Tuesday, March 10, 2009

"Creature comforts"

One of the side-effects of the relentless "law and order" auction between the parties is spiralling costs. Being "tougher on crime" means more people in prison for longer. Which means you need somewhere to put them. Which means, inevitably, more prisons.

The problem is that prisons are expensive, both to build and to run. Buildings that people can't get out of don't come cheap, and neither does watching them 24 hours a day, seven days a week to make sure they don't try other methods of escape (like wandering off when on a prison work party) or engage in violence against other inmates (or themselves). The government's current "solution" is "double bunking" - packing prisoners in two to a cell to avoid having to build a new building. Corrections somewhat blandly warns that this will lead to "issues of inmate compatibility and tensions"; criminologist Greg Newbold, who spent time in prison in the 70's, puts it in English:

"When you're locked up with someone you can't get away from [or] with someone you may detest, people will explode in that type of environment," Dr Newbold said.

"It's the worst thing they can possibly do. It leads to homosexual rape and bullying in cells, and dehumanises the inmate.

Having cellmates is one reason US prisons are so violent - and their absence is one reason ours are comparatively good, and murders and assaults comparatively rare. Double bunking will change all that, and turn our prisons into US-style zoos. To adopt Corrections' tone, this is unlikely to aid rehabilitation.

Not that any of this troubles Sensible Sentencing Trust ACT "law and order" spokesperson David Garrett. In a press release titled "forget inmates' creature comforts", he says:

The fact is: if you don't want to be assaulted - or worse - by a cellmate, avoid prison by not committing a crime.
Here's a hint: not being beaten or raped is not a "creature comfort" - it's a fundamental human right, and one we cannot deny to anybody, even prisoners. Especially prisoners. Quite apart from our obligations to run safe prisons under international law, there's two other points that need to be made. Firstly, contrary to the beliefs of the SST sadists, beating, brutalising, and victimising people is unlikely to make them better people. And secondly, allowing people to be beaten, brutalised, and victimised in prison - and indeed, establishing conditions which actively promote such treatment - rather undercuts the message of the law that that sort of behaviour is wrong.

But I forget: according to ACT, "we've got too hung up on people's rights". Except, of course, the "right" of the rich not to pay taxes...