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Features & profiles


Our prison system

27 May 1988

Published in The Advertiser

"Of course I should be here. I killed two people!" It was a double-murderer talking, inside Yatala. He was emphatic that prison was fit punishment for his crime: "Of course you need a prison system for people like me."

Prisoners, as a rule, aren't against the concept of imprisonment. They know society has a right to extract justice for their misdeeds. But they claim South Australian prisons could also be an opportunity to re-equip themselves for their release - with new attitudes, skills, and prospects for employment. Unhappily, many say rehabilitation is not merely difficult, but actively discouraged. One could put this down to sour grapes: however the many of the professionals who know our prisons at first hand are saying the same thing.

You certainly wouldn't get this impression from looking at the bare facts and figures. At Yatala the State Government has spent $7 million on an Industry Complex, for teaching such skills as spray painting, welding and joinery. At Mobilong Prison inmates learn a range of skills from jewelry and leatherwork through to computer programming. TAFE personnel visit these and other prisons daily. Our annual prison budget is nearly $48 million.

So what are they all complaining about?

Kym Sinclair, released in February after an eight year sentence for armed robbery, says: "At Yatala, the unions didn't like us doing their work. We were only getting $20 a week, which undercut them." Because of union pressure he claims "it is not possible for prisoners to even do an apprenticeship. So the Industry Complex is very underutilised. We just made rubbish bins - that was the metalwork training." What about the spraypainting training? "That was spraypainting rubbish bins," he laughed.

The frustration is compounded by compulsory strip-searches after work - during which inmates must squat naked over a mirror. Another ex-Yatala prisoner (who, like most prison inmates and employees, did not want to be named) said: "You go into the education room, after you've just been humiliated by a strip-search. You're not really in the mood to study anything. Sometimes teachers get searched too, and get their tools pulled to bits. So their tempers are frayed. The place is not conducive to study."

What about opportunities for psychological change? A teacher who has worked in four prisons stated: "If someone commits a rape, he might get six years. But there are no programs wherein he can spend time looking at why on earth he did that, and how he's going to stop it happening again. The whole ethos should be: 'This is the point of change.' Whereas the ethos now is: 'You've done this - you'll be back.' The officers even place bets on it. We need more enlightened training for these people."

As these comments directed blame at prison personnel, I put them to the Industrial Officer for the Correctional Officers' Association, Bill Trevorrow. He began by stating that many prisoners are too unmotivated to improve themselves. (This I found to be true, in my own prison visits.) Trevorrow also claimed strip-searches are essential. "When I first went to Yatala, I wondered why officers had to do this degrading thing. Then I saw the collection of things the prisoners had made in the workshop. Knives, zip guns which fire .22 bullets, and so on. So it's a pity that sort of thing is done, but it must be done." Trevorrow acknowledged, however, that officers are badly trained.

Those on opposite sides of the bars in our gaols - the inmates and the professionals - agree on many things: firstly, that the institutions themselves range from the comfortable to the Dickensian; secondly, that prisoners range from an idle sub-class to the bright and rehabilitation-minded; thirdly, that the system is falling down nearly everywhere because of the people who run it. It is widely believed that the insensitivity of officers, resulting from poor selection and training, has caused more problems than any other single factor.

An example is the claim by several prisoners that prison officers sparked Yatala's bloody 1987 riot. A peaceful sit-in protest turned nasty when "the Riot Squad armed up," said one inmate. "They all looked like Darth Vader - full-face black helmets, black shields, black sticks. And balaclavas so you can't identify them. They just came in and gave it to us. About 12 blokes ended up in hospital."
Bill Trevorrow dismisses claims of officer brutality as prison folklore. "I've worked in three institutions over four years, and I've never seen one act of violence perpetrated on a prisoner that wasn't related to reasonable force. But I've seen lots of violence perpetrated by inmates against officers, and other prisoners."

The only prison which attracts general praise is the two-year-old Mobilong Prison, near Murray Bridge - where 155 of the state's 878 prisoners are finishing their terms. John Shannon is currently completing 9 and a half years (for bank robbery and heroin-possession) at Mobilong. He describes it as "basically a good prison. I'm frankly surprised about it: all this time we've been thinking Blevins was a bastard!" he laughed. (Frank Blevins is Correctional Services Minister.) "The place has been open for two years now, and there hasn't been an escape attempt. The best things are the lack of screws, and the freedom inside the fences. I'm doing a Maths degree by correspondence. Most prisoners here do something positive. It's quite a congenial place, for prison. Those blokes at Yatala, they've got a right to bitch. That place is so constricted, as far as time and movement goes. But it's different here."

One wonders why, if trusting and encouraging prisoners pays dividends, it isn't practised more widely. For where Mobilong attracts praise, prisoners and professionals (such as teachers and social workers) speak with horror of South Australia's other prisons. The Adelaide Remand Centre probably has the worst reputation. Some claim prisoners there have been subjected to extreme punishments, such as being handcuffed to cold showers for hours on end. The old Adelaide Gaol is not remembered well either. Kym Sinclair claims officers once ran amok there after a riot, smashing inmates' personal effects, and throwing TVs down stairs. Cadell Training Centre, near Morgan, is described by the Department as teaching "a wide range of agricultural skills". This seemed to epitomise the difference between the Department's view of what happens in its institutions, and that of the prisoners: an inmate describes Cadell as "a full-on farm joint. We just pick oranges. That's it."

A DCS worker who knows all our gaols well says the situation is worst at Northfield Women's Prison: "Northfield is unbelievable. It's like the nineteenth century. You can work in the kitchen, the sewing room or the laundry. That's all. No education, no re-training. They tried to introduce strip-searches of women prisoners by male guards at one point. Hardly appropriate, when you consider that two-thirds of them have been sexually abused. The women stopped that themselves." The Department produced little to counter the claim that Northfield women are disadvantaged, citing "one education officer who has rather limited tasks".

Geoff Goodfellow, Adelaide's "prison poet", has held many writing worskshops at Yatala, Mobilong and Northfield. Despite what he claims is a lack of encouragement from the Department, Goodfellow recently co-ordinated South Australian prisoners in publishing a book of their own poetry. He believes "any prisoner sentenced to more than six months should be subject to an education induction system, to have it proved to them that they can make positive changes. Because all the negatives have been bashed into them right through their lives."

Goodfellow does not use the word "bash" metaphorically. Meeting hundreds of prisoners has shown him that childhood bashings, and sexual abuse, are regular features in the lives of offenders. Goodfellow feels our prisons perpetuate this cycle - claiming that bashings by officers are common enough. He is currently trying to convince DCS to support writing workshops, to "arm prisoners with pens". He is also seeking permission to address trainee prison officers: "I know that being an officer is not a position anyone would envy. But if they think they're going to succeed with their current bash mentality, the struggle is just going to go on."

Liberal Party prisons spokesman Trevor Griffin thinks prison officers would benefit from doing the Justice Administration course at the Institute of Technology. However a couple of the officers wanting to do the course have, he said, been criticised by their fellows. (Peer pressure against self-improvement is a common complaint among new officers.) As for unions allegedly stopping apprenticeships inside Yatala, Griffin says: "That's a ludicrous situation. I think the unions have got something to answer for if they stand in the way of that kind of activity."

Griffin has a special beef about the Remand Centre: "It appals me that some prisoners have been on remand for two years. There's something seriously wrong with a system that can't bring those people to court in a much shorter period. That's as bad as New South Wales." Griffin thinks the Remand Centre is a dispiriting place, and to the extent that lawyers are responsible for the long delays, there may be cases of professional misconduct to be looked at by the Law Society.

Griffin is also disturbed by the number of fine defaulters in gaol. "There really should be a greater emphasis on Community Work Orders to get fine defaulters out of the system." (As with any prisoner, it costs $163 per day to keep a fine defaulter behind bars.)
Many of those who deal with Correctional Services Minister Frank Blevins claim he is "difficult", and slow to answer queries and complaints - when he answers them at all. Nevertheless, the changes Blevins has made to the more visible aspects of the system are applauded, even by his critics. But the bottom line in improving our prisons, most agree, is improving the calibre of DCS officers. I asked Australian Democrat prisons spokesman Ian Gilfillan how this could be done:

"Upgrade the training they get, the qualifications required before they're accepted into the job - not just academic, but physical and mental. We are still carrying the hangover of 'warder' mentality, where people who work in the prisons are, almost by definition, expected to be brutal, authoritarian and not very smart."

Correctional Officers' Association spokesman Bill Trevorrow accepts that facilities have improved greatly, and wants Blevins to now turn his attention to what is generally perceived as the weak link in the chain: officer selection and training. "Now is the time to put resources into the human factor. Pay rates for SA prison officers are the lowest of any mainland state." Trevorrow says the officer training course needs to be longer, "and there needs to be more in-house training. Also, there's not enough role-playing. Acting out the situations you're going to come up against. It's a very basic human relations job, but it's too theoretical in the training."

Trevorrow, who has a Psychology degree from Flinders University, claims that the psychological tests used to assess officer candidates are invalid - and that the Department's interviewing panels are often inexperienced. He adds: "There also needs to be more emphasis on training officers for consistency in approach. There's nothing more disconcerting for prisoners than to be faced with a morning shift of officers who are easy-going, who think the rules have some grey areas - and then an afternoon shift which follows the line rigidly."

Trevorrow hopes a forthcoming trip to Europe by DCS Operations Director Barry Apsey will result in ideas for uprgrading training. "Scandinavian countries in particular could probably teach us something. The training of officers there is intensive, and it's ongoing: they're prepared to take officers off-stream for a considerable time."

Lastly, Trevorrow decries the nepotism within the prison system. "Some of the people mentioned in the Royal Commissions in the early eighties - people who are now managing prisons in South Australia - were to be excluded from ever having responsibility for supervision again. But they're still in control, because of nepotism - close frienships. One of our problems is that we have promoted people way beyond their level of competence. Until the Department establishes a better system for performance appraisal of officers - which is almost non-existent at present - they'll never be able to promote people according to merit."

There are probably no major scandals to be uncovered in South Australia's prison system. A bigger source of aggravation in this regard is the court system, where many claim serious travesties of justice occur. Prisoners will regale you with the alleged horrors of police verbals, harrassment of girlfriends, critics of police being framed, and a scheme where drug charges are dropped if money is passed to the "right people" in the court system. ("For $25,000 you can just about name your prison sentence in the lower courts in this state," claimed one.)

The prison system itself is subject to less spectacular accusations. But among inmates, ex-prisoners, prison teachers, social workers, non-Labor politicians and visitors, there is a rough consensus: the system is in many instances a physically advanced one, which is nevertheless failing because of poor attention to "the human factor". I could find no-one outside the Department who was prepared to say much different.

Most agreed that the following reforms are long overdue: (1) speed up the workings of the courts; (2) establish apprenticeships in gaol; (3) keep fine defaulters out of prisons; (4) end nepotism in the Correctional Services Department. And, most important of all, to improve the selection and broaden the training of our prison officers.

As Geoff Goodfellow, the prison poet, succinctly put it: "It would be reassuring to know that when prisoners were released, whether they be male or female, juvenile or adult, they had the ability to write a job application, the confidence to perform an interview, and the belief that employment could empower them. Prisons are always going to be negative producers unless we can achieve these aims. It's not enough to lock people away - we have to at least attempt to tune them up."

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