disproportionately high numbers of Indigenous Australians, people from low socio-economic backgrounds, the substance addicted, and the mentally ill. For quite some time, I’ve wanted to work in criminal justice and reform – but I couldn’t tell you a single thing about what our system actually looks like.

Our visit was to Silverwater Metropolitan Remand and Reception Centre, about 21 km west of the CBD. It could be considered the lynchpin of the system; it is the single largest correctional centre in the state, with over 900 beds filled with male inmates awaiting, or undergoing, trial or sentencing, and others in transit to prisons around the state.

It’s business as usual in the inmate reception area. There was no one passing through when we were there, but we were told people would begin to come in as early as 5 or 6 am. Many are at the Centre only for the weekend – arrested on Friday night, refused bail, off to the Local Court on Monday – indeed, the prison population is in a constant state of flux. Many more go to Court via video link – around 8,000 inmates in the past year.

Arrivals are stripped, their personal belongings bagged and stored for return on release. They are given a green jumpsuit to wear, a plate, bowl and cup, a towel and blanket. The standard-issue shoes are green as well – Velcro straps, no laces – that’s a suicide risk. The blankets are specially designed so they can’t be torn. That many inmates are at risk of self-harm or suicide is dealt with in a painfully matter-of-fact way. The Centre is equipped with a set of ‘safe-cells’ – clear Perspex doors, no hanging points, 24-hour camera monitoring. The goal of keeping at-risk inmates alive trumps what little privacy is afforded to the rest of prison population. There is an acute mental health unit in the Centre as well – many there are waiting for space to free up in the newly built Long Bay Prison Hospital.

Monitoring, assessment, protection and support seemed to be common themes throughout the complex. When inmates first arrive, they must be placed in ‘Darcy Unit’, where they are closely assessed and monitored, put on drug rehabilitation programs if needed, assigned relevant medication, and placed on watch if at risk of self-harm. Only once an inmate has been cleared may they be moved into the general prison population. It is a bottleneck of sorts – even if there are spare beds throughout the rest of the Centre, if Darcy Unit is full, then no more inmates can come into the prison.

What struck me about this process is the degree of support provided, and  vitally needed, for members of the prison population. There is a GP, a dentist, nurses, psychiatrists, and even radiology equipment on site. The officer, who was showing us around, said that many of those coming in were being tested and treated for basic STIs: problems which weren’t dealt with on the outside, quite apart from the more complex trauma, substance abuse, and mental health issues that so many present with. It made me question how these individuals cope upon their release from prison, without these institutionalised systems of support. I recalled an anecdote I’d heard about an ex-prisoner who needed to attend 17 different appointments in a week following her release from custody. A huge proportion of those who leave custody end up homeless, heavily in debt, lacking financial support or familial networks. We were at a Remand Centre, and not a centre holding those serving long term custodial sentences, but a lack of continuity between support within the system and support upon release seems similar. Little wonder our recidivism rates are so high.

The in-prison work system did not seem especially targeted towards rehabilitation either, but more like a method of behavioural management. If you’ve ever wondered who repairs Qantas in-flight headphones, the answer lies in Silverwater Remand. Apparently the inmates who work there get paid around $35 a week for 6 hour days, 5 days a week. This equates to $1.17 per hour, with options for higher pay if promoted to more senior positions. On one hand, these inmates are being given work to do and incentives for better behaviour – but at the same time, they were paid far below minimum wage, without the capacity to develop skills or save for the outside. Wages enabled inmates to purchase expensive cigarettes. And one wonders what will happen to the 80 per cent of inmates who smoke when the prison-smoking ban is rolled out next year. From the anecdotes we heard, smuggling in contraband, including drugs and mobile phones, is not uncommon, despite rigorous security.

Behavioural management in custody is not just about protecting inmates from themselves, but protecting them from each other. There are various protected cell populations within the Centre – child sex offenders, for example, need to be protected from other inmates. The risk isn’t a far-fetched one either – we heard about an incident involving an inmate who murdered his cellmate because he thought he was a paedophile. Warring gangs, too, need to be separated from each other. Apparently offenders from various gangs are allocated to certain prisons around the state: preventing gang warfare in already overcrowded prisons, but also insidiously enabling individual gangs to gain a strange sense of ownership over the prisons they populate.

It was a short and fleeting glimpse into the system that I got that morning, but it was a glimpse nonetheless into a complex system that very few members of the public know anything about. Perhaps it was a product of visiting a Remand Centre, but I couldn’t help but feel as though the system suffers from a sense of tunnel vision – designed to keep inmates alive, stable, and well-behaved, but not to keep them from returning. I need to learn far more than this complex and bizarre system, but my resolve about prisons, in general, remains clear – something needs to change.