One of the most telling commentaries on all that is wrong with prisons was made recently by American law professor David Cole. ''We commit offenders to such places precisely so we will not have to pay attention to them,'' he wrote in an article for the New York Review of Books.
In Australia since the 1980s, state - and sometimes federal - politicians have campaigned relentlessly on simplistic ''tough on crime'' platforms. They would have you believe that locking up criminals is the answer to all society's ills.
It is precisely this ''out of sight, out of mind'' approach that Cole is talking about in regard to the US prison system, but politicians have distorted expectations and understandings of what imprisoning people can achieve.
While there is no argument that society needs prisons to protect it from violent criminals, there is a growing realisation here, and in the US and Britain, that for other offenders it isn't really working.
In all three countries prison populations are expanding and public expenditure on corrections is rising. Crime rates, however, are not falling. In fact, many people increasingly believe this over-reliance on incarceration is having the opposite effect.
In the US, it is business leaders who have been speaking out on the need for a new approach.
Locking up huge numbers of offenders is damaging the economy, a group of executives from five states argued in a Pew report last year. It is draining the public purse of money that should be spent on education and training that would help keep people out of jail, and is denying state economies valuable human capital.
A British government green paper on prison reform in December recommended a reduction in prison populations, noting: ''Despite a 50 per cent increase in the budget for prisons and managing offenders in the last 10 years, almost half of all adult offenders released from custody reoffend within a year. It is also not acceptable that 75 per cent of offenders sentenced to youth custody reoffend within a year.''
Australian taxpayers spent $2.9 billion on corrections last year, the Productivity Commission says - a 4.5 per cent increase on the previous year. The national incarceration rate rose from 165 per 100,000 adults to 169 per 100,00 adults in that time. In the Northern Territory, where 30 per cent of the population is indigenous, and the incarceration rate is the highest in the country by a mile, the government is building a new $300 million prison.
There is no starker illustration of the failure of corrections policy than indigenous incarceration rates, which are 19 times higher than for the rest of the population.
Australia faced questions from 19 countries last week at a United Nations human rights hearing in Geneva about inequities in the situation and treatment of Aborigines, including incarceration rates. But confronting this reality is not so much about shaming Australians into feeling a collective guilt about the issue, as it is a call for an honest admission that there is a massive problem.
The first time I saw the inside of a jail was 15 years ago. I was a young insurance lawyer, working on a case brought by a prison guard who had fallen on a step. I had to take an expert witness to the jail to assess the suspect stair, and I was very curious to get my first glimpse of life behind bars.
This was a totally foreign world, one that as a child I'd had nothing to do with, and apart from these professional insights, I never wanted to as an adult, either.
It's a very different situation for indigenous children, one in five of whom has a parent or carer in jail. It's a staggering figure: 20 per cent of Aboriginal children are growing up today with the person they look to as a role model, or authority figure in life, in jail.
Ponder this for a moment and it begins to make sense that a quarter of all young indigenous men are being processed through the criminal justice system every year. The effect, says Emeritus Professor David Brown of the University of NSW, is that incarceration has become ''normalised''. Prison is more of an expectation than a deterrent; for some it is even a rite of passage.
Discussing these issues in a paper published last year, The Limited Benefit of Prison in Controlling Crime, Brown wrote about the concept of a ''tipping point'' - the idea that once incarceration reaches a certain level in a particular community, crime levels actually begin to rise. That tipping point has been reached in some particularly vulnerable Aboriginal communities, Brown says.
It is time we started rethinking our approach to criminal justice and sentencing. One idea that has yet to be embraced by governments here is ''justice reinvestment'': taking money that would be spent on incarcerating people and spending it on programs to address social issues in vulnerable communities where most offenders come from, and inevitably return to.
It's the sort of thinking that might just get us to pay attention to who's in our jails and whether it's the best place for them.