Tasmanian Greens leader Nick McKim is leading a revolution.
McKim, Minister for Corrections in the State’s Labor-Green coalition government, is doing something no other prisons minister in this country has ever done – shift the focus of prison management from that of blunt security of maximum security prisoners to one of maximizing their freedom within the confines of the prison boundaries so as to increase the opportunity for rehabilitation.
That Mr McKim’s policy reform is radical is manifest in his actions and rhetoric. He has taken on the union movement with his bold move this week to stand down 40 correctional officers after they objected to McKim’s decision to remove Tactical Response Group armed officers from high security areas of Hobart’s Risdon prison, and to allow prisoners in maximum security areas more time out of their cells and without having to be handcuffed. Some unions have reacted in a bully boy fashion, threatening the Greens with no more political donations if McKim continues with his actions.
McKim’s opponents accuse him of putting the safety of correctional officers at risk by removing armed guards, handcuffs and allowing prisoners more sunshine. But this is of course nonsense. McKim understands what Australian correctional authorities stuck in the 19th century English model of prison life have refused to acknowledge, presumably for political reasons. That is, that it is the deprivation of liberty itself which is the punishment. Once a person is inside prison they are entitled - and it makes perfect sense - to be treated with dignity and respect.
But the reality of life for the vast majority of prisoners in Australia, and particularly those in maximum security areas, is that their lives are governed by a capricious discipline system, long periods of being locked down in their cells, and very limited opportunities to focus on mental and physical health and rehabilitation. The world in which they exist (because it cannot be said that they ‘live’) is oppressive. There are alarms, bars, grey walls, limited access to sunlight, and armed guards. The food quality is poor and the opportunities to access recreational, educational and mental health programs is severely limited or non-existent. Prison management shamefully uses family visits as a disciplinary tool – ‘misbehave and you can’t see your kids.’
This atmosphere is inhumane, degrading and demoralizing. Naturally, a prisoner's sense of resentment and anger boils over and on occasion prison guards have their skulls cracked when set upon by a group of angry, violent men who have been stripped of their dignity and sense of worth.
It is precisely this pattern of behaviour that Nick McKim is seeking to stop.
He wants to reshape the maximum security areas of Risdon prison so that inmates can exercise on a bike or in a small gym; that they are able to receive counselling and mental health support; and that education and skills training opportunities are available to them on a consistent basis.
The only way to achieve all this is to move away from the Anglo-Australian model of punitive security. In other words, instead of seeing recreation, healthcare and education as comforts or privileges and focusing mainly on locking down and handcuffing, try treating prisoners as human beings rather than as bodies or numbers.
Despite the unions not understanding it, McKim’s desire to remove restraints and to make sure prisoners spend more of their day in useful activity outside of their cells, is a proven formula for a safer prison environment and for lower recidivism rates.
In many northern European countries prisons look and feel like school campuses, and prisoners are given the freedom to move around the campus each day, even in maximum security areas. Relations between prisoners and officers are more equal – the latter play sport and eat with the former. There are women working in maximum areas because this has been shown to reduce aggression among make prisoners. The idea driving prisons in countries outside the Anglo axis in Europe is to humanize disadvantaged and difficult people. This in turn increases the chances of deep rooted rehabilitation and makes for a safe and secure prison environment.
At last Australia has a politician who is prepared to buck the populist and ignorant views of many in the community about how to deal with maximum security prisoners. One hopes that Tasmania’s Nick McKim is leading a movement across this nation to rethink a failed policy in our criminal justice system.