Time to try a new approach for prison inmates By The Canberra Times 522 words 2 March 2008 Canberra Times 24 English (c) 2008 The Canberra Times WE TALK of carrots and sticks, revolving doors and downward spirals. How to deal with criminals of varying degrees of crime, drug addiction and states of mental health, how to rehabilitate, and whether indeed we should try, have long been the focus of intense debate both nationally and internationally. The ACT Government's proposed new jail is near completion and is being hailed as a world-class facility with state-of-the-art design attuned to human rights guidelines. The Alexander Maconochie Centre in Hume will house up to 300 offenders, and provides several types of incarceration, from confined cells to shared group living. At first glance, it would seem little has been spared to create a home away from home. The facility's aesthetics rival the latest trends in household design. Anyone struggling for accommodation in Canberra at the moment would be forgiven for feeling a little envious. But is it extreme? No. People who commit a crime, for whatever reason and to whatever degree, have rights. Our indignation over the treatment of those contained at Guantanamo Bay and other internationally notorious jails must surely underline that notion. Last year's ACT Human Rights Commission audit report on Canberra's detention and remand facilities was to the point - they were inadequate and overcrowded, and fostered a culture of control and bullying. The long-established argument that petty criminals often become hardened re-offenders once they enter the prison system, together with the inadequacies of detention for those who are mentally ill, would surely indicate that a new approach to jails must be tested. On Friday new research into United States jails showed that for the first time in the nation's history more than one in 100 American adults were behind bars. The US Justice Department's figures for 2006 showed that the prison population grew by 25,000 last year, bringing it to 1.6 million. The figures make the US the world's most incarcerated nation. In Australia as at June 30, 2005, there were 25,353 prisoners (sentenced and unsentenced) in Australian prisons, an increase of 5 per cent from the previous year. This represented an imprisonment rate of 163 prisoners per 100,000 of the adult population. Unsentenced prisoners comprised 20 per cent of the total prisoner population, and, importantly, most prisoners (60 per cent) had served a sentence in an adult prison prior to the current episode. Clearly, the prison system needs to change. There will be detractors of the new jail, over the costs per prisoner and the style and nature of the jail itself. But in today's world, it's a little hard to get hold of rusty iron bars and barbed wire to achieve that certain jail- house look. Only time will tell if the new concept will help turn around the prison system and its culture. But if the rhetoric behind the Alexander Maconochie Centre proves true, then the community at large will benefit from a reduced number of re- offenders, and the costs of continued incarceration.