Photographs displayed by Griffith University’s Dr John Rynne offer a sobering reminder of the bad old days of Australia’s prison system.
The first, taken at Brisbane’s now closed Boggo Road jail, shows an inmate clinging to a wire fence while trying to escape over a wall. The next reveals the austere, almost medieval conditions of one of the jail’s punishment cells, the infamous “black hole”. Another is of a batch of prisoners’ slop buckets – their toilets – numbered and baking in the sun.
Each image is an indictment of a brutal time, place and system. And yet the era they represent occurred not so long ago.
“These pictures were taken in 1988,” Dr Rynne said. “It’s hard to believe but at the same time Brisbane Expo was taking place just a kilometre or so down the road.
“Talk about two completely different worlds, one celebrating the coming of age of a modern city; the other symbolic of a violent history and an entrenched and dysfunctional prison system.”
An expert in prisons and a Senior Lecturer in Griffith’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Dr Rynne produces another photograph, this one featuring the modern buildings and spacious grounds of West Kimberley Regional Prison, near Derby in WA.
Opened in 2012, its design and operation are founded on an understanding of Aboriginal culture, family significance and spiritual connections. Though West Kimberley is still a prison, the contrast between its conditions and philosophy and those of Boggo Road could hardly be more striking.
“In less than a generation we’ve seen a transformation from the archaic prisons such as Boggo Road, and similar jails that operated within the old system, to this new thinking and new approach to prisoner confinement and care, prison design and administration,” Dr Rynne said.
Such issues were explored by Dr Rynne when he addressed the recent conference of the Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG) in Brisbane. His lecture, Getting better all the time: delivering front line services in the criminal justice system, examined research on custodial reform in Australia and pondered where the prison system might be heading.
Brutal and punitive regimes
Dr Rynne said that before 1990, prisons tended to be closed to external scrutiny and were hallmarked by brutal and punitive regimes. Furthermore, as well as prison workforces being highly unionised and inflexible, he said the relationship between the prison service and parole/probation services was competitive rather than complementary.
However, the post-1990 era had introduced a range of important initiatives, among them government structural reform, various influential criminal justice inquiries and reviews, policy changes leading to increased imprisonment rates, and a move towards privatisation of prisons.
“With regard to privatisation, some say that no government has the right to sell or profit from the punishment of its citizens. Others counter that it is the courts that punish, while prisons only administrate on behalf of the courts,” Dr Rynne said.
“What we do know is that prison reform is a work in progress and is far from an exact science. Just as privatisation has had its great successes, there have also been some spectacular failures.”
Dr Rynne said the prison system would continue to improve through measures such as the full accountability of state-run and privately operated prisons; taking action on trends in incarceration, rehabilitation and recidivism; and maintaining awareness of cultural considerations and behavioural change among prisoners.