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Our prison system is a broken, that is why so many people are in it

By Tracie Aylmer

At one point in our understanding and knowledge of our way of life, it should have been understood that prison was meant to incur shame upon those that have done wrong according to our social way of life. If prison is used for any other type of method, then there will be no shame and prison will not have the impact that it should. Instead, it will be treated as a source of resentment, particularly among those that are wrongly caught up in it. It won’t have the impact that it should.

I have been reading about Ancient Greece. Pericles gave a very long speech to Athenians going to the Peloponnesian War that makes sense even today.[1] The law is supposed to be to do right by oneself, as well as to others. Neighbours are happy with what others are doing, as long as they are also happy within themselves.

This makes total, logical sense.

If the law is unjust and shame is delivered on those in an illogical manner, then the concept of the prison system does not bring shame upon those being caught up in it, nor does it have the impact that it should. There will be no rehabilitation to those that come out of it.

If the prison system was used appropriately then there wouldn’t be quite as many people incarcerated. If one looks at today’s statistics, many of the people caught in our prison system are there due to racial intolerance. Ms Dhu’s case is a perfect example of how the prison system has gone so horribly wrong. If she had not been caught up in the prison system then she would still be alive today. (Ms Dhu died in custody). There are many that have been similarly caught within this racially motivated method of keeping our Indigenous locked up for no real good reason.

Considering this same issue was commented upon so concisely by a man speaking around 2500 years ago, one can see that not only has history repeated itself yet again, but the concept of prison and shame has suffered. Prisons cannot be taken to be for the reason they are open. They cannot be treated as serious entities with the intent on teaching people that what they did was wrong. This is because many that are caught up have not really done wrong things, other than not paying fines brought on by a government that only has intent on making money.

Perhaps when the racism has stopped, then we can deal with those that have socially done wrong in a much better way. At this period of time, the concept of prison is far from what it should be. It is time that we reconsider what prison is meant to represent.

[1] Thucydides ‘History of the Peloponnesian War’, Book II, Paragraph 37.


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  1. paulwalter

    Yes and it is our fault too. Guilt is instilled as we are reminded by our masters of our innate unworthiness… we are guiltier than sin.

    Another round of austerity involving social infrastructures is called for, to reinstall a bit of backbone; some moral fibre. Spending less on jails to make them even bigger holes is a good way to penny pinch and make available more deserved tax cuts for the worthy wealthy.

  2. paulwalter

    Oth, there is much to said for building more jails and detention centres, like they do in the USA. Marvellous investment opportunities/rorts here.

    Besides, there must be jails when there are so many undeserving poor, who should be in them, tsk.

  3. Matters Not

    Tracie Aylmer, the concept of ‘punishment’, ‘prison’, and even our understanding of ‘law’ has changed over time as has the role of ‘discipline’ in the way society is understood and acted upon. Michael Foucault in DISCIPLINE AND PUNISH. The Birth of the Prison is worth a read – or maybe a couple of times – in my experience even a few more. There’s one quote I well remember from an interview:

    It is common knowledge that laws are made by certain people for other people to keep.

    But we can go further. Lawbreaking is not an accident, a more or less unavoidable imperfection. Rather, it is a positive element of the functioning of society. Its role is part of a general strategy. Every legislative arrangement sets up privileged and profitable areas where the law can be violated, others where it can be ignored, and others where infractions are sanctioned.

    The idea that laws are made by certain people for other people to keep still resonates today. So useful in understanding both the macro and the micro dimensions of today’s political behaviour. And there’s never the hint of any shame.

  4. Tracie

    Thank you Matters Not. That was a very informative response.

    I found a copy of an English translation online, and will have pleasure in reading it. You are right. The legislators are taking pleasure in breaking their own laws, that they create for everyone else. Back in Ancient Greek times, everyone understood that the law was to many people’s benefit. Now, our system has lost its way. All because of greed.

  5. Caroline

    A change occurred when prisons became private and for profit.
    It was not for the better I assure you.

  6. Matters Not

    Back in Ancient Greek times, everyone understood that the law was to many people’s benefit.

    Not sure about that Tracie. The everyone didn’t include women and children, and certainly it didn’t include ‘slaves’ who made up the bulk of the resident population. So given those limitations, the concept of everyone seems somewhat lame. As for ‘understandings’ of those times – they too are problematic because ‘politics’ were alive and well in those times also. Among the voting ‘citizens’ those who voted for X or Y were easily noted, given that their decisions (generally) were on public display. And there were consequences if going against the ‘faction’.

  7. Tracie

    What I meant was that all understood the place they had. Different laws were in place for women and children, but they still understood their laws.

    It’s just that the highest benefit of laws were to free men. There were also laws in relation to popularity and tyranny. It would have been an interesting period of time to watch as a bystander.

  8. Matters Not

    What I meant was

    No problem with your ‘intention’ (we all have those), it’s that your ‘intention’ can’t control the ‘meaning’ given by the reader – only influence same – and it will always be always so (probably).

    As for:

    It would have been an interesting period of time to watch as a bystander.

    Can only agree. But I suspect that some of our ‘idealism’ re ancient Greek democracy would probably now lie in ruins. Life was somewhat more brutal in those times. And cheap, at least for those who had the real power.

  9. paulwalter

    Matters not, I wondered if someone would have the wit to expand on Foucault. Onya.

  10. Matters Not

    paulwalter, as a matter of interest (and a confession), what seems like a thousand years ago, the person who became a great influence on my future, gave me a then relatively recent publication (mid 70s as I recall) entitled DISCIPLINE AND PUNISH. The Birth of the Prison and asked me to lead a discussion of same. The result was an absolute disaster. Completely out of my depth. Hadn’t done my thinking homework. In retrospect – cringe worthy. And I’ve had plenty of those over the years. Now if I could rewrite history. LOL

    But from that experience I learnt much. I believe.

  11. paulwalter

    That’s an absolute gem of a comment. I so identify with that; experience is the teacher and life has its own schedule, yielding up its secrets when it is ready, not us.

    That sort of insight is why I love good blog sites like this one, where people of like mind and heart congregate to enjoy conversation and ideas.

  12. Terry2

    The Lotus Glen prison near Mareeba in far North Queensland services the Cape York Region including Cairns, isolated aboriginal communities and Torres Strait Islands. Its prisoner population is generally comprised of approximately 70 percent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

    In recent years the Queensland government extended the capacity of the jail at a cost of $445 million.

    A recent report indicated a revolving door situation with many offenders returning on a regular basis and with young men, in particular, seeing time in jail with their mates as a right of passage and a form of initiation into manhood.

    Yes, the system is broken !

  13. Deanna Jones

    We need to look to the Northern European models of justice if we are to disrupt the prison industrial complex. Right now the so called justice system only serves to reinforce the existing status quo of society. Our gaols are full of people on remand, or sentenced for minor ‘crimes’ and are of no threat to the community whatsoever. People are making money off them though so I doubt things will change.

    As to Foucault, his key concept that prison and punishment had fundamentally changed over time was actually a bit off the mark. He posited that whereas previously, the punishments meted out by the powers that be were aimed at the body, they are now aimed at the soul. Sure, locking people up causes depression and anxiety. But there is no way we could try to argue that being incarcerated does not still cause immeasurable and often irreversible problems with people’s physical health. Even in the 1970s, Foucault would have had access to data on prisoner health, and it was arrogant to take such a shortsighted approach.

    Thanks for writing about this is topic, Tracie. You would probably like the work of Nils Christie or Thalia Anthony, or any other critical criminologists, if this is an issue you have an interest in.

  14. Tracie

    I like starting philosophical conversations around many topics, but my main passions will always be domestic violence and the International Criminal Court. The topic of domestic criminology comes from that as a side issue.

    Within Australia, there is a status quo surrounding how public funds are allocated to private corporations. This is why prisons are so popular with our state and federal governments. Looking elsewhere won’t be an option until corruption is wiped. I believe our politicians are profiting from all of this.

    I may at a later date check Nils Christie and Thalia Anthony out. Thank you for the tip.

  15. helvityni

    I remember the two sad cases of young children killing other children, in England the young killers went to jail, In Norway they had a more humane , more compassionate way of dealing with the issue.

    One country only punishes, the other rehabilitates…

  16. Steve Laing -

    Penal reform whilst clearly much needed, is always hard to get support for – “those bloody criminals getting off their faces on drugs whilst playing Xbox – prison? More like a bleeding holiday camp!” etc. Labor knows that to support it makes them easy meat for the Coalition who will beat the law and order drum as loudly and as often as they are allowed to, knowing full well how the knuckle-draggers will dance to their tune. It is no different to the off-shore asylum issue.

    Again, it underlines the fact that the system as it stands is incapable of dealing with issues that might make it vulnerable to losing political support. So again the politicians fiddle with backpacker taxes whilst non-white people die in custody.

  17. Deanna Jones

    Helvi, our policy is ostensibly about rehabilitation, too. But like everything else in Oz, we appear to be irretrievably f*cked up.

    Sorry, Tracie, I thought you had raised it as a main topic, since you wrote about it as a main topic.

  18. Tracie

    This is the first time I have written about it, and mainly to invoke conversation surrounding our prison system. I hear many complaints about it. I think it needs a complete overhaul, but knowing there is a major problem could help us understand how many different solutions there should be to fix it.

    I like the thought of looking to Europe for answers. Europe appears to do many things differently, that would be of great benefit to us.

  19. helvityni


    I mention this before here; they have closed (if I remember right) eleven jails in Holland. Not enough criminals, or so the Dutch husband boasts.

    I’m sure crime still happens, but the Dutch have more progressive ways of dealing with it….you are not locked up for minor misdeeds…

  20. Kaye Lee

    Drug addiction should be dealt with through the health system. Drug manufacture and importation and large scale supply should be dealt with by the legal system.

    Mandatory sentencing should be abolished and trust placed in the judiciary (with an appeals system as oversight).

    Failure to pay fines should attract community service orders rather than incarceration.

    Something must be done about the length of time people spend on remand – I don’t know enough to make a suggestion.

    Focus should be placed on crime prevention measures (and I don’t mean the CCTV cameras they announce every election), many of which have been defunded.

    Education, lifting people out of poverty, instilling hope and self-belief, providing opportunities for people to contribute productively, forgiveness for mistakes and help towards a new path – and so many other things – would be a far more productive investment than contracts which confer more benefit the more they are used.

    But these things are medium-long term investments and this government wants to look tough on law and order, so we will ignore all the experts and pay kazillions to untrained thugs to further traumatise those who almost inevitably fall foul of the system.

    Pauline Hansen with Transfield detention centre guards at a Reclaim Australia rally

  21. Sue

    SBS recently broadcast a show titled First Contact (Ray Martin as host). One segment was filmed inside a WA prison and was quite an eye opener with rehabilitation being the main goal. Comedian Tom Ballard was a stand-out.

  22. Matters Not

    Terry2 at 7:55 am

    seeing time in jail with their mates as a right of passage and a form of initiation into manhood </blockquote

    Yes, that's an often stated 'ambition – to go to the 'big house'.

    Tonight on The Drum, the Aboriginal representative was in denial mode re that 'ambition'. Sad.

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