500 words Post prison world?

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Should prisons be a thing of the past? Couldn’t we just have prisoners in the community? Monitored by technology?

That’s what Mirko Bagaric from Swinburne argues, in this talk recorded as part of ABC’s Big Ideas program.

Bagaric made many, many sweeping statements. He’s Professor of Law and Director of the Evidence-based Sentencing and Criminal Justice Project at Swinburne University*.

Mostly his talk was characterised by post hoc ergo propter hoc statements. Apparently the income of prisoners many years after they leave prison is much lower than the average. Imagine how much more they’d earn if they hadn’t had their working lives interrupted by a stint in jail!

Having had a bit to do with prison, I can pretty confidently say that the idiosyncracies landed you in prison in the first place probably aren’t conducive to lifelong wealth. Clever criminals don’t generally go to jail.

Then there’s the argument that it costs heaps to keep these chappies in jail, which is does. But once you run the counterfactual – deduct cost of keeping them on the outside – Centrelink payments, accommodation supplements, healthcare etc.,. it’s starting to look rather a lot less pricey. For reference, it costs about $250 per day to keep someone in jail. Assuming Newstart plus a moderate amount of accommodation, plus the overheads of all those punitive ‘work for the dole’ and ‘work ready’ education schemes you’re probably looking at about $500 per week. It’s still cheaper on the outside, but we should be realistic about the difference.

Bagaric was justifying keeping people out of prison. Most of his arguments seemed to be oriented around the idea that most prisoners would be fully employed, healthy, well adjusted adults and parents if they were allowed to stay on the outside.. Think of the benefits to the family! Think of all those men who could be in their kids’ lives! Helping them with their maths homework and ferrying them to soccer!

Bagaric talked about drug users – as we all know, many prisoners are in prison for drug use. He positioned locking them up as self-evidently ridiculous. Cos everyone knows they’d be heaps better at home. Having a stepdad addicted to ice is a fucking fantastic addition to the family unit.

Bagaric made the terrifying claim that we should only ‘lock up’ people we’re really scared of – like murderers and rapists. I’m wondering how much exposure this chap has really had to violent offenders? Most murderers aren’t planning on actually murdering someone, they’re just administering a really stern telling off. My point is this – violent offenders are a fucking worry. Imagine if violent non murderers were ‘at home’. How many more opportunities would there be for them to beat someone to death?

Apparently, if we only lock up people we’re scared of that naturally excludes women. People aren’t scared of women because they’re not physically capable to being violent enough to cause real harm. Tell that to their kids. Women can and do kill their children, and they allow others to do so as well.

Bagaric also said women shouldn’t be locked up because of the impact on their family – they’re the primary carers of children and older people. Well, that’s not a prison problem, that’s an inadequate care problem. There simply isn’t sufficient state support for children who need alternative care. He argues that sending one woman to prison often means the family home dissolves – which is something I strongly agree with. Prison is the road to homelessness, not just for women. As is well known, many people reoffend to get back into prison. At least it’s a roof.

Keeping women out of jail is a tantalising idea, but Bagaric doesn’t seem to play this out. When I was at high school we learned one of life’s important maxims; have a baby and they won’t send you to jail. If women with children can’t be sent to jail that’s a hell of a motivation to have a baby, pronto.

He also stated that many women end up in jail for not paying fines – especially indigenous women. I can’t help but think of Ms Dhu who died of neglect in a WA jail after being locked up for not paying a relatively small but completely unmanageable fine. This was one instance where I agreed with him.

Bagaric also stated that the prison population was rising quickly, due to successive governments’ populist ‘tough on crime’ approaches. There’s no mention of how much growth is attributed to population growth, and how much is attributed this ‘toughness’.

Bagaric made some other pretty broad statements about the philosophy of imprisonment. For instance, he argues that prisoners are exposed to physical and sexual violence in prison – words like; ‘they lose their bodily autonomy and this can have serious consequences for their sense of self worth’. This was positioned as an unintended consequence of imprisonment. However, I think most Australians probably see ‘loss of bodily autonomy’ as the bloody point. We are a brutal, ex penal colony.

‘Governments want to be seen to be tough on crime’. Well, there’s a reason this works – people perceive that they’re not tough enough on crime. Frankly, Bagaric needs to be cogniscient of the reality – he lives in a country that elected Pauline Hanson. Many, many people do not think being ‘tough on crime’ is just a populist trick. There’s a reason it’s called ‘populism’.


*It may well be that he didn’t have the scope to adequately justify some of his arguments, but in my view some of the statements were too polemic not to be. 


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