The view from Billinudgel

A big concrete hole
Any attempt to shine a light on the conditions in our prisons should be applauded

Don Dale Youth Detention Centre. Source

The formation of a Royal Commission into the atrocities of the Don Dale detention centre is unequivocally a good thing.

It was certainly over-hasty; it would have been better if there had been more consultation – especially with the local Aboriginals – and perhaps less with the Northern Territory government. Matters may improve after today’s resignation of Brian Martin, whose appointment as commissioner was widely criticised. But there can be no doubt that the hearings will ventilate a foul and probably illegal regime, and should provide at least some remedies for it.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that the culture that pervades the prison system is unlikely to change.

It is not only about the Territory and its Indigenous inhabitants, although they are certainly at the sharp end of it. Throughout Australia, there is an increasing belief that the best way to deal with offenders – or indeed almost anyone we don’t like – is to lock them up as far as possible from scrutiny, and then throw away the key; the mentality that the Territory’s chief minister Adam Giles describes as throwing them into a “big concrete hole”.

In recent years it seems that there have been more new jails built in Australian than new schools; certainly the convict population has soared, and it is not because of increasing crime rates – rather the contrary in fact. But from Don Dale to Villawood to Nauru, there is a mistaken belief that internment is making the country a safer place.

And as governments rail about the need for law and order, they take less responsibility for the way they care for those they lock up. The trend is to privatize the prisons; to pay someone else – almost anyone else – to look after the inmates.

This is an abhorrent idea: imprisonment is meant to be a last resort, a necessary evil. It may be about punishment, about rehabilitation, about deterrence or even about the protection of the wider society; it is usually a combination. But the motive for incarcerating other human beings should never – must never – be for private profits and dividends.

And when it is, those who administer it are almost invariably the most cynical and brutal of the so-called guardians. Even in the public order, we have seen how easily the nightmare of Don Dale drifts from callousness into outright sadism.

The mere concept of commercialising the process should be unthinkable to a civilised community. As soon as detention becomes a business, it becomes an obscenity.

The political justification is that the public at large just doesn’t care: most people believe that those who get banged up deserve it. And they think that it will never happen to them.

So any public exposure of the brutality that can, and so often does, happen in prisons must be worthwhile. Malcolm Turnbull’s royal commission may only be a small step, but we must be grateful for small mercies. 

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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