February 2024

The Nation Reviewed

Serving time (after time)

By Denham Sadler
Illustration by Jeff Fisher
Australian citizens are being held in supervised facilities after they have served their prison sentence, amounting to indefinite detention

On the day he was released from jail, Thomas (not his real name) was shackled and put into a prison van. Just days earlier, he had been told he would be placed on a restrictive supervision order at the completion of his court-appointed four-and-a-half-year prison sentence for reckless injury with common purpose. He had served his full sentence, but would now have a range of stringent conditions placed on him, including a curfew and a ban on seeing many of the friends who supported him during his incarceration.

This was October 2018, and it marked the start for the then 28-year-old of a cycle of indefinite detention and supervision following the completion of a prison sentence, without having committed another crime.

“It was a massive shock to me,” Thomas says. “I was slowly being made aware of the lengths that this was going.”

Five days after being taken to his new home, he missed his curfew by less than half an hour and was returned to prison. This cycle repeated several times, with the supervision-order conditions preventing Thomas from reintegrating into society, and minor infractions relating to the curfew or drugs and alcohol leading to his re-incarceration. “I didn’t feel normal straight away – I couldn’t find my feet,” he says. “I couldn’t do anything. I just wanted a normal life, but they pushed me into being a reclusive.”

Thomas was eventually placed on an intensive treatment and supervision order, which saw him sent to the Rivergum Residential Treatment Centre, a $52 million facility in Victoria’s south-west. The centre was purpose-built by the Victorian government to house violent and sex-related offenders who had completed their prison sentence but were deemed unable to be returned to the community.

The facility embodies the practice of nearly every Australian jurisdiction, in continuing to detain or supervise individuals after they have completed a court-appointed prison sentence. This is effectively a process of indefinite detention of those deemed to be high-risk offenders, aimed at pre-emptively preventing crime.

When Rivergum opened in 2018, the Victorian government said it “anticipated that the majority of offenders will be successfully transitioned to being supervised in the community”. But the 20-bed facility is yet to reach this goal. In the past financial year, only four people have left the facility, and only five people were being housed there as of the end of June last year, according to Victoria’s Post Sentence Authority. The centre costs $9 million annually to run and has about 50 full-time staff.

Thomas describes Rivergum as a “horrible, horrible place”.

“I would have rather do my time in jail,” he says. “The way you’re treated there and have to live there is horrible. You’re micromanaged all day long and all night long. The level of control is beyond belief.”

When drugs and alcohol nurse Rose McCrohan was waiting to meet Thomas for the first time, she says her hands were shaking. She has a wealth of experience working with people with criminal records and mental illness, but a report provided to her about Thomas painted the picture of a violent and uncontrollable man.

McCrohan had been asked to determine whether Thomas was suitable to be treated at the facility she worked at. She says the man who sat down across from her was nothing like the report had described. “There was a remarkable difference,” McCrohan says. “He had so much insight into his behaviour and the impact of it on other people.”

Watching Thomas be continually detained and placed on strict supervision despite having completed his prison sentence led McCrohan to question her faith in the criminal justice system. “My belief that we have a just society was shattered,” she says.

Continuing supervision or detention orders can be made against an individual released from prison in all Australian jurisdictions except for the ACT. The practice of indefinitely detaining individuals after they have served a full prison sentence became a political storm late last year after the High Court ruled that this is unlawful for people in immigration detention. The ruling ended a 20-year practice by federal governments of holding people in immigration detention after they have served a prison sentence, even if there is no realistic prospect of them being deported. The federal government soon passed legislation introducing a preventive detention scheme of sorts, allowing the immigration minister to apply to a court to re-detain people who have been released from immigration detention if they pose an “unacceptable risk of committing a serious violent or sexual offence”. This controversial new scheme closely mirrors post-release schemes in most states and territories, which can see individuals effectively indefinitely detained despite having completed a court-appointed prison sentence.

Victoria’s post-release scheme applies to people convicted of violent or sex-related crimes. It allows individuals who pose an “unacceptable risk” to the community to be placed on supervision or detention orders after they have finished their prison sentence. If an individual is subject to a strict supervision order, they can be ordered to be held for up to two years at the Rivergum Residential Treatment Centre. This order can be renewed for a further two years by a court.

Rivergum offers therapeutic treatment, involving a “life toolkit” run three times per week, with a focus on building emotional regulation, distress tolerance and interpersonal skills. But the facility has a six-metre perimeter fence, CCTV and locked doors, while “residents” are subject to a curfew and electronic monitoring. “It’s a prison,” Thomas says. “Ask anyone there and they would rather be in a prison. They use everything against you to try to get you to do what they want.”

One of Thomas’s biggest supporters during his time at Rivergum was his grandmother, who died while he was still being held there. Thomas was prevented from saying goodbye to her and from attending her funeral. “It broke me to pieces,” he says. “And they used that against me as well.”

When approached for comment about Rivergum’s results, a spokesperson for the Victorian government pointed to a recent review of the Serious Offenders Act, but the publicly released version of this does not include any reference to the facility’s effectiveness. “The Department of Justice and Community Safety continuously considers the operations of the Rivergum Residential Treatment Centre to ensure it is working as intended to keep the community safe,” the spokesperson said. The review did say that only a “small proportion” of people have been able to leave Rivergum, and that “the low number of offenders receiving intensive treatment supervision conditions and difficulties in engaging offenders in treatment has presented challenges for the delivery of the Rivergum treatment model as intended”.

The Post Sentence Authority itself seems to be losing faith in the scheme. In its most recent annual report, it said it “queried whether this program, in its current form, is the right fit for some offenders as demonstrated behaviour change has not always translated into reduced risk”.

Far from rehabilitating the high-level offenders housed there, Thomas says Rivergum is just making people more dangerous to the community. “It just makes them 100 per cent worse,” he says. “They become anxious and bitter and revengeful for society. This doesn’t make them any better.”

McCrohan has continued to work with Thomas throughout his time in effective indefinite detention. She says the post-sentence scheme has “tipped the balance” towards further punishing people who have served their sentence.

“It’s a punishing and punitive treatment for crimes people have not yet committed, and they’re being punished for crimes that they have already served their sentence for,” she says.

Thomas was eventually released from Rivergum after three and a half years. He says he was told by staff there to “forget” his time there, but this is not possible for him. “It destroyed my life,” he says.

He has now been out of Rivergum for nearly a year, and is still stuck in a cycle of incarceration and being on a strict supervision order in the community. “It’s been absolute hell,” Thomas says. “I can’t do normal things, I can’t move on, I’m just going back to square one.”

Denham Sadler

Denham Sadler is a freelance writer.

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