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Banged up without rights

By Greg Barns - posted Wednesday, 22 November 2006

In this election campaign, as is the case with virtually all state elections around Australia these days, there has been scant regard given one to one of society’s most pressing concerns - the fact that our prisons are the new mental health institutions.

A staggering 80 per cent of Victoria’s 4,000 prisoners have some form of mental illness, or will suffer a severe mental health episode during their time in incarceration. For women, the figure is even worse - with almost 85 per cent of women in prison suffering from mental illness.

If these figures applied to Victoria’s schools or hospitals, then there would be front page headlines describing the crisis, and politicians of all persuasions would be keen to make it an election issue.


But of course, there are no votes in prisoners. Yet, this ought not to be the case. Any political party that claims the moral high ground when it comes to looking after the most vulnerable in the community, cannot be taken seriously if it ignores the plight of the vast majority of prisoners in Victoria.

And nor is it in the broader community’s interest for the prison system to be a warehouse for people with mental illness. Corrections policy ought to be based on the premise that the purpose of the prison system is to ensure rehabilitation so that offenders are released back into the community with a greater chance of becoming good citizens.

Both the ALP and the Liberals have rightly focused on mental health in the election campaign. Premier Steve Bracks says he would actually appoint a minister for mental health and spend $129 million on creating 168 extra beds for mentally ill patients. Opposition Leader Ted Baillieu says that mental illness is the “scourge of our time” and promises more dollars and resources.

But a search of both the Liberal Party and ALP policies released so far in this election campaign produces a “nil result” if one is looking for words of wisdom on how we can tackle the mental health epidemic in the prison system.

One would have thought that even on the grounds of cost savings and overall community well being, both Mr Bracks and Mr Baillieu might be tempted in this election to talk about criminal justice options for offenders with mental illness that don’t involve incarceration.

As the Victorian Council for Social Services pointed out in a recent submission to the Bracks Government, while providing intensive residential support to people with mental illness is comparable in cost to prison, the former alternative makes a “positive contribution to people’s health and wellbeing, as well as contributing to a reduction in crime and savings to the justice system”.


Policies to reduce the mental illness epidemic in Victoria’s prisons are not exactly rocket science. They merely require both the ALP and the Liberal Party to move our of their fear zones when it comes to advocating changes to the criminal justice system.

Instead of pandering to the law and order vote by promising more resources for law enforcement, as the ALP has announced, and cracking down on community based order breaches, as the Liberal Party is promising to do, both parties could do worse than adopt the very sensible and practical suite of measures that a group of legal and welfare agencies calling itself Smart Justice has crafted.

Smart Justice, which represents community legal centres from around Victoria, and agencies such as the Jesuit Social Services’ Brosnan Centre which work with recently released prisoners, says there is a need to inject serious dollars into police training.

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About the Author

Greg Barns is National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

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