Prisons: so what is to be done?

It costs taxpayers $109,782.60 a year – or $301.60 each day - to keep a prisoner "on the inside", according to the Australian Productivity Commission. Alternatively it costs $49,700 – less than half - to provide that prisoner with rent, food, a small four-cylinder car and money for any degree in Australia for a year”. [Brisbane Times 28 Febuary 2016]

Images of the inside of Australian prisons (Google) 

Thor May
Adelaide, 2016





This page is an initial starter list for discussing the "Prisons" topic. The page makes no special claim to quality, and additions are welcome. 








Basic contact links:


meetup group:

topic suggestions: 



topics already discussed:


comments: Thor May - ;



Thor's own websites: 1. articles at  ;

2. personal site: [an ancient site with many byeways]



=>Reading list: go to the end of these notes


Comments on the topic by Thor:


"Since 2004, the number of prisoners in South Australia has risen seven times faster than the state's net population growth – and nearly doubled its rate of locking up Indigenous Australians." (Halsey 2014)

For starters into the topic, see: TheConversation (2016) Multiple articles on imprisonment in Australia. The Conversation website at


1. Introduction

Those Australians who can trace their lineage to the first English settlement of Australia in 1788, and for a few decades following, often have a sentimental attachment to the idea of a convict ancestor, JohnFParsons.jpgat a safe historical distance. One of mine was transported to Australia for stealing a sheep, did his seven years of hard labour in Tasmania, got a land grant after release and made enough to bring his wife and children out from England. Eventually he became a prosperous farmer. Another,  a cabin boy on a sailing ship, found himself chained to a treadmill in Launceston for jumping the said ship, escaped, headed for the hills, or rather Victoria’s gold fields, where he scratched enough gold to buy some Tasmanian land, built the first gaol in a small town and became the first prisoner for being drunk and disorderly in charge of a pony cart, smashed out of his mind on cheap whisky. Such was life.

Nowadays it is all far more antiseptic, mechanised, computerised and depersonalized. Also extremely expensive via an untraceable money trail from taxpayers’ wages to bureaucratic collectors, to politicians spending other people’s money, and increasingly to trans-national private prison contracting companies. The bulk of prisoners are not self-starters like my ancestors. They are mostly individuals with poor self discipline, very low personal competence and responsibility, low literacy & numeracy and who have a certain (well justified) sense that the game of life is stacked against them. By the chronological age of 60 their physical age is 70 compared to the general population.

A special group are indigenous Australians who constitute less than 2% of the general population but 25% of the prison population and increasing. Clearly there is a major cultural problem to be solved there. Another more recent special group are essentially a category of political prisoners, a.k.a. undocumented refugees who have arrived at Australia’s borders without an invitation. They are imprisoned at phenomenal expense offshore in facilities run by private contractors, almost beyond legal and humanitarian reach, on Manus Island (PNG), Nauru Island and Christmas Island.


Outline of talking points


The topic of this discussion headlines the cost of imprisonment in Australia. Clearly there are different kinds of imprisonment entailing different levels of cost. However any discussion of alternatives which goes beyond casual uninformed opinion has to take into account the range of legal punishments available in Australia, their rationale, their community and political context, and the various types of prisoners themselves. The checklist below is not exhaustive, but will serve as a reminder of the factors playing into the vexed question of imprisonment costs.


2. Purposes of legal punishment (examples)

Violation of social or cultural codes (examples)


violence against persons

sexual crimes




property intrusion


neglect or negligence (e.g. concerning children)

financial default


Violation of commercial codes (examples)


affecting other commercial interests

affecting employees or subcontractors

affecting community welfare

affecting obligations to government (e.g. tax)

affecting international agreements (e.g. the prospective Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement)


Political advantage (examples)


The manipulation of political advantage in Australia is not normally lethal (as it is in many other international jurisdictions) but regularly sets up privileged groups whose activities may be considered ethically, environmentally or economically criminal by other segments of the wider society.

mollification of interest groups

commercial and tax concessions

environmental concessions

corrupt award of contracts

personal political ambition


3. Alternatives to imprisonment


Short term



community work

social & educational rehabilitation

restrictions on travel

restrictions on starting a business

Long term

prohibition from certain occupations and roles

identification as a deviant or unstable person


4. Reasons for imprisonment


a) Revenge


Revenge is a quite elemental response to being wronged. It can be expressed both through personal revenge (which states like Australia discourage) and through outsourced revenge in the form institutional punishment. A characteristic of almost all official rationales for imprisonment is that the revenge motive is discounted. Conversely, the dominant characteristic of personal, public, media and hence political discussions of imprisonment is that revenge, by whatever euphemism (e.g. “paying a price”), is usually the foremost popular driving force, even where it is shown to be counterproductive to community interests. There is frequent pressure on the judiciary to satisfy public outrage by inflicting suitable punishment on offenders. Mandatory sentencing is the clearest political expression of this (and known to be ineffective as a deterrent). Fortunately in the current secular society of Australia, issues are not usually made even more complicated by fixed religious proscriptions, as they are in many other places.


b) Community protection


Protection from violent crime of any kind, as well as from personal theft, are among the most basic reasons for the existence of political power structures in communities, extending back to tribal times. Violence and theft always demands a protective response. The police initially, then judicial officers, are tasked with evaluating this kind of crime and taking offenders out of circulation in some way.

The public response to such incidents, together with media reports, is generally unsophisticated, which again can create a political problem in sentencing offenders. For example, in sentencing a judge must take account not only of precedent, but also the character and history of the offender, together with their likelihood of reoffending. There are obviously individuals who are a lethal menace to society in general. They are not numerous. A large percentage of murders for example are one-off incidents arising in domestic circumstances. Drugs play an outsized part such uncontrolled behaviour. In situations like this, a dominantly revenge response may not be in the long term interests of the society or the offender.  


c) Political fashion and political advantage


The “law and order” type of election is a cliché seen often in every jurisdiction worldwide, precisely because it has populist appeal with the least thinking part of every electorate. The consequences for the practical administration of justice are almost never beneficial, but by then the political caravan has moved on. That is, populism is a part of the crime problem, and we pay dearly for it – the topic of this discussion. “Lock ‘em up and throw away the keys” will always earn votes. Have you ever heard a politician say “We’ll lock ‘em up and charge you $100,00 a year for each one we lock up”?. Do we have debates about cutting off your nose to spite your face? At least Australia does not elect judges in the American style, with “the land of the free” having the world’s largest imprisoned population: "The United States has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world. While the US has only five per cent of the world's population, its prisons hold a quarter of all prisoners worldwide. The US also has very high recidivism rates with two-thirds of offenders being reincarcerated. A factor contributing to the growth in prison population has been 'tough-on-crime' policies" (Commonwealth of Australia Parliamentary Report 2013).


d) Protection of prisoners from further degradation (e.g. from drugs)


e) Rehabilitation

The rehabilitation of convicted persons is the segment of the justice field with the largest potential for reducing both the social and economic costs of crime. This has been known for well over a century. In spite of this potential, in every international jurisdiction as well as Australia, it has always received a relatively small proportion of funding and also erratic funding depending upon the ignorance and political opportunism of the government of the day. There are numerous reasons for this apparent irrationality, including:

a) The effects of crime are dramatic and immediate, sparking demands for rapid, obvious punishment. Prison is the ultimate quick and visible demonstration of “fixed”, regardless of whether it works to reduce crime. Rehabilitation and other social work are long term, low key projects without easy metrics to measure success. They offer no visceral satisfaction to the voters.

b) As with prison employment itself, prisoner rehabilitation as well as more general social work are typically not attractive careers for most people. The pay is modest at best, the status is low, and the work can be emotionally draining, sometimes dangerous. The field attracts some dedicated people, but (as with teaching) some are drawn to it who aren’t really the best for the human job at hand, and some may do more harm than good.

c) Most crime is the outcome of generational factors, starting with child raising methods, family environments, employment stability, and so on. In any community, resetting this kind of thing is very, very difficult, and more so when it comes through the medium of clumsy, bureaucratic intervention.

In spite of all the preceding caveats, the sheer cost of imprisonment together with accumulated evidence of its weak contribution to the reduction of crime, has begun to force governments to look at more innovative solutions. After all, even though the prison incarceration rate in Australia is only a fifth of that in the United States, the actual monetary cost is roughly equivalent to the entire income Australia earns from a large international student industry.

Any kind of political approach to a problem needs a catchy label to wrap around an ideology. The most current of these labels to “fix” crime, preferably before it happens is, “Justice Reinvestment”. What is Justice Reinvestment? An Australian Parliamentary report (2013) begins to explain the concept:

“Justice reinvestment was initially developed in the United States as a means of curbing spending on corrections and reinvesting savings from this reduced spending in strategies that can decrease crime and strengthen neighbourhoods. The South Australian Justice Reinvestment Working Group noted that 'the approach is based on evidence that a significant proportion of offenders come from, and return to, a small number of communities'. It involves long, medium and short term strategies. Funding is provided for tailored programs in those communities to strengthen the community and address the causes of crime to mitigate against individuals being caught up in the criminal justice system. Those who have committed offences are diverted away from prison using other forms of punishment and those likely to reoffend are prevented from doing so through effective rehabilitation, parole supervision and after-prison support.”

Chapter 5 of the parliamentary report, Value of a justice reinvestment approach to criminal justice in Australia (2013) provides more detail on the concept, and in spite of some reservations about American experience with it, shows some commitment to trialling the process in Australia. On this one, the devil will certainly be in the detail, and in the political will to persist with it. Time will tell.

f) Putting a social problem out of sight and out of mind


5. A closer look at types of prisoners (examples)


male Vs female prisoners

age based characteristics of prisoners and crimes

indigenous prisoners (25% of the total)

white collar criminals

political prisoners

people convicted of new Internet crimes

mentally pathological or unstable prisoners

habitually violent prisoners

prisoners of very low intelligence

illiterate and innumerate prisoners

prisoners from non-mainstream subcultures

prisoners from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds


6. Courts and sentencing regimes

a) Interstate and inter-country comparisons

The United States has the world’s largest known prison population (China is an unknown since honest statistics about anything are unavailable, often even to its own officials). A major reason for this bit of American infamy is that prison sentences tend to be longer than almost anywhere else. It is an odd quirk of psychology that a country which advertises its “Christian” credentials so loudly is less given to mercy and more attracted to revenge than other nations (a comparison with fervently Islamic governments is apt).

The typical mandatory sentence for a first-time drug offense in a [US] federal court is five or ten years, compared to other developed countries around the world where a first time offense would warrant at most 6 months in jail. Mandatory sentencing prohibits judges from using their discretion and forces them to place longer sentences on nonviolent offenses than they normally would do…. the average burglary sentence in the United States is 16 months, compared to 5 months in Canada and 7 months in England. [Wikipedia 2016]

How do we know that revenge is the driving force in these long American sentences? Simply because recidivism (offending again) is increased, not decreased by long term incarceration. It has been wryly remarked that American prisoners emerge with “PhDs in crime”, shown by the fact that America also has very high recidivism at 77% within 5 years of release.

An alternate approach to judicial sentencing is to focus not only on the crime and the prisoner, but to focus looking forward at what sentencing is going to cost the community. From that point of view, it is clear that increasing prison terms increases the future ongoing costs to the community enormously.

Rates of recidivism in the United States of America

b) The role of the media

The role of police

Arbitration and negotiated settlements

Mandatory sentencing

Remand centres and times to trial

Rights of the accused

Magistrates Vs Judges

Sentencing appeals

Judicial discretion and juries


7. The economics of imprisonment


International comparisons

New Zealand


The United States

Imprisonment in 3rd World countries


Levels of security and relative costs

Isolation cells

High security

Medium security

Low security

Hospital treatment under security

Incarceration for the mentally deranged


Prisoner activity


Exercise and eating

Prison farms

Prison factories

Prisoner education and self advancement


Restrictions on prisoner activity

Prohibitions on contact with the public

Total prohibition on Internet access

Prohibitions on bringing items (e.g. computers) into the facility

Total dependence on a structured prison regime


[much more to come]



Reading List*  (other suggestions welcome)

ABC (14 April 2016) "Housing issues hold SA prisoners back from getting parole, corrections chief says". Australian Broadcasting Commission, Adelaide, online @ 

ABC (21 April 2016) "SA traffic fines 'unfair', highest in the country, Australia Institute says" Australian Broadcasting Commission online @

ABS (2015) "Prisoners in Australia, 2015". Australian Bureau of Statistics online @

Australian Government (June, 2013) "The economic and social costs of imprisonment". Parliamentary report: "Value of a justice reinvestment approach to criminal justice in Australia", Chapter 3. Commonwealth of Australia website online @  . The full report is online @  

Australian Government (June, 2013) "The methodology and objectives of justice reinvestment". Parliamentary report: "Value of a justice reinvestment approach to criminal justice in Australia", Chapter 5. Commonwealth of Australia website online @   . The full report is online @  

Bagaric, Mirko (April 10, 2015) "Prisons policy is turning Australia into the second nation of captives". The Conversation online @   

Brown,  Michael J. I. (January 21, 2013) "Faking waves: how the NRA and pro-gun Americans abuse Australian crime stats". The Conversation online @  

Ford, Matt (Apr 15, 2016) "What Caused the Great Crime Decline in the U.S.? - After decades of soaring levels of homicides and drug violence, the country’s crime rate plunged dramatically over the last 25 years. What happened?" The Atlantic online @

Gendreau, Paul and Claire Goggin with Francis T. Cullen (1999) "The Effects of Prison Sentences on Recidivism". website online @

Grim, Ryan (14 April 2016) Mississippi Jails Are Losing Inmates, And Local Officials Are ‘Devastated’ By The Loss Of Revenue : “If they do not send us our inmates back, we can’t make it,” said one county supervisor"". The Huffington Post oline @

Grim, Ryan (15 April 2016) "Mississippi Prison Boss Defends Repossessing Inmates To Cover Budget Shortfall : “I have an agency to run. Public safety is paramount to MDOC’s mission, not subsidizing counties’ budgets.” Huffington Post online @

Frank, Robert H. (May 2016) "Why Luck Matters More Than You Might Think". The Atlantic online @

Government of South Australia (2016) Department for Correctional Services website online @  

Halsey, Mark (2014) "State of imprisonment: South Australia’s prisoner numbers soar, with just 10% of budget for rehab". The Conversation online @

Halsey, Mark (April 14, 2015) "State of imprisonment: South Australia’s prisoner numbers soar, with just 10% of budget for rehab". The Conversation online @  

Harris, Lia (November 02, 2014) "Organised crime: Money laundering is a multi-billion dollar business in Australia ". The Daily Telegraph online @

Hasham, Nicole (April 19 2016) "What $1500 gets you: a luxury hotel room in Sydney and Melbourne - or a night's detention on Christmas Island". Brisbane Times online @

Lee Chul-Jae (Dec 15,2014) "Doctoral candidate shadows gangster elite - Jonson Porteux found himself accepted by Korea’s mafia men". Joong-ang Ilbo online @|home|newslist1

Matt Ford, Matt (Apr 15, 2016) "What Caused the Great Crime Decline in the U.S.? - After decades of soaring levels of homicides and drug violence, the country’s crime rate plunged dramatically over the last 25 years. What happened?" The Atlantic online @  

Naylor, Bronwyn (April 23, 2015) "The evidence is in: you can’t link imprisonment to crime rates ". The Conversation online @

Pilkington, Ed (29 April 2016) "43 years in solitary: 'There are moments I wish I was back there'. Albert Woodfox, who was America’s longest-standing solitary confinement prisoner up until his release in February, describes what it feels like to be free The Guardian online @ 

Prosser, Candice (13 April 2016) "Adelaide prisoners on trial for allegedly drugging, raping cellmate". Australian Broadcasting Commission, Adelaide, online @ 

Queensland Government (2016) "Daily life in prison [Queensland] - Entering prison". Queensland Government website online @  

Queensland Government (2016) "Daily life in prison [Queensland] - Prisoner's rights". Queensland Government website online @   

Queensland Government (2016) "Daily life in prison [Queensland] - Visiting a prisoner". Queensland Government website online @  

Safi, Michael (28 April 2016) "Inmates squeezed into NSW jails as prisoner numbers hit record high. Changes to NSW bail laws have been blamed for boosting the state’s prison population, which grew by 9% in a year. As prisoners are driven to jail in NSW, new statistics reveal the state’s inmate population has hit a peak of 12,390". The Guardian online @

Shah, Sami(presenter) (10 April 2016) "Paying criminals to give up guns". Australian Broadcasting Commission, audio podcast online @ 

Strachan, Julieanne (16, 2014) "Old prisoners on the double". Canberra Times online @  

The Conversation (2015) "State of Imprisonment" [A list of articles on imprisonment in Australia, state by state]. The Conversation online @  

The Guardian (2016) "A 6x9 experience of solitary confinement - home to 100,000 Americans". The Guardian online @

Thomas, Jason (2 February 2015) "How much does it cost to keep people in Australian jails? Inmates of Australian jails cost $292 per day on average, with Tasmania showing the second highest prisoner cost of any state or territory as well as low rates of inmate employment, education and training". SBS Australia, online @  

Wahlquist, Calla (24 April 2016) "Victoria pledges $84m to manage sex offenders after Masa Vukotic murder: Following Melbourne teenager’s death by convicted rapist, state to implement 35 recommendations from report outlining failures in management of sex crimes". The Guardian online @

Weaver, Clair (Nov 12, 2015) "Jail Birds: What life is really like inside a women’s prison. They’re hidden from mainstream society, leading parallel existences behind bars. But as Clair Weaver and Nick Cubbin discover, as they spend three days in prison, life inside isn't what you’d expect". Australian Women's Weekly magazine, online @  

Wikipedia (2016) "Crime in Adelaide". Wikipedia online @  

Wikipedia (2016) "Crime in Australia". Wikipedia online @  

Wikipedia (2016) "GEO Group". [Private prison contractor] Wikipedia online @  

Wikipedia (2016) "List of Australian prisons". Wikipedia online @  

Wikipedia (2016) "Serco". [Private prison contractor] Wikipedia online @  

Wikipedia (2016) "Comparison of United States incarceration rate with other countries". Wikipedia online @

Wikipedia (2016) "Comparison of United States incarceration rate with other countries". Wikipedia online @

Wikipedia (2016) “Recidivism”. Wikipedia online @

Yin, Cao (14 April 2016) "Former convicts coming in from the cold". China Daily online @\\



Aston, Heath (January 27, 2016) "Apple tax disclosure: 2016 will be a defining moment for ending the multinational tax rort". Brisbane Times online @

Chan, Gabrielle (1 May 2016) "Federal anti-corruption body would save millions, says Dio Wang - Senate committee chaired by Wang is expected to report on Monday, despite only having held two hearings, due to looming election".

Danckert, Sarah (March 11 2016) "Hanlong exec gets largest insider trading sentence in Australian history". Brisbane Times online @ 

Ethical-leadership (October 26, 2013) "When a company’s values fall apart". [reference: the prison contractor, Serco] Ethical Leadership website online @

Ferguson, Adele (April 16 2016) "Ethics forgotten amid culture of greed and code of silence". Brisbane Times online @ 

Hutchens, Gareth (2 May 2016) "Corporate wrongdoing now endemic in Australia, report shows - Australia Institute report says regulators pursue hundreds of cases a year and calls for budgets and staffing to be restored". The Guardian online @

Knight, Elizabeth (March 31 2016) "Major concerns over Australian corporate corruption, but convictions few". Brisbane Times online @ 

Loewenstein, Antony (October 29th, 2011) "How Australia is creating mental health crisis with Serco’s help". Antony Loewenstein blog online @

May, Thor (2014) "Fakes, liars, cheats, deceivers, animals in the forest". online @ 

McKenzie, Nick and others (2016) "World's Biggest Bribe Scandal - the company that bribed the world". Brisbane Times online @ 

Schneiders, Ben with Simon Johanson, Royce Millar (February 24 2016) "Property spruikers target of corporate law changes". Sydney Morning Herald online @ 

The Guardian (4 April 2016) "The Guardian view on the Panama Papers: secret riches and public rage". The Guardian online @ 

West, Michael (April 15, 2016a) "Clive Palmer's antics are the very same ones multinationals use". Brisbane Times online @

West, Michael (February 19, 2016b) "Our banks are beyond the law". Brisbane Times online @

West, Michael (February 5, 2016c) "Dick Smith float looks like window dressing". Brisbane Times online @

West, Michael (March 4, 2016d) "The cat is out of the bag on corporate tax avoidance". Brisbane Times online @


Professional bio: Thor May has a core professional interest in cognitive linguistics, at which he has rarely succeeded in making a living. He has also, perhaps fatally in a career sense, cultivated an interest in how things work – people, brains, systems, countries, machines, whatever… In the world of daily employment he has mostly taught English as a foreign language, a stimulating activity though rarely regarded as a profession by the world at large. His PhD dissertation, Language Tangle, dealt with language teaching productivity. Thor has been teaching English to non-native speakers, training teachers and lecturing linguistics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven countries in Oceania and East Asia, mostly with tertiary students, but with a couple of detours to teach secondary students and young children. He has trained teachers in Australia, Fiji and South Korea. In an earlier life, prior to becoming a teacher, he had a decade of finding his way out of working class origins, through unskilled jobs in Australia, New Zealand and finally England (after backpacking across Asia to England in 1972).


Prisons: so what is to be done?  ©Thor May February 2016


index of discussion topics