Borallon Correctional Centre in Brisbane. (Pic: Jono Searle/AAP)
Borallon Correctional Centre in Brisbane. (Pic: Jono Searle/AAP)

Our overstuffed prisons are a powder keg

SUNLIGHT is said to be the best of disinfectants.

It was a breath of fresh air and a ray of sunshine this week, then, when Queensland's new Corrective Services Commissioner Dr Peter Martin invited media into Borallon prison to taste test life on the inside.

It may sound like simply good PR, a bit of a schmooze, but it was a decisive step towards something far bigger and better.

To put this in context, prisons and prisoners are almost always off limits to the public in Australia.

In Queensland, media must not speak to those incarcerated or under the care of Corrective Services for fear of jail themselves. They must ignore any contact made from the inside or on parole - no photos, words, sound bites.

The whole corrections system has lacked public transparency and, given media's role in amplifying important matters to the public, this has created something of a mysterious dark hole.

In the gloom, fallacies about the prisons system have been allowed to fester into facts.

In late November, Martin - formerly a long-time senior police officer and now the corrections department director-general by another name - was given a slate wiped clean, with Corrections being moved from the Attorney-General's auspices and given its own space for the first time in a decade.

Commissioner of QLD Corrective services Peter Martin at Borallon Correctional Centre this week. (Pic: Jono Searle/AAP)
Commissioner of QLD Corrective services Peter Martin at Borallon Correctional Centre this week. (Pic: Jono Searle/AAP)

From the outset, he pledged greater transparency and has backed up the talk with the walk.

At his first media conference, Martin said he had inherited a jail system that was "bursting at the seams". His challenge was to restore staff safety, security and good order without the system becoming oppressive or delivering inhumane treatment.

In May, Martin gave extensive evidence to the Crime and Corruption Commission inquiry into claims of corruption and misconduct in prisons, which the CCC said had been increasing over the past three years.

The prison environment is typically characterised by conflict and violence, and staff persistently face intimidation, assaults and threats to their safety, with increased stress undermining job satisfaction.

But transparency builds trust and respect, particularly when paired with integrity and fairness.

This is precisely what Martin is building by laying our prisons, in all their messy, violent, difficult glory, bare.

Online comment threads often groan with a weight of people not giving a hoot about the prisons system or its residents. Good riddance to bad rubbish, is the commonly expressed sentiment. Make them suffer.

Except that prison is most often a temporary stop, the equivalent of a time out from society.

Prisoners will almost always live among us again and their problems, now aggravated, then become ours.

Minister Mark Ryan talks to inmates making dog biscuits at Borallon Correctional Centre. (Pic: Jono Searle/AAP)
Minister Mark Ryan talks to inmates making dog biscuits at Borallon Correctional Centre. (Pic: Jono Searle/AAP)

An Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report in January found that prisoners are nine times more likely to be on antipsychotic drugs, twice as likely to be on antidepressants and four times more likely to be on medications used to treat addictions.

But we are addicted too - to incarceration. It is the worst punishment our society can mete out and we demand it often and much.

The most recent Australian Statistics Bureau figures show there are more than 42,000 people jailed in the nation, and it is increasing every year.

Nationwide, the most common reason for being jailed is violence-related, and a quarter of prisoners have acts intending to cause harm on their rap sheets. Drugs offences are second and account for 15 per cent of incarcerations.

In Queensland, there has been a 50 per cent increase in prisoners since 2012, despite a fall in crime rates generally. Politicians consent to voters' demands for more jailings.

Overstuffed cells have created become something of a powder keg.

In Queensland, men's prisons are 135 per cent above built capacity. That means 4000 men are sharing cells designed for one. Incredibly, women's prisons are bulging at 165 per cent above built capacity.

Sisters Inside's Debbie Kilroy is correct: Corrective Services Minister Mark Ryan's announcement on Tuesday that 189 more cells would be added at Borallon Correctional Centre and the Southern Queensland Correctional Centre would be converted to a women's prison to ease overcrowding is a temporary fix.

If they build more, more will come.

But thanks to Martin's deliberate, refreshing approach to exposing the nature and texture of this difficult, important plank in our law and order system, we maybe able to see the system clearly for the first time in generations.

Dr Jane Fynes-Clinton is a journalist and journalism lecturer at the University of the Sunshine Coast.

@Janefynes