Hot and crowded jails spark calls for action

The Northern Territory has some of the highest prison rates in the country.

The Northern Territory has some of the highest prison rates in the country. Photo: AAP

Two incidents at Alice Springs prison have highlighted conditions Aboriginal advocates and a union that represents corrections workers describe as dangerous.

The NT has some of the highest prison rates in the country, locking up 1127.8 people per 100,000 in the September 2023 quarter, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, more than five times the national average.

The Territory has the highest rate of recidivism, with 56.7 per cent of prisoners returning to prison, well above the national rate of 42.7 per cent.

The figures are worse for Aboriginal people, with nearly 3.5 per cent of the Territory’s Indigenous population incarcerated during the same time period.

Only Western Australia locks up First Nations people at a higher rate (4 per cent).

On Sunday more than 20 prisoners in Alice Springs rioted, allegedly using bed frames and fans as weapons.

Guards used tear gas, two inmates were taken to hospital for treatment and two dormitories damaged.

About 15 prisoners on Boxing Day attempted to escape from Alice Springs jail when they tore through a ceiling and crawled through a roof space before the alarm was raised.

Justice Reform Initiative board member Olga Havnen said there hadn’t been an appetite from government to invest in alternatives to incarceration.

“We know that just simply incarcerating people over and over again doesn’t work. It’s highly costly and it’s totally ineffective,” she said.

“At what point do we wake up and do something that has an effective evidence base?

“The whole system is degraded, the judiciary, the police, the government … none of this works and I understand and really accept the vulnerability and the frustration and the fear that ordinary people feel as victims of crime, but what we’re doing clearly does not work.”

Havnen called for a community-based and therapeutic approach to addressing drug and alcohol issues and mental health problems.

NT Attorney-General’s department figures show show corrections facilities are at capacity, with 41 per cent of people in the two prisons on remand (not yet sentenced).

United Workers Union NT secretary Erina Early said the prison was short-staffed and in a poor state because damage from a riot in 2022 had not been fully repaired.

She suggested overcrowding, heat and boredom may have contributed to the incidents.

NT Attorney-General and Justice Minister Chansey Paech said the government was addressing the over-representation of First Nations people in prison through its Aboriginal Justice Agreement.

Since 2020 the number of Aboriginal prisoners in the NT has been rising.

“Our government is supporting a new model of delivery towards reducing reoffending and imprisonment rates of Aboriginal Territorians; engaging and supporting Aboriginal leadership; and improving justice responses and services to Aboriginal Territorians,” Paech said.

“We are delivering necessary changes that support healthy, responsible, safe and resilient communities such as a range of law reforms, community courts, law and justice groups, alternatives to custody programs and supported bail accommodation.”

Havnen called on the government to install air-conditioning at the prison.

A spokesperson for the Attorney-General’s department said temperatures at jails were monitored and additional cold drinking water supplies were available.


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