ALEX MITCHELL: NSW prisoner release in chaos

Apr 17, 2020

Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s Government has begun releasing minimum security prisoners as a health measure to ease overcrowding as the COVID-19 pandemic presents an alarming threat. But is prisoner release driven by health concerns or budget blow-outs?

Having spent the past 10 years raising the NSW prison population to record levels, the conservative Coalition has now set free 80 prisoners with many more to be processed and released in coming months.

Penal reformers have welcomed the decision because it breaks a law-and-order mindset which has characterised every Liberal-led Government since World War 2. Yet it wasn’t reformers who carried the COVID-19 Legislation Amendment (Emergency Measures) Act 2020 through the NSW Parliament. It was Coalition backbenchers fearful that the Budget was being ravaged by falling tax revenue and hit by massive expenses from the drought, fires, floods and the viral pandemic. Their focus was on the Budget and not the health of prisoners from the State’s 38 correctional facilities.

From the very start, the NSW Coalition’s prisoner release programme was ill-conceived and mismanaged, risking a far worse viral epidemic than the Ruby Princess scandal. For example, the NSW State Parole Authority was not consulted. Its members learned of the plan to release prisoners from the media.

But the Parole Authority is an independent statutory body whose legislative responsibility is the welfare of all prisoners locked up by the criminal justice system. It was designed by Justice James Wood following his 1995-1997 Royal Commission into NSW police corruption.

Justice Wood believed the creation of an independent, statutory parole body would prevent scandals such as the prosecution and 1987 jailing of Corrective Services Minister, the late Rex “Buckets” Jackson, who received corrupt payments in return for releasing criminals.

The new release scheme passed by State Parliament last month has watered down the safeguards of Justice Wood’s original legislation and given unprecedented powers to the Corrective Services Minister David Elliott, former head of the NSW division of the Australian Hotels Association (AHA).

Interviewing Corrective Services officers and prisoner advocates for this article, I discovered that confusion reigns. Is the State Parole Authority responsible for the custodianship of NSW prisoners, or is it Corrective Services Minister Elliott, or the Corrective Services Commissioner Peter Severin? Can the Parole Authority stop the early release of a prisoner under the Coalition’s scheme or not? Will Aboriginal men and women will be eligible? Do practising Moslems and young offenders qualify or not? Who can stop incompetent or corrupt prison officers from accepting bribes to nominate “troublemakers” for early release? Will prisoners on remand be eligible for freedom as well, and which ones?

The NSW scheme operates for six months but can be extended for a further 12 months by a simple vote in parliament (and it will be!).

The early release scheme is being adopted by Governments around the world. In the UK up to 4,000 prisoners in England and Wales are scheduled for release to stop the spread of COVID-19 in crowded cellblocks. Only inmates with two months still to serve will be considered.

The UK measure may be too late. Two prisoners have already died at Her Majesty’s Prison at Littlehey, an all-male sex offenders’ jail near Huntingdon in Cambridgeshire where two or more men to a cell is common.

A total of 88 prisoners in 29 jails in England and Wales have already tested positive and a further 1,200 are self-isolating. In Scotland, a quarter of prison staff have refused to work in the overcrowded system where prisoners are at boiling point.

In the British colony of Ulster, 100 minimum security prisoners, both Protestant and Catholic, have been released.

In his General Election manifesto in December, Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised that criminals would be “kept off our streets”. Yet in the past eight weeks his Tory Government has freed 5% of the prison population with another 5% on the way.

Downing Street considered sending early released prisoners to army bases and refugee confinement centres but the “opticals” were fraught with anti-government publicity. The idea was dropped.

Other countries to adopt early release programmes are France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Canada and Australia. Prisoners rioted in 23 overcrowded Italian jails resulting in 12 prisoners being killed.

In the United States, California is releasing 3,500 inmates, New York State is freeing prisoners to dig mass graves and wear electronic bracelets at home while four cash-strapped US states are opening prison gates to save money.

Prisoners are demanding early release schemes in Mexico, Brazil, Peru, Colombia and Argentina but there are great difficulties in obtaining accurate statistics.

The global acceptance of prisoner release schemes demonstrates just how quickly governments can change their spots when their system is in peril. But NSW Ministers and politicians seem more concerned with saving their own skins, not prisoners.

Alex Mitchell is a former Sydney Sun-Herald State Political Editor whose commentary appears every Friday.

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