Australia Overcrowded prisons at 'critical tipping point', NT parole board chair calls for 'coherent' action

00:53  18 february  2021
00:53  18 february  2021 Source:   abc.net.au

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The chairman says scrapping the support services "will add" to the NT 's high Indigenous incarceration rates. He says COMMIT parole and "vital" support services reduce reoffending and save money. Former prisoner Tahlee McKerlie says she'd be "using or in jail" without her residential rehab stint. The COMMIT program allows the parole board to send people back to prison for short periods as sanctions for breaching conditions, instead of only being able to issue a warning letter or revoke parole entirely. The COMMIT program aims to increase parole uptake by eligible NT prisoners .

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a bird sitting on a wire fence: The report says the NT prison system was 10 per cent above capacity for most of 2019. (ABC News: Robert Koenig Luck) © Provided by ABC NEWS The report says the NT prison system was 10 per cent above capacity for most of 2019. (ABC News: Robert Koenig Luck)

The prison system in the Northern Territory is at a "critical tipping point", with facilities running consistently over capacity and inadequate resources for rehabilitation, according to the head of the parole board.

Despite record prison numbers and low and declining rates of parole, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Southwood said prison and community-based support programs had been slashed or defunded.

As chair of the NT Parole Board, Justice Southwood said there had been lagging and ad hoc government action on recommended reforms made during detailed reviews of the Darwin and Alice Springs prisons.

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In the board's latest annual report Justice Southwood said the prison population for most of 2019 was above 1800; almost 10 per cent above capacity and a 60 per cent increase on 2009 levels.

Almost 85 per cent of the NT prison population is Aboriginal.

"The operation of the two correctional centres in the Northern Territory is reaching a critical tipping point," Justice Southwood wrote.

"The number of hours prisoners are spending in their cells has significantly increased. There continues to be insufficient rehabilitation resources available to prisoners in the two major correctional centres."

Justice Southwood said the system was failing to adequately prepare people to re-enter the community on parole.

He said a parole support program run by the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency had been defunded, and a long-running paid employment program inside prison was "at risk of coming to an end".

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Those programs were still in place when NT Corrections Commissioner Scott McNairn said hundreds were on waiting lists for in-prison rehab programs in 2019.

Justice Southwood said a program of transitional accommodation for people leaving prison "has for all intents and purposes collapsed".

He flagged concerns about the future of a relatively new drug and alcohol rehabilitation support program, which remains unclear.

High staff turnover among parole workers remained a problem, as were unresolved "industrial issues" and resistance from some prison staff and the union to what he said were necessary reforms to prison operations.

The annual report showed 155 people were granted parole in 2019, down from 161 in 2017 and below a proposed target of 250 suggested by Justice Southwood in 2018.

Justice Southwood said the situation called for the parole board chair's position to be made full-time.

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He said a new chair should advocate to the government around a list of goals, including the formation of a "coherent and comprehensive corrections policy".

In statement to the ABC, Attorney-General Selena Uibo said the Labor Government's Aboriginal Justice Agreement would overhaul the system's response "to the most over-represented demographic in our prison system".

The government is yet to fund the agreement, which is still in draft form, or accept its final proposals.

Ms Uibo said corrections funding would be carefully considered in the next budget.

"We want to provide our corrections officers with the resources and support they require to operate our corrections centres efficiently," she said.

"However, high imprisonment rates come at a significant economic and social cost and that's why the Territory Labor Government is working to ultimately reduce imprisonment rates and reoffending."

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