Anita Mackay – Reality of overcrowded prisons

Anita Mackay

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Accommodating people in cages and shipping containers: the reality of overcrowded prisons by Anita Mackay, Monash University – Reprinted by special permission of Regarding Rights

Increasing prison populations are a common trend in Australia and internationally. This post examines the Victorian situation because Victoria has the fastest growing prison population in Australia, and attempts to highlight some of the consequences and costs of this phenomenon.

The statistics

The Victorian prison population has risen by 40% in the past 10 years and 47% of that increase has been since the Victorian Coalition government was elected in 2010. The population has now reached approximately 5,800, and both male and female Victorian prisons are likely to be operating beyond their capacity by 2016. This is despite the fact that the government is building a new 1000-bed prison to cope with the rising prison population. In the meantime, Victoria is housing imprisoned people in shipping containers. [1]

The increasing prison population is a direct consequence of the Coalition’s ‘tough on crime’ agenda, which has led to strain at all stages of the criminal justice system. For example, Magistrates are sitting on weekends to deal with the backlog of cases, people who would normally be in prison are being held in police custody, and corrective services have been held in contempt of court for failing to transport people from prisons to their hearings because the Melbourne Custody Centre is full.

A 2012 report by the Auditor-General found that:

The male prison system has been operating at close to or above its operational capacity of 95 per cent since May 2011. As at 30 September 2012, the male prison system was operating at 95.8 per cent of its operational capacity (4893 beds). This pressure is likely to significantly increase with CV [Corrections Victoria] forecasting, in a 2012–13 funding submission, that the male prisoner population will grow by nearly 2000 between June 2011 and June 2016.

In that same report the Auditor-General noted that ‘operating above 95 per cent utilisation compromises the ability of prison management to safely and humanely manage prisoners’. If this is the safe level of occupation, what happens when levels are as high as they currently are—and are projected to get higher?

Problems associated with prison overcrowding

Some may argue that people in prison deserve little sympathy, yet the matter is far more serious than this response assumes.

The most significant problem resulting from overcrowding is that the risk of violence (including sexual assault) increases; the number of deaths, assaults and self harm occurring in Victorian prisons is reportedly increasing. This is never good news, but it is particularly concerning given that Productivity Commission data reveal Victorian prisons to be the most violent in the country, a matter brought to public attention by the death of Carl Williams in Barwon prison.

The risk of increased violence applies to both imprisoned people and staff working in such a fraught environment, and WorkCover claims by staff have reportedly tripled between 2009 – 2013. The prison officer’s union (the  fastest growing prison population has also raised concerns about the fast tracking of training of new officers (which has been required due to the pace at which the prison population is increasing), who may not be fully prepared for the challenges they will face in the overcrowded prison system.

Sharing of cells is another consequence of overcrowding; in some cases people have to share with more than one other person. The Victorian Auditor-General found that:

As at June 2012 across the prison system there were:
• 583 double bunks (which potentially equates to 1166 prisoners sharing a cell)
• 79 dual occupancy cells (158 prisoners)
• 80 temporary dual occupancy cells (160 prisoners)
• 67 triple occupancy cells (201 prisoners).

This means 34% of the prison population is sharing a cell, with the concomitant lack of privacy and risk of violence.

Another problem caused by overcrowding is there tends to be a lack of access to services and facilities – such as medical services, counselling, telephones to maintain contact with family members, education and rehabilitation programs – because these services generally do not get increased to cope with the additional demand experienced in such circumstances.

Economic costs

In addition to these human costs of overcrowding in prisons, there are financial implications. In Victoria it costs more than $300 per day to keep a person in prison (table 8.24), or $100,000 per year. Money that is spent on incarcerating people is money that cannot be spent on crime prevention and keeping people out of prison in the first place (e.g. education, re-training unemployed people, mental health services and drug and alcohol treatment programs).

Other jurisdictions

Within Australia overcrowding is by no means a peculiarly Victorian problem. If 95% capacity is estimated as the safe rate then every jurisdiction in Australia exceeds this. For example, Western Australian and Northern Territory prisons are operating at over 100% capacity. Newspaper reports suggest that the ACT’s only prison (the Alexander Maconochie Centre) is also full.

The USA has the highest incarceration rate in the world (716 per 100,000, compared to 130 per 100,000 in Australia) and the US prison population exceeds 2 million. The overcrowding associated with this high incarceration rate has had some dire consequences in Californian prisons where prisons reached 200% capacity; the problem was so acute that in May 2011 the US Supreme Court ordered that the prison population be reduced.

The Supreme Court’s decision was on the basis that because the overcrowding meant that people with mental illness were not receiving the treatment they needed, the Eighth amendment prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment was being violated. Some examples of the serious problems the court received evidence of include that:

• there were 68 preventable deaths in a year;
• people were waiting for 12 months to receive mental health treatment;
• suicidal people were being held in cages the size of telephone booths with no access to toilets; and
• gymnasiums were being used to accommodate imprisoned people on double or triple bunks
Some images may be seen here. Justice Kennedy noted in his judgment that:

A prison that deprives prisoners of basic sustenance, including adequate medical care, is incompatible with the concept of human dignity and has no place in civilized society. If government fails to fulfil this obligation, the courts have a responsibility to remedy the resulting Eighth Amendment violation. (p13)

It is certainly hoped that Australian jurisdictions avoid letting overcrowding reach such an extreme level, given there are already problems associated with current levels of overcrowding.

Overcrowding is also a matter that the European Court of Human Rights has found to lead to in-human and degrading treatment under the European Convention of Human Rights (Article 3 of that Convention is very similar to section 10 of the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006).[2]


Overcrowded prisons mean unsafe prisons. Victorian prison officers should be able to expect better of their working conditions; Victorians who are incarcerated should also be able to expect living conditions that do not pose a serious risk to their health and wellbeing. Indeed, the community should be able to expect better. Overcrowded prison conditions preclude rehabilitation. This has an impact not only on an individual’s prospect of turning their lives around, but on the safety of their families and of community members at large, once that individual is released from prison. If the community is not concerned about these human costs, at the very least they should be concerned about the huge amount of money being spent on incarcerating people that therefore cannot be spent on crime prevention, schools, the health system, transport infrastructure and other services that benefit the whole community.

[1] Shipping containers are also used in South Australian and Northern Territory prisons.

[2] For example, see the case of Mandic and Jovic v Slovenia.


Other articles by Anita Mackay – Women in Australian prisons and why they need human rights protections

Anita Mackay is a PhD scholar at Monash University and a former visitor to the Centre for International Justice and Governance. Anita’s thesis compares prisons operating under a human rights framework with prisons operating according to restorative justice principles. She is conducting this research under the supervision of Associate Professor Bronwyn Naylor and Dr Julie Debeljak. Anita is also employed as a research assistant on an ARC grant about the application of human rights legislation in closed environments.


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