The Australian prison system has failed — warehouses of illness & death.

Bring on Bastoy for starters

by Gerry Georgatos

PhD researcher Australian Deaths in Custody, Masters Social Justice Advocacy, Masters Human Rights Education

If you want to know the hearts and minds of a nation, of its consciousness, of its legislators, then day and night look into our prisons.

The two century old modern day prison experiment is failing, that is if we look at the spiralling incarceration rates, adult and youth, and if we look at re-offending rates, the recidivism.

My PhD research argues that people who enter the prison experience, who are incarcerated for relatively short or long terms leave the prison experience worse than they came in.

The prison experiment is not only failing, it has failed. Take Australia – in 1991, Australia incarcerated 15,000 souls, and twenty years later the total prison population doubled, to 30,000, however the total national population has not doubled, it increased by less than 10 per cent.

The prison experiment is a phenomena of the early nineteenth century, a structured penal code underlain with an intention to break spirits and conform people to societal demands so the advent of society could be unfettered so as to allow class structures to underwrite the Industrial Revolution.

During the late twentieth century the prison experiment has continued as it was originally intended during the early nineteenth century however within its paradigm of conformity advocates pushed rehabilitation practices underlain by education and evocative redemption.

The United States incarcerates more folk than any other nation on this Earth, with 1% of its total population in prison – that is nearly 3 million people. Are Americans really that bad or is America harsh on its poor, on those who transgress? No other nation on this Earth has 1% of its total population in prison, that is excepting for minority groups within nations, such as Australia’s Aboriginal peoples who in fact are have more than 1% of the Aboriginal population of Australia incarcarated – 1.3% in fact as compared to less than 0.1% for the rest of the Australian population; this bespeaks volumes of horrific discrimination and overwhelming racism and the refutations are mere guilt ridden hostility. The USA incarcerates more peoples in proportion to population and in crude totals than the former USSR, present-day Russia and China. Russia has about 700,000 incarcerated souls, and China 1.1 million souls, however China has a total population well in excess of one billion souls where as the USA has near 3 million incarcerated souls from a total population of near 300 million.

The USA has 3% of its total population in one way or another tied up to the criminal justice system, including parolees, and therefore it has near 9 million people caught up in demands of the American criminal justice system.

I have highlighted the USA because for many nations with less than 0.1% of their total population incarcerated their future is there for them to witness with the American model, that is if their intention is to likewise push zero tolerance, mandatory sentences, harsher and longer sentences, and the building of more prisons.

A prison should be a place of redemption, of humanity and in treating inmates with the opportunity to be respected as part of the human condition, a place where we extend our hand and where we patiently wait for them to accept it. However to achieve this seemingly fantastical culture there must be repeated waves of understandings that will win the logic and then the hearts and minds of the nation, changing our premises and our consciousness, our attitudes because community outrage can reign in any justification for what I am about to write if it is only advocated by the few – nesciene is an immolator of initiative, even of what appears to some to be the obvious common good.

Prison is made up of corridors of thick and heavy metal doors, small rooms, dank cold, claustrophobia, psychoses, multiple trauma, mental meltdowns, the death of the human spirit, the immolation of initiative, and is the behest of displaced of anger and tortuous madness confined.

I believe that a prison should be a facility of great comfort, of various freedom of movement, of trust building, of relationship building, of myriad bright opportunities, of psychosocial healing, of one courtesy after another.

I have no problem justifying prison as a place of saunas, spas, sunbeds, deckchairs, internet cafes, study centres, university learning and qualifications. Am I am mad you say? Is this beyond a bleeding heart say others? Am I an academic armchair critic chasing another moment in the sun? I am no armchair critic, and I have visited prisons and mixed it with the most vulnerable and the most oppressed among us and I have stood solid on the front lines with the disenfranchised, dispossessed, disempowered, and disillusioned.

I do not excuse criminality in any of its forms, however from a criminological perspective I seek to understand – causally and in terms of recidivism. There are those who will argue that the perpetrator of a crime endures two wrongs, the wrong to others and the wrong to oneself, whereas the victim endures the one wrong, and that any logical person would prefer to be the victim rather than the perpetrator – “how can you live with yourself?” say many to the perpetrator. I am not entering into this discussion, just noting it.

There is one prison that does justify treating its inmates with saunas, sunbeds and deckchairs. This prison is in Norway. Should we replicate this design in Australia? I think so. I am not writing about Justice Reinvestment, which I have written about before, and have explained that it is interventionist and not prevention, that it is good however not the solution, I am writing about human beings as equal, and in terms of the aspiration to equality I continue on.

This prison has given rise to the lowest re-offending rate not only in Europe however in most of the world. Isn’t this what we want? I think it is? I don’t think anyone wants to see a new prison built each year in Australia, which is indeed the case, and that our prison population will double by 2020 which appears will occur, and many of them will be enterprised by private operators – profiteers such as SERCO.

Australia will endure near 1,000 deaths in custody by 2020- prisons and police custodial each decade. 63% of custodial deaths occur in prisons, and Australia has more prison suicides proportion to population than for instance England and Wales which are countries that can be argued equivalent in social wealth to Australia. In fact Australia has double the average of prison suicides to England and Wales.

Attitudinal terms, Australians are against the notion of comfortable and opportunistic prison experiences for those convicted however at the same time we want to lower recidivism, lower re-offending, reduce crime period, make our streets safe.

Bastoy Prison is an island prison, Norway’s only island prison not far from the coastal town of Horten, just south of Oslo. The inmates of Bastoy, 120 thereabouts at any one time, do not visit the mainland and “spend their days happily winding around the network of paths that snake through the pine forests, or swimming and fishing along the five miles of pebble beaches, or playing on the tennis courts and football pitch; and recuperating later on sunbeds and in a sauna, a cinema room, a band rehearsal room and an expansive library,” reported Piers Hernu, in the Mail, July 25, 2011.

Piers said their communes are “handsomely furnished bungalows with cable television. The residents eat together in an attractively spacious canteen thoughtfully decorated with Norwegian art. The centrepiece is a striking ten foot long model of a Norwegian merchant ship.”

Does this sound like an oddball Scandinavian social experiment says Piers, or does it just contrast with great stark to the dank cold prison cells I have visited, the huddle of uniformly dressed prisoners I have met when pushing education programs and the flicker of a little hope for some of them? The prisons I have been to in Australia are in many ways reminiscent in appearance of the tragic and eerie Holocaust prisons I visited when backpacking through Europe as a young fellow.

Prisons are supposed to be about crime and punishment and maybe this is why in my research I argue I have found that people come out of prison worse than what they went in, however should prison not be about crime and punishment and instead about something altogether else.

As individuals do we give up on a troubled family member who has transgressed in various ways, and do not most of us, and in defiance to the rule of the law, and hence manifesting the family skeletons and secrets, try to support, help, guide our troubled family member(s)? Some of them have committed crimes however some of us are prepared to hide their actions and work alongside them to make amends and effectively make a new start. Many of us sacrifice for them, and many of us take many hits for them and especially in lieu of the fact that if we left them to society in its crudeness, that is without us as dominant in their lives however with the police or criminal justice system dominant, to the authorities, to ‘others’ well in statistical terms they’d be let down – unlike us the authorities have inflexible, and even barb wire, boundaries, thresholds, and once trespassed, the various proscription is to dump on them, to come down hard, let us remind ourselves of zero tolerance policies and concomitant mindsets.

I delved deep into every word Piers wrote and scrutinised each supposition, antecedent and premise, to critically reason and then sought out Bastoy, in Norway and everywhere else it could be – in the hearts and minds of our unfolding humanity, and in the cries of despair I have heard from those I met in Australian prisons, and in the letters I have received from Australian prisoners, many of them near illiterate, whom yearn for us to hear them and for us to cut them some slack, throw them a bone, to allow them hope, to receive them as if they are prodigal, and for many of them to be understood as if they had never left us. I have written regular opinion pieces in various mainstream newspapers and prisoners have read them and written back to me, that I’ve touched on some understanding that others nearer to them cannot see or do not entitle them to.

Do not misunderstand Bastoy, it is not a prison for low range offenders, for small time criminality or for folk doing their first custodial sentence.
Bastoy prison guards and officials have a different type of training than what do the corrective services guards and officials that we have come to know or who are portrayed to us in the news media and on television programs. The Bastoy folk engage with every basic human courtesy and share every ounce of respect to the inmates. Whereas we here in Australia are forbidden to shake the hand of a prisoner in an Australian prison – this is not the case at Bastoy.

I do not forget one of my first experiences visiting Australian prisons – and I spent the day in this prison and in having muster with the guards and chaplain and then meeting with the superintendents. I had wandered through the education facilities inadvertently breaking from my escort so to speak and met with various folk in different training rooms and this unnerved educators and surprised inmates in the various classrooms, however they warmed to our yarns. After a scheduled presentation to about 30 inmates in an Arts facility, a small room, we had to leave for the muster however as I was about to move to muster I was approached by inmates who were soulfully crying out for the opportunity to express a few comments, their own words, to be heard in their own voice, and one of them shook my hand – he put out his hand and of course I put out mine, another one I gave a hug and this lifted his spirit and the eye contact I made with many appeared to mean something to them. However, I was politely reprimanded by a distraught official who educated me that physical contact with any prisoner is not permissible.

Piers said that Bastoy is like no other prison that we know. He describes a conversation with a prison guard while on a ferry boat crossing to the island prison; “You see that man there,” whispered the guard, pointing discreetly at one of the three uniformed ferry workers, “he’s one of our inmates – a murderer.” As they chugged ever nearer, and the outline of an old church steeple rose above a backdrop of pristine pines, it became clearer that Bastoy is like no other prison and Piers said, “Slowly, the idyllic sight of what appears to be a quaint Norwegian village reveals itself, complete with cosy cottages, dirt roads and even horses and carts.”

He continues, “The first person we see on the island, on a wooden verandah outside a modern bungalow, is a man in swimming trunks stretched out on a sun lounger… He was a given a sixteen year sentence for shooting dead a fellow amphetamine smuggler over an unpaid debt. Now he is relaxing between his shifts as a ferry worker.”

Piers describes that Bastoy with a 120 inmates and 70 staff, 35 of whom are guards, is Norway’s largest low-security prison however it is one of four others across Norway.

A Bastoy prisoner said, “I spent 8 and half years in a closed prison before moving here nine years ago and I am much happier now.”

“I immediately trained to be a ferry worker. I am going on a Maritime course at university. I want to be a commercial captain when I get out,” he said.

“Normally all you leave prison with is two bin bags of clothes. It is like your life has been on pause. You just go on with all the bad habits you had before you went in.”

And here we come to the conversation that this generation of humanity needs to have in trying to understand the purpose of prison, whether it is of punishment or whether it is a compartment of humanity, whether we can understand redeeming a convicted murderer and allowing a murderer “the freedom to work and mix openly with non-criminals”. Does this offend what has been ingrained in us asked Piers, and so do I?

It is no longer a plausible argument to argue that prison is a place of deterrence, not with all the studies and research arriving into the light of day highlighting the recidivism and re-offending, and not only these statistics however the steely criminality, the hardened criminality, the ever worsening criminality enmeshed in suffering and tortured minds and souls.

The simpler arguments for many are the tax-payer funding that is required to sustain prisons, and with the doubling of prisons in Australia in the last decade and a half, and the doubling of the prison population during the last two decades, and at an annual cost of thereabouts $150,000 per prisoner well many, however not everyone, will consider other avenues. This is where Justice Reinvestment has scored a look-in, and it is worthwhile however it is much misunderstood by many of its proponents, who mean well however lack the experiential knowledge, however I will leave Justice Reinvestment for another feature.

Prisons have become overcrowded, a world-wide phenomena that we accept and turn a blind eye to where we can, and which has directly led to mental breakdown, acute and abject depression, various irrecoverable life-long traumas, and in part explain some of the high pre-release suicide rates, and the even worse post-release suicide rates.

People leave prison worse than they went in and it is underlain by this statistic; thereabouts on average in Australia there are 70 prison suicides annually, however in the first year of release from prison, researchers and studies have found that there are between 350 to 500 suicides and deaths, that is at least one a day, and a huge proportion of these deaths unbelievably is in the first four weeks after release – suicide, self harm, self injury, drug related deaths and so on. This trend is replicated right throughout the Western world.

It is not only Australia, it is in most countries, that the general public has been whipped up to call for harsher prison experiences, mandatory sentencing, longer prison sentences, and a harsher criminal justice regime. State and Territory Attorney-Generals, ministers of police and justice, all of them bang on about more prisons, harsher sentences and if you do the crime then do the time while rarely mitigating their mantras with the causality, with the hard and soft determinism that we hit the world when born into it, the preconditions of the states that we are born into, the inter-generational aspects – and maybe this is so because most of our parliamentarians have risen into office from within the fire and brimstone of the hysteria their predecessors have caught the public in. Many come into office with a red hot hammer rather than substantive and relevant qualifications and a will to coalesce humanity rather than to hammer divisions. Moral leadership often requires to challenge the apothegms of the general public and the malignant editorials of many mainstream tabloids, however for those that do so it often comes at the cost of having to accept that you may lose the depth and extensiveness of your voice by challenging premises – this is about the relations of power.

Reforms are long overdue, however a generation of humanity will continue to suffer in the draconian dank cells of most of these Holocaust-like prisons with their harsh alienating penal codes before legislators fully accept reform – and the valid research of many studies to date, all at our wanton disposal.

Piers said,”An extensive new study undertaken by researchers across all the Nordic countries reveals that the re-offending average across Europe is about 70 to 75%. In Denmark, Sweden and Finland, the average is 30%. In Norway it is 20%. Thus Bastoy, at just 16% has the lowest re-offending rate in Europe.”

Norway in terms of a social and human development index is one of the world’s wealthiest nations. It is sparsely populated and one of the world’s most stable economies and countries. Its population is just five million and its prison population, proportion to total population one of the world’s lowest, is thereabouts 3,500. Western Australia with about a two million total population has 4,600 adults incarcerated. In November 2011, the United Nations Development Program (UNDEP) Human Development Index, in terms of public social health and other social wealth, rated Norway number one in the world, out of 187 countries, however the number two rated nation is Australia.

Australia is wealthier than Norway, and is the world’s 13th largest economy and also has a small generally sparse population of only 23 million. Australia has every opportunity to lead the way like Norway in reducing incarceration rates, in reducing re-offending and in nurturing a much more safe and engaging society. If Australia does not do this now then when will it?

Australia stands disgraced by some of the worst deaths in custody statistics, prison and police custodial, in the world, however more so disgraced by its horrific incarceration rates of Aboriginal peoples. Australia-wide 26% of the prison population is Aboriginal, however in terms of the total Australian population Aboriginal peoples comprise less than 2.8%. Australia incarcerates Aboriginal peoples at five times the rate of Apartheid South Africa, and in Western Australia this rate is at eight times, with 41% of the total adult prison population Aboriginal, with one in twenty WA Aboriginal males in prison on any given night, while in proportion to the total state population they are less than 2.9%. In Western Australia, Aboriginal youth comprise 70% of the total juvenile detention population. Aboriginal communities know of the impacts upon families, the meltdowns and disassociation from hope and the mainstream when their males and children are locked up, and so the inter-generational cycles. In the Northern Territory 84% of the prison population is Aboriginal, even though they are only 31% of the total Territory population, and this incarceration of Aboriginal peoples in the NT is the world’s highest incarceration of any one peoples in the world.

How can the Australian consciousness reconcile this nation’s wealth, its second ranking behind Norway on the UNDEP human development index while incarcerating Aboriginal peoples at nearly 15 times the rate of non-Aborginal Australians, and Aboriginal youth at 33 times that of non-Aboriginal Australians? For many Australians in order to live with themselves in light of this horrific treatment of others, rightly defined as discrimination and racism by others, there is a hostile denial of history, of racism and of any contemporary associations to guilt.

Norway’s prison population, 3,500 thereabouts, proportion to population is the second lowest in Europe – only Iceland betters this.

Piers rightly sums up the predicament, “Whatever is happening here (Bastoy and Norway) cannot be ignored. Indeed, it is being positively embraced here – Norway is planning to build more prisons like Bastoy. At the expense of our own deep-seated unease, and with the possible benefits of safer streets…”

“Dare we contemplate…” this prison regime in Australia? Or do we continue to follow old models, near two centuries old, like in the rest of Europe or the even harsher models that have transpired in the USA and now incarcerate 3 million Americans?

On arriving at the island prison of Bastoy, at the ferry wharf, Piers is guided by “a jovial former amphetamine smuggler serving five years. He begins our climb up the winding road towards the church…”

As they walked up the winding road Piers learns from his prison guard companion that he had worked six years in a conventional prison – a closed prison – however he jumped at the chance to score into some humanity by taking up the offer to work at Bastoy where he has now been nearly four years.

He said, “Working here is much more rewarding… because not only do the prisoners have much more freedom and responsibility, the guards do too.”

Piers said in terms of the food and decor, Bastoy’s canteen could pass for a trendy London restaurant, certainly not the muster I shared in at the prisons I have visited. The inmates are responsible for themselves in getting up on time for breakfast, and in making and packing themselves lunches to have at their various places of work during the course of the day, just like you would normally, and this is key to seeking what is proscribed as normal.

Piers met with the prison governor, Arne Kvernvik Nilsen, who he said was keen to explain what Bastoy was all about.

Arne said, “I believe that we as human beings, if we are prepared to make fundamental changes in the way we regard crime and punishment, can dramatically improve the rehabilitation of prisoners and thereby reduce the re-offending rates.”

“Bastoy is an ongoing experiment, but I really hope the results will benefit not only Norway but the UK, Europe and the rest of the world.”

Piers said that Nilsen has a very personal and heartfelt mission, and well Piers is on the mark here, for if changes happen, they need people to understand what they are doing and why they are doing them in order to be able to go about the doing, it cannot be demands by impost, this type of mindset belongs for instance to the failings of the prison systems that we know, that are premised on the assumption of deterrence via punishment. Nilsen is a qualified and practising psychotherapist specialising in Gestalt’s emphasis on personal responsibility. It has been long argued by many that psychosocial knowledge should be part of all corrective services personnel. Nilsen spent 12 years working for the Correctional Services Department of Norway’s Ministry of Justice before he took up the post at Bastoy, as governor in 2007.

The Norwegian penal system has no death penalty or life terms and the maximum is just 21 years, in turn giving everyone a modicum of hope and all of society the reality that they will have among them those they incarcerate – so if this is the reality then how do we make society safe and at ease with itself?

Piers said Arne described that however heinous their crimes, one day they will be released back into society. Arne said, “Both society and the individual simply have to put aside their desire for revenge, and stop focusing on prisons as places of punishment and pain. Depriving a person of their freedom for a period of time is sufficient punishment in itself without any need whatsoever for harsh prison conditions.”

He continued, “Bastoy takes the opposite approach to a conventional prison where prisoners are given no responsibility, locked up, fed and treated like animals and eventually end up behaving like animals.”

“Here you are given personal responsibility and a job and asked to deal with all the challenges that entail. It is an arena in which the mind can heal, allowing prisoners to gain self-confidence, establish respect for themselves and in so doing respect for others too.”

Bastoy prison has no cells, bars, guns, truncheons nor CCTV cameras. Piers said, “Bearing in mind that among those housed here are murderers and other violent offenders, it is slightly unnerving that they have access to knives, axes and even chainsaws for their various jobs on what is trumpeted as the world’s first self-sustaining ‘ecological prison’.”

“I have not had one violent incident here,” said Arne.

Piers said that the midday lunch he enjoyed was chicken risotto, with cold meats and cheese and a variety of salads, prepared and served by the kitchen’s inmates who sit down and eat alongside the guards, administrative staff and the governor (Arne).

New comers to the prison undergo an introductory week of living training, how to make food and clean rooms before gradually dispersing as spaces become available in some of the more private and spacious houses scattered around Bastoy, said Piers.

One inmate said, “I was married to a nice girl for twenty years and we have five kids but in 2008 she came to me and said she had secretly bought a new apartment and was leaving me. I snapped and attacked her.”

“Thankfully she wasn’t hurt but I was found guilty of attempted murder.”

“This prison is much better for me because now with access to a computer and the internet I can continue the sociology dissertation I was writing before I was arrested.”

“I get released (soon) and I feel I will be much better prepared to go back and into real society. I’ve already been given back many of the freedoms and responsibilities that I’ll have to deal with on the outside.”

Bastoy’s inmates generally choose their area of work, “which can be based on previously learned skills or the desire to acquire new ones.”

Another inmate said, “In closed prison I was locked up for 23 hours a day, so I am really happy (here and) with this job. I am treated very well here and in return I will treat them very well also. Of course it’s never nice being in any prison but it could be much, much worse.”

Arne believes that it is the objective of self-sufficiency that both creates jobs for prisoners and provides them with a common purpose.

He said, “The prison is self-sustaining and as green as possible in terms of recycling, solar panels and using horses instead of cars. It means that the inmates have plenty to do and plenty of contact with nature – the farm animals, wildlife, the fresh air and sea. We try to teach inmates that they are part of the environment and that if you harm nature or your fellow man it comes back to you.”

Piers said that a significant advantage of the ecological approach is that due to low staffing levels and producing their own food and fuel, “Bastoy is actually the cheapest prison to run in the whole of Norway.”

50 year old Gunnar is a carpenter and commutes to the island prison most days from the mainland, and heads the carpentry, plumbing and do-it-yourself divisions of Bastoy, and teaches inmates various skills, and he said, “If I was told that my new neighbours were going to be newly released prisoners I would far rather they had spent the last years of their sentence working Bastoy than rotting in a conventional prison.”

“I have never really felt like I am working in a prison, and nor have I ever felt the slightest bit threatened here. I think most Norwegians increasingly realise that closed prisons are the old-fashioned way of dealing with criminals and that in terms of rehabilitation they simply don’t work.”

Bastoy has a resident nurse, resident dentist, resident priest, resident physiotherapist and a creche for small children. Piers said prisoners are allowed at least one three hour visit a week, and this is the case across the whole Norwegian prison system. Intimate relations with visitors are not prohibited. Inmates with young children are allowed day long visits from their wives or girlfriends. Let us remind ourselves that prison populations are predominately males, and in Australia 96% of the total prison population are males.

Another Bastoy inmate said, “I grew up in an orphan house and started crime at the age of 15. I’ve spent 13 years in different closed prisons but a friend told me about Bastoy, so I applied to come here.”

“It is an extraordinary place to work and learn in. For the first in my life I feel motivated and I believe in myself – I really believe I can break my circle of crime.”

At night only 4 guards remain on the island prison with the 120 inmates.

Arne said, “Because of Bastoy’s results the Norwegian government is currently changing the law so that people who receive a sentence up to four years can serve their whole sentence in a prison like this.”

Arne described to Piers his concerns of the UK prison system and which reflect my similar concerns of the Australian prison system, “I believe the UK is going in the wrong direction – down a completely mad and hopeless path, because you still insist on revenge by putting people into harsh prison conditions which harm them mentally and they leave a worse threat to society than when they entered.”

He continued, “This system actually has nothing to do with Norway specifically or this island, so I see absolutely no reason why it can’t be adopted (elsewhere).”

In the end whatever one thinks one cannot dispute the statistics, especially when Western society is allegedly driven by a paradigm of outcomes and results, then the statistics from Bastoy and Norway’s prison systems do speak volumes when compared to Australia’s prison systems which now carry some of the world’s worst statistics, especially in terms of imprisoning Aboriginal peoples, minority groups, the high number of deaths in prison custody, the mental health breakdowns, and the high re-offending rates, especially for Aboriginal peoples, adults and juveniles.

My PhD research into Australian deaths in custody – prisons, police and immigration custodial – argues that there are thresholds reached where so much damage is done that it either becomes life-long, reaches a point where there is little or no prospect of recovery, even though all human beings have capacity to heal, and to accommodate trauma, however so harsh is the penal experience for instance, that the trauma and multiple trauma, the erosion of ones identity has led to Australia’s horrific prison suicide rates, and to re-offending, to the recidivism.

People need people to believe in, and in turn they also need to be believed in – humanity is nurtured by this set of belief systems, without this set of belief systems we dwell in vacuums of inhumanity.

We need to pull apart many of our prisons, and develop them into places of humanity, where those who are sentenced to a prison experience can come out of prison not the worse for it, however the better for it, and this in effect is the building of society, and in fact the bona fide deterrence of criminality, and in turn we as Australians can become proud of our march to a civil and just society, and our national consciousness will rejoice in this, and deliver us from the hostile denials of petty but vile racisms and the ugly malaise of refutations that we do not discriminate – tell that to our Aboriginal brothers and sisters and to the poorest among us. Let us not continue with a criminal justice system and prison enterprise that will only degenerate to the basket case that has become of the USA’s criminal justice and prison systems. Prisons needs to be myriad bright with opportunities, and concepts of revenge set aside, and the personnel within prisons work with folk for their own good and the common good. When we start doing this we will need less prisons and the humanity will unfold for everyone.

Firstly, let us understand what works and what does not work, and let us admit what has failed, and move on.


linterim conclusions from a PhD researcher in Australian Deaths in custody – police, prison and immigration custodial, and Stronger Futures/Intervention trauma findings.,,4125865,00.html
What is certain, though, is that the inmate islanders live in a unique prison. Life is not a beach at Bastoy but there is a chance for prisoners to enjoy a special kind of freedom and to regain responsibility over the lives.
A Liberal Prison System – Bastoy Island, in the fjord of Olso, Norway.
The warden, Arne Nilsen, wants the men here to live as if they were living in a village, to grow potatoes and compost their garbage, and he wants the guards and the prisoners to respect each other. He doesn’t want bars on the windows, or walls or locked doors.…
the Government’s response to over-population and reoffending by pushing through far-reaching reforms which emphasise shorter sentences while placing prisoners in a working environment.…
For example, whereas Scotland has over 7,000 inmates being held in 16 jails, Norway with a similar population has just over 3,500 prisoners, held in 50 prisons – a prison population rate of 75 for Norway but 142 for Scotland.
It was Dostoevsky who said: “The degree of civilisation in a society is revealed by entering its prisons.”

Gerry Georgatos
Journalist | National Indigenous Times
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Donnybrook-Bridgetown Mail correspondent

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BA (Phil), BA (Med), BA (AIS),
G/Dip (Human Rights Ed), MHumRgts, MA (Social Justice)

Researcher in Australian Deaths in Custody

Independent freelance journalist and author

‘Go tell the Spartans, Passerby, That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.’
Molwn labe

7 thoughts on “The Australian prison system has failed — warehouses of illness & death.

  1. What is this norway’s ideal prison is about

  2. Gerry Georgatos says:

    Shane, you are right that certain custodial – police and prison – and I add immigration – deaths have not seen the light of day in terms of justice – you are right the effectively police and prisons officers are not adequately held accountable and not just for an obvious unnatural hand in a death in custody however for various maltreatment, because for every death in custody there are scores maltreated. Police should not be investigating police, this should be a given, similarly with corrective officers, and it is no favour either to police and prison officers that police investigate because it casts a dark pall of aspersions and other imputations that good folk within are appalled by. The culture of favour dispensation and the biases and prejudices ensure that no-one will be held justly accountable – if Mulrunji Doomadgee’s death was not an unnatural hand then well what is – however Officer Chris Hurley was effectively allowed exonerated, and no other police or prison officer has been held accountable for obvious wrongs. The death of John Pat and the acquittal of five police officers made Roebourne to Western Australia what Birmingham was to Alabama. We do need an independent inspectorate demarcated from police to investigate police and corrective services where necessary, however an inspectorate where there is no exchange of personnel as occurs with for instance anti-corruption bodies, such as the Corruption and Crimes Commission WA or the Crimes and Misconduct Commission Qld with say the senior bodies of the police – these commissions have failed to effectively investiage police and corrective services other than loose criticisms and findings that rarely go anywhere.

    More people are aware today of the myriad wrongs and the extensiveness of deaths in custody than were say five or ten years ago, and again twenty years ago. The RCIADC did serve to bring to the light of the day deaths in custody and some of the obvious wrongs and the campaigns since have made sure more and more people know and hence this is part of cultural waves and in garnering parliamentarians to lead with the will of the people when it becomes majorly because that’s how most politicians work, there are not too many with the moral fortitude to lead from the front when they only have fewer than a majority with them. There are children in adult prisons at the moment and I can assure no politician in the country cared enough to highlight this however it took a year long campaign to expose this and force at least a few parliamentarians to do something about it that is after we significantly raised awareness and did the perpetual dissemination. They did disgust me and still do however we need to carry each other, we needed them, not for us however for those in real need, and hence we had to be tenacious in our belief that we could exact change though it exhausted some of us – for me it was a year taken out of my life to get these gets released – there were between 60 to 100 languishing in adult prisons this time last year say, however many are free now, however there are at least still 27 kids still inside adult prisons, particularly Albany Regional prison, however we haven’t given up, and have worked hard to underwrite the awareness raising through the various news media and so on…

    I don’t know much more than what I do Shane. I get frustrated when the journey takes longer and I feel jaded when it looks not likely in my generation or lifetime however we can’t stop, I hope I sort of made some sense!


  3. shane Backhouse says:

    I would support a prison system such as -BASTOY- as from what i now read about it .There are positive out comes for the inmates. And this only strengthens my ideas that if people were sent to a place where they could adjust their attitudes and beliefs.Then have constructive courses or trades to inprove their status on release Then bring it on i would say to the Prime Minister of AUSTRALIA. As this might just be the way to go .to save lives from suicide And the cost savings in the long run ,Thank you for bringing this prison system to my knowledge. Gerry . There are no negative comments here or thoughts. As this type of prison management here could easiely solve many of Australias crimes and actually inprove our society .As we are not a huge nation compared to other countries that have hundreds of millions citizens . I would like to see the GOVERNMENT EVALUATE IT CONCEPTION HERE

    1. Gerry Georgatos says:

      Hi Shane, I pretty much agree with you on all counts, the frustration of waiting, watching things get worse, the mental meltdowns of those inside, half that maybe need never have been there however for the sentencing regime. I’ve yarned with many prison officers so I’m interested in what you are writing having worked in prisons. I remember what one prison officer said to me about prisoners brought into them from police lock ups and often they would be worse for wear – he said to me, “some of the police, they’re like gangsters, we get them in black and blue, beat up and put them through medicals, support them back up” however he of course is not referring to all police like this, however it’s the aspersions that all police have to live with because not enough is done and zero tolerance is pummelled day in day out. Others have told me it’s a mixed bunch in corrective services, inadequate training and like you write some more expertise and discretion should be requisite. What I’ve seen in prisons is that they’re under funded, and that any good initiative is effectively kept to a minimum, rarely expanded. I agree with you that rallies, unless in the multitudes will never achieve anything however we’ve got to keep at it, and the dissemination is imperative to my mind, and the submissions I keep up because it feeds, if ever so slowly in to policy and change, however it’s piecemeal. I get upset and I can put people offside in the push for action, in the urge for the sprint to justice rather than the marathon, and like you Shane I’d like them to consider now evaluations of what may work in place of what does not work. I too am sick to death of reports from government agencies telling themselves how bad things have got, it’s not rocket science we know the stats, what they need to do is move forward and not well verse themselves in statistics that go nowhere, however many of them are just not up to it and that’s a tragedy for many folk inside. Anyway people like me go hard in what I do because I am one of those types that knows he upsets folk however what I may say and do is then picked up by those standing in the middle and leveraged for outcomes with those violently opposing what we argue for. Thanks Shane, regards, Gerry

  4. shane Backhouse says:

    My respect to you Gerry for your dedication to the jutice cause. I in no way wish to be disrespectfull to you .i am only coming across ,as from my experience as a prison officer and my communication with government ministers. I would love to see more meaningfull assistance to inmates as what exist in the prison today .
    I believe there should be constructive courses /education that is a definate positive on the person so as for them to fit back into the general run of society smoothly. As from my experience in talks and feedback .The fitting back into society was not that easy and smoothe.
    I also believe that the system even today lacks benificial results for prisoners to help them fit back into society once released.I am told that there is still bordom and frustration within the system and attitudes of negativity are still causing conserns.
    I once asked that a psychology test be given to all people wishing to become a prison officer.As to me if this were done then there would have been less suicides by inmates. Today i do not know if this is a requirement for a career in the prison system.
    Attitudes played an inportant part in suicides during my -12 years .I am willing to bet it hasn’t changed. You mention change and it takes time to have ideas implemented. but even on todays stage decisions are made on the—-example—- boat refugees seeking a new life here. Look how quick decisions are made on the safety and well being of these people .But for our own and the numbers of suicides ,over the years ,what do i see .???
    But demonstrations and request and royal commission of inquiries into deaths in custody , get no action for many years now-for me -20 plus years i have been wating for sensible out comes and an honest inquiry into deaths in custody. AND STILL NOTHING .This is why i say the government will do nothing and will always protect those who are responsible for the deaths in custody,such as police and prison officers.

    I will i believe not see it in my life time ,though i wish i could as i then would have a burden taken off my shoulders and my heart would be at peace. I personally know that prison affects people when they spend time in prison.AND MANY HAVE PERSONALITY CHANGES THAT EFFECT THEM FOR THE REST OF THEIR LIVES. Many prisoners and especially Aboriginal should not be sent to a prison ,so depending on their crime and the attitude of the convicted person .There should be other places to send them to assist them to inprove their preception of society and how best they could contribute to society .On closing this there has to be a re think on laws and citizens behaviour and conformity to society laws.
    The attitude build more prisons is not the answer. Taking a hard line on crime will not decrease crime .Education and communication with people who are having problems accepting and fitting into society norms. We should be looking at the causes of crime before the opportunity to committ crime is presented. Yes Gerry there are changes being implemented.but why slowly ? when the urgent attention should be placed on decreasing suicides as quickly as possible .This is me mate i evaluate what i see and i soo no action positive and not huch honesty .AS THOSE RESPONSIBLE FOR DEATHE IN CUSTODY -POLICE AND THE PRISON SYSTEM ARE FREE AND NOT MADE RESPONSIBLE FOR THEIR ACTIONS. tHIS IS MY ANGER – NO ACTION .

  5. Hi Shane, understand what you’re writing, however things to improve. Even in Australia with its horrific deaths in custody records and its harsh sentencing regimes there have been many folk within the prison systems and from outside the systems that have exacted various positive changes that have effected good outcomes. I know of prison psychologists and counsellors who especially during the eighties were able to implement various initiatives that helped secure employment for folk once out of prison, and there are those who implemented initiatives to start working with folk in terms of psychosocial counselling and other support, so change does happen, it all doesn’t go nowhere.

    Shane, it’s true that it’s a hard gig trying to get ministries to listen and to implement what others, maybe like myself, argue as progressive or for the common good. I do look at the statistics and do discern the discrepancies and the reasonable argument of discrimination in terms of class warfare so to speak, that the poorest among us, that minorities, that our Aboriginal brothers and sisters languish disproportionately in adult and juvenile prisons.

    The people I have visited in prisons want opportunity, to be included, to score redemption, to live this life and for this to occur all of us have a part to play that the example of Bastoy gives. Bastoy is an example of what appears a step in the right direction and if we buy statistics in an outcomes based, stat underlain society then why would we ignore Bastoy’s stats, Norway’s stats, Iceland’s stat, even Justice Reinvestment, etc…

    If people like you and I don’t disseminate, have the public conversation how else will we generate change, agitate for inquiry, bring about consciousness in line with what may work?

    I write a lot, I know this, and you are not the first to criticise however there are also many who consider what I too contribute and have used some of what I have contributed in policy making and so on.

    I’d like to hear Shane what of Bastoy you may disagree with or do you just not believe that our parliamentarians will implement similarly the principles of Bastoy in Australia?

    In time it will happen and in doing so it will have arrived because of what usually takes a generation’s worth of cultural waves, I hope it will be much sooner if we just go as hard as we can.

    Kindly, Gerry

  6. shane Backhouse says:

    once again i read -Gerry-Georgatos words on -prisons fail — we know that. All i hear these days is talk on the prisons and police .and that is all .NOTHING IS ACHIEVED AS FALLS ON DEAF EARS OF POLITICIANS AS THEY COULDN’T CARE LESS . Prisons fail for only a few reasons. -1- TOO EASY–2- WRONG PLACE FOR SOME OFFENDERS. -3- WRONG EDUCATION FOR INMATES- 4- FRUSTRATION AND BORDEOM . . FIX THESE PROBLEMS AND WE WILL SEE A DECREASE IN NUMBERS BEING SENT TO PRISON . THUS A DECREASE IN CRIME IN SOCIETY .
    Now is this all talk from some one who knows nothing. ??? one thing for sure you can’t say i am wrong as these things have not been done ( a make believe attempt to do something simular has occured in the past but not these things). So to the experts get the government to implement these then we will see .as all i hear from you all is talk.

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