PRISONER WORK RELEASE SCHEME
The Hon. S. B. MUTCH: My question without notice is addressed to the Attorney General, Minister for Justice and Vice President of the Executive Council. The prisoner work release scheme has come under criticism from the Opposition recently. What is the current status of the scheme? Does the Attorney General believe the Opposition would scrap the scheme, if elected?
The Hon. J. P. HANNAFORD: As a former practising lawyer the honourable member had an interest in the criminal justice program. He would have been concerned, as I am, about the attacks that are sometimes made by the Opposition concerning the work release program. The work release program faces constant criticism from the Opposition. One wonders whether the Opposition has anything better to do. The Labor Party carps and carps again about escapes from the work release program although it knows that in such programs prisoners who are becoming eligible for release are allowed to move out into the community to work, and from time to time they will not return to the work release centre from their places of work. Such people are being classified as escapees and are being treated as such within the justice system.
The rehabilitation of inmates and the programs which are put in place to ensure that inmates learn responsibility and acclimatise to the outside world after having been in gaol are working well. The Opposition likes to try to jeopardise the program by claiming that one escape reflects a failure of the entire program. The reality is that the work release program has a lengthy history and is readily acknowledged by justice professionals to be an integral part of the rehabilitation program of inmates. Inmates spend the first three months of their placement at the Silverwater correctional centre working in internal industries to assess their suitability for the work release program, and to further develop their work skills prior to any possibility of their external employment.
In 1992-93, 902 inmates were eligible to participate in the work release program. This meant that, during the year, 133 inmates were on work release for each working day, making 35,000 inmate movements in and out of Silverwater prison in that year. Inmates often find their own way to and from work and, of those 35,000 movements - and I emphasis this - only 11 inmates failed to return to the centre from their workplaces, and of that number 10 have been recaptured. It cannot be suggested that 11 out of 35,000 movements in and out of the centre is a failure of the program.
In many cases the reason for the escape was that the inmate had received disturbing news from relatives and felt he could not wait for release but had to go home and help the family. This can best be illustrated by one particular case last year. An inmate who was due out on work release received a telephone call advising him that his son was seriously ill in hospital. He maintained his work release schedule for the three following days but eventually absconded in order to go to the hospital to see his son. He was found by the police at his son's hospital bedside. That is technically an escape and it is a common theme among inmates who do not return from work release. Most inmates understand that they are almost due to be released when they are placed on the program. Most respect that fact and do not do anything to jeopardise their eventual release.
In other cases inmates have not done the right thing while on the work release program. The stringent checks that the Department of Corrective Services places on work release participants means that such people are identified and removed from the program. It is inevitable that there will be a small number of failures in any pre-release program as such programs are effectively a testing ground for inmates' success in reintegrating into the community on release. However, given the large numbers of participants, the failure level is minimal.
The Opposition wants to have it both ways. It sits on the fence and attempts to convey the impression that it is supporting the program but then issues media releases attacking the program as if to suggest that it is not working. The Opposition must take a position. Though, on one hand, it takes pleasure in pointing out each individual failure in the program, the Opposition assures community groups, professionals and correctional experts who support the program that it will not be cancelled should the Opposition be elected.
About a year ago Bob Carr said he was interested in establishing a bipartisan prison policy, contained within which would be the work release scheme. Almost 12 months have elapsed and still we see Bob Carr having a bob each way. One Bob agrees with the work release program but the same Bob pronounces us all failures if one inmate happens not to return from work. The point is that the inmates are due to be out, living as part of the general community, 12 months after going on the program. If there is to be a rehabilitation aspect to corrections - and undoubtedly there should be - it is important that selected prisoners be subjected to what might be described as a decompression process whereby they are gradually returned to the community.
When is Bob Carr going to realise that if he is going to preach to the community about the benefits of work release he cannot lambast us when only 11 of 35,000 movements have resulted in inmates not returning to the centre. The fear of a horde of escaped prisoners roaming around the community committing crimes when they should be safely locked up may be an easy picture for the fearmongers in the Opposition to generate, but they and I know that most of the inmates who are taking part in this program, and their employers, have been so closely screened that there is little room for mistake. But the Opposition's tactics are starting to pale, so far as the community is concerned. A letter to the editor of the Australian newspaper on the issue of work release, signed by people such as the Reverend Harry Herbert, Dr Eileen Balding, Kevin Cook, General Secretary of the Tranby Aboriginal College, Tim Anderson and Brett Collins, said:
The ALP's constant political point scoring on crime and punishment is, to us, sheer political opportunism.
These unthinking, knee jerk responses only contribute to the growth of more severe and more socially damaging penal systems . . .
The inmates are aware that if they make a mistake on this program they are either taken off the work scheme or, if they abscond, face extra time in gaol, and not many of them are willing to take that risk. I recently instructed the department to put in place tighter controls on the screening of employers, and follow up surveillance on inmates participating in the scheme. This will mean that even fewer problems should occur with the scheme and more inmates will complete their time with work experience and have the ability to find a job when released.
It is becoming a tired old exercise to open the Sunday papers only to find Two Bob Carr contradicting himself on corrections matters again. I used to think that Bob Carr just could not make up his mind on his position on this issue, but it has become very clear that he knows exactly where he is sitting - well and truly on the fence. Some people in the community are about to put an electric charge through that fence. It is about time that Bob Carr started to position himself clearly on the issue of correctionals management in this State.
The ALP has shown itself incapable of expressing any constructive alternative policy.