Western Australian Premier Colin Barnett once said that he didn’t approve of female prisoners being taught pastry-cooking by French chefs. Not, presumably, because he has anything against the French, but because he was furious at what he claimed were the luxurious living conditions afforded women detained in the Boronia Pre-Release Centre for Women: a minimum security correctional facility in Bentley, Western Australia.
During the 2005 state election, then Opposition Leader Barnett promised to close the 70-bed facility, which had been opened just a year earlier. He lost that election, and luckily, when finally elected in September 2008 he appeared to have changed his mind: in the month after polling day, Barnett’s Attorney-General Christian Porter was proud to announce the opening of another pre-release centre in the south-west of WA, apparently similar to Boronia and housing up to 72 inmates.
I say “luckily” because Boronia has proved to be a model for modern justice and rehabilitation, drawing praise from criminal justice experts within Australia and across the world. Boronia should become a model for prisons across the country: it’s time to rethink the way criminal justice is administered.
Opened in 2004, Boronia is styled to provide women nearing release (who have attained a minimum-security rating before consideration for transferral there) with the capacity to operate successfully on the outside. Its website states its four basic principles: personal responsibility and empowerment, family responsibilities, community responsibility and respect and integrity.
Personal responsibility is engendered in part through the housing arrangements: living in shared units, women are responsible for their own cooking, cleaning, shopping (at a shop inside the facility), and budgeting. Women share self-contained units rather than cells, and although they are locked inside the units at night they are free to move about inside them. The idea is for Boronia to mirror the outside world as much as possible, so women can prepare themselves for their post-incarceration lives.
Additionally, women in Boronia are required either to work or to study, with an average day at Boronia starting at 8.30 and finishing at 3.30. During these times women (unless they are sick) must be engaged in either looking after their children if they have them, undertaking one of the courses available to them (including horticulture, hospitality and community services) or working. Some women work in the commercial catering business operated by Boronia, serving staff as well as businesses in the local community. Others leave the centre to do community work in organisations like the RSPCA or the Good Samaritans.
In a radical departure from traditional prison structures women are allowed to keep their children with them (up to their fourth birthday), and can have regular overnight visits from their children up to the age of 12(subject in all cases to the best interests of the child). If a child is approved to live in the prison, a “care plan” is formulated, and when the child arrives it is housed with its parent in “mother and child” units.
The Centre has been applauded by former Western Australian Inspector of Custodial Services Richard Harding, who, in his 2007 report on the facility called it a “model for good practice”. Harding’s successor, Neil Morgan, termed Boronia “one of a kind” and “first rate” due to its “women-centred approach”. (See report here.) Prisoners, too, have praised the facility. On January 19, 2005, the ABC’s 7.30 Report interviewed inmates and former inmates who called their guards “lovely” and “more like friends” and who called the progams offered by Boronia a “really, really good thing”.
This is the moment, no doubt, at which the obvious objection will be made: surely the point of prison construction is not to win praise from inmates? Why on earth should women convicted of crimes be sent off to be taught cooking by a chef who might (or might not) be French?
First, women who reach Boronia are at the “pre-release” stage of their sentences: they have already passed through Perth’s only maximum-security female prison, Bandyup, where overcrowding is rife and conditions are much more dismal. It is also important to remember that in one crucial sense, Boronia is just like any other prison: the punishment that women are undergoing is the loss of their freedom.
On the most important criteria, however, Boronia works better than others: women who pass through it tend not to return. In fact as at 2006, the recidivism rate for women leaving Boronia was less than one third of the national average. The argument, then, is simple: Boronia is not perfect (the recent Inspector of Custodial Services report notes, for example, that the needs of Aboriginal women need to be better addressed) but it makes communities safer, by reducing the likelihood that those released from prison will commit further crimes.
That Boronia has (at least so far) survived the election of a party that previously threatened to close it down is an encouraging example of an all-too-rare event: evidence-based policy beating empty-headed and allegedly crowd-pleasing rhetoric about “toughness on crime”. Boronia is an experiment gone right, and it is a model that should be adopted across the nation. Other states should look and learn.