Western Australian prisons are horrendously overcrowded, with reductions in prison populations unlikely as the underlying reasons people commit offences are seldom addressed within the prison system.
People in prison often have complex health needs which are long-term or chronic in nature. Many have complex histories of disadvantage and have experienced family violence, unstable housing, limited education, unemployment and economic disadvantage. There is an extremely high prevalence of mental illness among individuals in prisons and youth justice detention centres, a central factor in offending and recidivism. Mental health conditions are frequently co-occurring with alcohol and/or drug dependency.
And yet, people continue to be released without ever having their mental health or drug and/or alcohol issues addressed.
A 2013 survey found 74% of women and 77% of men entering the prison system had diagnosable alcohol and/or drug use disorders. The Auditor General has said time in prison represents the perfect opportunity for the state to intervene in the cycle of addiction-related crime, and yet, in 2017, approximately 65% of prisoners could not access drug treatment services because they were on remand or serving sentences of less than six months. In April 2019, only 10.7% of people discharged from drug-possession related prison sentences had accessed treatment while incarcerated.
Despite Alison’s repeated calls for improvement, Western Australia still has a chronic shortage of forensic mental health beds. The number of beds remains the same as in 1995, despite the prison population having doubled since then. This means chronically unwell people remain in prison, when they should be being transferred to a secure psychiatric facility. This exacerbates their condition, makes reoffending more likely and places the community at risk.
Alarmingly, in Western Australia, we incarcerate our First Nations people at the highest rate of anywhere in the world. First Nations people make up just 3% of the state’s population, but 38% of prisoners. First Nations children and young people make up 70% of detainees at Banksia Hill Detention Centre.
These are the symptoms of a corrective services system in crisis. Prisons are expensive, and when they fail to address the root causes of offending, they fail to make our communities safer in the long term.
Alison is committed to working towards a reduction in the rate of incarceration of First Nations people. She supports calls from the Australian Medical Association Western Australia and others, to grant access to Medicare for people in Western Australia’s prisons.
Alison will continue to advocate for improved conditions and programs in our prisons and at Banksia Hill Detention Centre, and to increase the availability of evidence-based programs to reduce our prison populations and improve community safety.