Coronavirus threat highlights the need for prison reform

Letter published in the Canberra Times on 26 March 2020

The corona virus emergency underlines the public health threat of the crowded ACT prison overflowing with people with co-occurring substance dependency and other mental health conditions. The 2020 Productivity Commission Report on Government Services tells us that the average daily prison population in the ACT is 484, almost double the 247 in 2008. At 110.3% the AMC exceeds its design capacity, contributing to the highest rate of prisoner on prisoner violence in the country.

Prescribed physical separation is impossible in the prison’s crowded conditions. And once again it will be the indigenous community, a mere  1.6% of the ACT population but 23% of the prison population, that is clobbered most.

The high churn of people in and out of prison on short sentences is a health risk to inmates, corrections officers, the families of such  people and indeed to the whole community.

It’s time to tackle key drivers that lead so many to be in prison.  Countries like Switzerland have shown that heroin assisted treatment can reduce property crime by about 70%.

[Rather than fiddle at the edges with measures like drug courts that  will not have an impact at a population level, the] ACT should grasp the nettle and accept the finding of the Queensland productivity commission that “illicit drugs policy has failed to curb supply or use” while being “a key contributor to rising imprisonment rates”.   It concluded that “moving away from a criminal approach will reduce harm and is unlikely to increase drug use.”  

Bill Bush

Families and Friends for Drug Law