Inside Story

A view of pale hills

It’s five years since Canberra’s innovative Alexander Maconochie Centre admitted its first group of prisoners. Peter Mares visited to see if the facility is living up to its aim of being Australia’s first “human rights compliant” prison

Peter Mares 25 February 2014 5025 words

Group living: a common room in one of the cellblocks at the Alexander Maconochie Centre in Canberra.
Jay Cronan/ Canberra Times

MEMBERS of the visiting media pack are lined up in the reception area of the Alexander Maconochie Centre to be subjected to a sniff check by the K9 security unit. I resist the urge to pat the attractive tan-and-white dog as it makes a first pass at our shoes. Our mobile phones, wallets and other possessions are secured in lockers, and an officer in blue overalls has warned us that it is a serious offence to take any banned items into the prison.

As the PAD (Passive Alert Detection) dog makes another sweep, this time lifting up its nose to sniff our pockets, a woman in front of me is struggling with the IrisAccess™ 4000, a wall-mounted scanner used to capture an image of her eyes. The eye scan is a prerequisite for first-time entry into the prison and, in theory at least, reduces the time needed for security checks on subsequent visits.

“Try standing back a bit further,” the officer on the reception desk suggests. Thankfully, we journalists are not required to submit to this process; as the happy pooch makes its third and final pass of the media pack, the scanner, the visitor and the officer are still struggling to capture a satisfactory image. “No, sorry, try again. This time it doesn’t like the angle of your head.”

After giving us the all clear, the dog is rewarded with a treat from its handler and we proceed to the next step in the security clearance, a body scan. This is a more elaborate version of the metal detectors used at airports and requires visitors to step through a small booth fitted with a revolving door. One after another, we step forward only to have the door shudder to a halt. A red light comes on and a mechanical voice tells us to step back. Unbuckling belts and pulling off shoes doesn’t help. The system, it appears, is unwilling to admit journalists. Eventually the guards let us in by a side door, giving us the once-over with a metal-detecting wand.

These hitches are cause for joking and laughter, but frequent visitors to the prison have told me how frustrating (and initially intimidating) the security measures can be. They may be asked to pull their pockets inside-out and stick out their tongues to show that they have not secreted any contraband. Sometimes, embarrassingly, the underwires in a bra set off the metal detectors. I’ve been told that the iris scanner and the revolving security door frequently play up, just as the door did for us. With visits lasting for a maximum of ninety minutes and booked at least twenty-four hours ahead, delays during entry to the centre can eat into the time available to spend with a family member.

Once inside, though, the prison feels surprisingly airy, light and open. One of our guides is Don Taylor, the general manager of custodial operations for ACT Corrective Services, who describes the Maconochie Centre as a “campus style” prison. Different types of accommodation are distributed around a central “town square” with shared facilities, including classrooms, the visiting area, the admissions building and a medical centre. The only fully secure internal fence, points out the executive director of ACT Corrective Services, Bernadette Mitcherson, is the one that separates the male and female sections of the prison.

Of the 330 inmates resident on the day of our visit, 135 (including all seventeen female inmates) live in “cottage style” accommodation. The cottages have separate bedrooms, a kitchen, bathroom, laundry, living area and patio. Apart from a one-hour lunchtime lockdown, prisoners have access to large open spaces between the buildings throughout the day. At night they are locked in, but can move about the cottage freely. There is no “lights out” time.

The cottages provide “an accommodation option to which detainees could aspire, based on improved behaviour or particular needs,” says the centre’s website. The idea is that detainees can “interact in a ‘group house’ style environment, developing social skills such as cooking, cleaning and successful social interaction with others, all of which will be needed on their release.” When we visit one of the cottages I can’t help noticing that the kitchen is equipped with a large steel knife, fixed securely to the bench with a strong metal cable. Inmates in the cottages do all their own cooking and cleaning, dividing up the work among them.

Although we’ve been asked not to interview the prisoners, one chatty resident voluntarily explains how things work. Each inmate has a budget of $45 per week to spend on food, he tells us. In this cottage they pool the money and put in a weekly order with the local supermarket. They can use personal funds – money earned working in the prison or sent by family members – for their “own buy,” to purchase extras, like chocolate or cigarettes. One of the men in this cottage is a trained chef and cooks all the main courses; another is a pastry cook and prepares the dessert. Others do the cleaning.

When the Maconochie Centre was first built, every bedroom in the cottage had just one bed. But bunk beds have been introduced to cope with an increasing number of inmates. When I ask how they decide who gets to have a room to himself, I’m told the inmates manage that question themselves and that single rooms usually go to those who have been in prison the longest.

Higher-security prisoners are held in more traditional cellblocks. To gain entry we pass through three doors, which create two secure vestibules like airlocks; the second door can’t be opened until the first door is locked again. At night prisoners are locked in cells, equipped with a toilet and a small desk. As in the cottages, most now accommodate two inmates to increase the capacity of the prison. Apart from during the lunchtime lockdown, prisoners here have daytime access to a large communal area equipped with a lounge, a TV, a table tennis table and a kitchen (though in this case without steel knives, as far as I can see). Prisoners can wash their own clothes in the laundry, and there is a secure external exercise yard and weights training area.

A fourteen-bed management unit is used to hold people who have been “confined to their cell for misconduct,” according to Taylor, or are “too vulnerable to be with other prisoners.” A ten-bed crisis support unit houses inmates suffering acute distress or mental health problems. (As the Canberra Times has reported, the crisis unit was full in July last year when an inmate committed suicide. He had been accommodated in the Maconochie Centre’s health centre, which is not intended to hold those feared likely to self-harm or commit suicide.)

SCOTTISH-BORN Alexander Maconochie was a remarkable man who knew a bit about prison life. In 1811, as a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, he was shipwrecked off the Dutch coast and spent more than two years as a French prisoner of war – an experience that had an enduring impact on his thinking. In 1837, as private secretary to Sir John Franklin, lieutenant-governor of Van Diemen’s Land, he wrote a damning report on the treatment of prisoners in the colony (which Franklin toned down before sending on to London). Maconochie argued that the system should focus on reform, not punishment. In 1840, he was given a chance to put his ideas into action when he was appointed commandant of the Norfolk Island penal colony, destination for the most unmanageable prisoners.

Maconochie transformed the system: building churches and a synagogue, stocking the library with books, bringing in musical instruments, giving prisoners their own patch of land to till and training them in horticulture. He dismantled the gallows and abolished the use of the cat o’ nine tails for floggings. Prisoners who died on the island were honoured with headstones rather than painted boards. Of the hundreds of reformed prisoners Maconochie released from Norfolk Island, only 2 per cent were imprisoned again. Despite his apparent success, though, Maconochie was recalled after just three years.

Nearly two centuries later, the cat o’ nine tails is a distant memory in prisons throughout Australia, but not many of them derive their inspiration so clearly from Maconochie’s approach as this new centre named to honour him. The campus layout and cottage-style accommodation are part of the story. Education and training are also vital features. But one of the things that strikes a first-time visitor is the large windows fitted with clear, toughened glass and plastic rather than bars. As a result, many points in the prison afford a view eastwards of the gentle hills that roll towards the NSW border – hills bleached pale by months of summer sun. “I marvel to see those hills every time I walk inside,” says a professional who visits frequently and has extensive experience in corrections in other jurisdictions.

It’s no accident that prisoners have a view of the surrounding landscape, including potential glimpses of kangaroos and other wildlife. John Paget, who directed the Maconochie Centre project during its development (and who is now the NSW inspector of custodial services), consulted with the ACT Human Rights Commission to come up with a design that would increase the chances of prison’s having a positive effect on detainees.

As Paget told ABC Radio National’s Life Matters program in 2010, the prison population is, in general terms, unwell. It is characterised by high rates of mental illness and substance abuse, and by educational underachievement. He believes there is an ethical imperative not to add to that burden of illness, and where possible to reduce it. He and his team drew on research from other institutional settings (hospitals, aged-care facilities, schools, even airports), suggesting that access to views, sunlight and green space improves wellbeing and accelerates recovery from illness.

Another regular prison visitor, Simon Rosenberg, CEO of Northside Community Services in Canberra, says this aspect of the centre’s design is successful. “I’ve spoken to prisoners about this who’ve been in other jails and they really like the fact that you can see out,” he says. “It gives them a sense of hope and future orientation.” Noise levels are also low by comparison with other prisons; again, this is deliberate. Noise can increase psychological stress, particularly for people with a mental illness.

On our tour around the facility, however, the repeated clicking, clanging and electronic buzzing of security doors reminds us that this “campus” is still at heart a prison. And it becomes apparent that, given the number and variety of inmates here, the well-intentioned campus-style design of the centre could also be a major obstacle to achieving the facility’s human rights aims.

Liberal regime: the Alexander Maconochie Centre’s visitor centre.
Andrew Sheargold/ Canberra Times

In the visitor centre, male inmates are sitting around numbered tables chatting in low voices with partners, family members and friends. Some prisoners are dressed in zip-up white overalls with no pockets, a security measure designed to make it more difficult for visitors to pass contraband to inmates. Other rooms are set aside for “boxed visits” – where security screens physically separate visitors from prisoners who are deemed to pose a particular risk or under sanction for unacceptable behaviour.

Except during the lunchtime lockdown, the visitor centre is used six days a week between 8.30 am and 7 pm, a far more liberal visiting regime than in most jurisdictions in Australia. Tokens can be used to buy drinks and snacks from vending machines, or pay for coffee. The espresso machine is staffed by inmates training to become baristas as part of a Certificate IV in hospitality. Floor-to-ceiling windows open onto a courtyard equipped with a small children’s playground and electric barbecues.

Bernadette Mitcherson is proud of the fact that the Maconochie Centre brings qualified childcare workers into the visitor centre two days per week to help inmates bond with their children. “Some of them just don’t know how to play with their kids,” she says. Having a childcare worker on hand can also enable a couple to talk privately while someone else supervises the children.

Next stop on our tour is the centre’s education facility. In an art room a group of inmates is painting, in the music room two inmates are playing guitars, and there’s a library and a room with a maths class in full swing. Every new inmate is given an educational assessment to check his or her levels of literacy and numeracy, and vocational and employment history, says Mark Bartlett, the centre’s senior manager for offender services and corrections programs. Using this data, centre staff devise an individual learning plan. According to the Productivity Commission’s annual report on government services, the Maconochie Centre dramatically outstrips other prisons around Australia for education and training enrolments.

The system is entirely voluntary. “You can’t force people to take part,” says Bartlett. “If you do, they’ll only disrupt others who do want to be there.” He says many people are “grumpy” when they first land in prison. “They don’t want to be here and it can take time before they are willing to participate.” A significant number of new arrivals will be detoxing from drugs of addiction and unable to concentrate. (About a third of the centre’s detainees are part of the prison’s methadone program.)

“People are sent to prison as punishment not for punishment,” says Bartlett. The education and training programs are designed to increase prisoners’ skills and enhance their chances of finding and keeping a job after release. Offerings include basic computer courses and training for a “white card” – the health and safety certificate required for labouring on a building site. “For some people this may be the first certificate they’ve ever gained in their life,” says Bartlett. But he is realistic about how much can be achieved. “A couple of months’ program is not going to right all the wrongs. There may be a small criminal population in the ACT, but it suffers from layers and layers of social disadvantage.”

We’re shown into a dedicated Indigenous activity room, where the tables and walls are painted with snake motifs and other imagery. Only about 2 per cent of the Territory’s population are people of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander background, but they are massively overrepresented in prison, here and elsewhere, and make up around 16 per cent of the centre’s detainees. When Bartlett noticed that Indigenous inmates were making less use of educational services than other inmates were, he introduced a conservation and land management program. He says Indigenous participation has increased dramatically as a result.

Outside, tanks on the centre’s sixty-hectare site collect up to 2.1 million litres of rainwater, and worm farms turn the prison’s vegetable scraps into compost. In the extensive vegie patch, three inmates are joking together as they pick produce. A box piled with oversized squash, trombone zucchini, cucumbers and tomatoes is headed for the kitchens.

“Five years ago there was nothing here but an empty paddock,” says Andre, the cheerful staff member who leads the horticultural education and landscaping projects. He has big plans. “I’d like to plant a lot more trees down there,” he says, gesturing towards the perimeter of the prison. “I’d like to plant more ornamental gardens too. An orchard would be fantastic and it would be great to have some chooks.”

ALL THESE programs are clearly in the Maconochie tradition, as is the overall design of the prison. But some people familiar with the facility, either through their work or because they have relatives serving time, see fundamental flaws that they believe are preventing it from achieving its potential. The biggest challenges are separation issues – that is, keeping different classes of inmates apart.

This is a particularly complex task in a campus-style prison with only one education area and one medical area. In a small jurisdiction like the ACT, prisoners often have intertwined personal histories that prevent them from occupying the same space at the same time. One inmate may be in a relationship with another inmate’s ex-spouse, for example; one prisoner may owe another money, or there may be longstanding scores to settle. Some prisoners must be kept apart because they are classed as “protection” cases – either because they are particularly vulnerable or because they pose dangers to other inmates.

Yet all prisoners have to be managed within the same set of facilities – “mediums” and “maximums”; “protection” and “non-protection”; “remandees” and “sentenced prisoners”; men and women. “We have to mix and match a lot,” says custodial operations manager Don Taylor. And the more overcrowded the prison becomes, the more difficult the challenge.

Simon Rosenberg from Northside Community Services says the Maconochie Centre suffers from a fundamental design flaw. The policy was to bring ACT prisoners home from New South Wales when the centre opened, he says. “In principle that is fine, but because of low prison numbers in the ACT, doing this on the cheap meant putting everyone in together and that was going to make it very difficult to manage the prison properly.” In larger jurisdictions, different types of prisoners are sent to different types of jails and people awaiting trial are held in separate remand centres.

Rosenberg points out that the collocation of such a wide variety of different types of prisoners can create logistical nightmares, even for apparently simple tasks like prisoner movements within the jail. “To give a particular prisoner time in the education building may mean that they have to be individually supported by a couple of guards.” Some of the worst incidents of violence in the centre – including an assault in which a prisoner lost an eye – have occurred when separated inmates crossed paths.

Relatives of prisoners have told me of cases where their family member has been unable to attend a course in the education centre because he or she can’t be mixed with another inmate who is doing the same training. Separation issues also increase the frequency and duration of lockdowns.

The ACT human rights and discrimination commissioner, Helen Watchirs, is concerned that overcrowding in the male section of the centre means people on remand are increasingly mixed together with sentenced prisoners. “According to human rights principles,” she says, “mixing remandees and sentenced prisoners is only allowable in exceptional circumstances.”

Remandees make up about a quarter of the inmates, and my tour of the facility, and the comments of senior staff, suggest that such mixing is part of routine day-to-day management. Taylor says that he has the authority to mix those on remand with sentenced prisoners when appropriate or required. “Management is doing as best they can with the resources they have,” Watchirs responds. “But in the long term there needs to be a different solution.”

The ACT Human Rights Commission expects to release the findings of an audit of the women’s section of the centre soon. Watchirs will not comment on its conclusions in advance, but submissions to the inquiry argued that female prisoners lack adequate access to education, training, rehabilitation programs and work opportunities because they use the same central facilities as male prisoners. Because there are so many more men than women in the facility, women often miss out altogether.

The ACT’s corrections minister, Greens MLA Shane Rattenbury, rejects assertions that female inmates don’t have access to the full range of training programs. “There are certainly management challenges in that environment,” he says, “but staff are very professional in working their way through them.” Rattenbury refuses to comment on reports, documented by the Canberra Times, that before construction began the ACT government ignored expert warnings that the prison would be too small. He concedes, however, that the centre needs additional capacity, and says that a design brief has been funded “and we expect extra capacity to come on stream in a couple of years.”

Rosenberg is not sure that the problem can wait so long or that extra capacity will entirely solve the problem. He thinks the Territory may ultimately need a separate facility for women and that it may even have to consider sending certain high-security prisoners to jails interstate. Watchirs says that part of the solution must be the construction of a dedicated forensic mental health facility. “We recommended that in 2007 but we still don’t have such a facility,” she says. “It keeps getting put off.” In her view, people with severe psychiatric problems cannot be appropriately detained in a prison environment. A secure psychiatric facility “would provide a therapeutic environment, which the current crisis support unit at the Maconochie Centre is not.”

Shane Rattenbury agrees. “People who need a secure mental health facility shouldn’t end up in jail,” he says. The government has identified a site and will bring enabling legislation before the Legislative Assembly later this year, with the aim of opening a forensic mental health facility by 2016. All this will cost a considerable amount of money at a time when the ACT government is under severe budget pressure.

There is another perspective on the ovecrowding issue. According to this view, the construction of the Maconochie Centre itself has resulted in an increase in the imprisonment rate in the ACT. As one close observer of the justice system puts it to me, the fact that sentenced prisoners were previously sent to NSW jails acted as a filter on judicial decisions. Judges were reluctant to dispatch criminals to a distant prison where it would be difficult for friends and family to visit. In what might be called a “build it and they will send them” approach to judicial sentencing, the existence of the ACT’s own jail has lowered the threshold. While the Territory’s imprisonment rate was for many years far lower than any other jurisdiction in Australia, it has crept closer to the Australian average, despite the fact that crime statistics are down. In 2013, the ACT imprisonment rate was 118 prisoners per 100,000 members of the adult population, significantly lower than the national figure of 170 prisoners per 100,000, but up sharply from 107 per 100,000 in 2012.

Helen Watchirs thinks that the causes of rising imprisonment rates are more complex. She cites such factors as community attitudes, judicial appointments, and court delays that result in people’s being held on remand for longer periods. The corrections minister agrees, and convened a roundtable discussion with key government and non-government organisations in February to look at the issue. “It is a range of factors,” Rattenbury says, “including improved policing and the targeting of repeat offenders by police. There has also been a backlog in the courts and as there has been a significant effort to remove that backlog, there is a certain amount of catching up going on.”

Rattenbury says that overcrowding at the centre has eased in recent months. Late last year the population was hovering at around 343 in a facility that has expanded its capacity to 366. Now the prison population has dropped below 330. “This gives management more latitude for dealing with safety issues and separation issues inside the jail.”

ONE WAY to reduce overcrowding in the Maconochie Centre would be to reduce the rate at which people reoffend. The ACT has the highest recidivism rate in Australia, with 46.6 per cent of people released ending up with a new custodial sentence within two years.

According to Corrective Services executive director Bernadette Mitcherson, this is partly explained by the Territory’s comparatively low rate of overall imprisonment. “Many people convicted of a crime will initially be given community orders or a suspended sentence of some sort,” she says. “Therefore those who do end up in prison are often at the more serious end of the crime spectrum. There are relatively few people coming out of incarceration who are at a low risk of reoffending. Mitcherson also points out that Canberra’s size means that police can keep a close watch on well-known offenders. If they commit another crime they “are more likely to be picked up and to go back into custody than in a big city like Sydney or Melbourne.”

In an attempt to reduce recidivism, ACT Corrective Services has implemented a program called Throughcare, which begins in custody and provides ongoing support to prisoners after release. “We don’t just chuck people out the door anymore,” says Mitcherson. “It’s not like The Blues Brothers, where Jake is pushed out of the prison gates with his possessions in a plastic bag.”

Throughcare programs have long been running in other Australian jurisdictions. What sets the ACT program apart is that Corrective Services offers to work with all released prisoners – not just those on parole or good behaviour orders, for whom ongoing supervision is mandated. What’s more, support continues for a year after release; and in the first six weeks of the program, Corrective Services and its partners undertake to have daily contact with the former detainee.

Released prisoners are most vulnerable in the first twenty-four hours, says the Maconochie Centre’s Mark Bartlett. “There is a really high risk of mortality, particularly from overdoses and accidents. So we need to load services in as intensively as possible. It could be to arrange transport to get to an appointment, to solve a problem or just to have a chat.”

As Mitcherson explains, it is not enough to refer an ex-prisoner to services on the outside. “We have to pick them up and take them there or they just won’t make it,” she says. “The two most common reasons why people end up back in prison are lack of accommodation and financial insecurity. If those two things are going okay then they are more likely to get involved in continuing drug and alcohol programs and other support services.”

Every case is complex, says Bartlett, and Throughcare is designed to meet individual needs. Contingency funding might be used to pay for a skip so that a released prisoner can clean up the front yard of a rental property to avoid eviction. It may pay for relationship counselling to help someone reconcile with a spouse. In one case, money was used to buy a bicycle so that an ex-prisoner could ride to work.

Simon Rosenberg spent six years pushing for the Throughcare initiative. His organisation, Northside Community Services, is one of 120 organisations partnering with Corrective Services to provide services. “It’s all very well having a bright shiny human rights–compliant prison,” he says, “but if what happens to prisoners on release is the same as everywhere else then there is no point.”

Throughcare has only been up and running since 1 July last year and it is far too early to make a definitive assessment of its success, but initial results are promising. Of the 133 released prisoners invited to join the voluntary program since then only three have declined to take part. By February, 119 remained engaged with the program and only eleven had ended up back in prison.

Although Rosenberg acknowledges that Throughcare is expensive, he says it should be seen as an investment. Recidivism rates have fallen to just 25 per cent in Norway, where the initiative was pioneered, he says, and a similar fall here would bring huge savings, “not just by reducing the cost of the corrections system but in all sorts of other ways – in reduced crime and human suffering, police resources, courts and so on.” But Shane Rattenbury can’t say whether funding will be extended beyond 30 June. “Future funding of the program is subject to cabinet budget processes,” he says, but he adds that “there is real enthusiasm for the program” and “a strong government commitment to keeping people out of jail.”

Since its inception, through the cost overruns and delays in the $130 million construction to the current overcrowding, the Alexander Maconochie Centre has been the focus of intense debate. Some critics think the very idea of a human rights–compliant prison is a contradiction in terms that can only compromise security. Others argue that punishment and control, rather than rehabilitation, still dominate how the prison is run. Then there are the running costs. The Maconochie Centre is by far the most expensive prison in Australia. According to the Productivity Commission it costs $465 per day to detain a prisoner in the ACT, compared to an Australian average of $297. But a prison that takes its reform mission seriously will be a prison that runs extensive programs, and they don’t come cheap.

As the prison enters its next five years, controversy is certain to continue, particularly as the ACT government pushes ahead with plans to introduce a needle exchange program and to make the facility smoke-free. As Alexander Maconochie discovered on Norfolk Island in the 1840s, reforming a prison system is neither easy nor free of risk, but the potential benefits are considerable. •