The Hervey Bay courthouse is a newish, brick building three hours drive north of Brisbane. Today there are about 20 people waiting to appear before a judge. Most have been charged with traffic offences, assaults, drug offences or theft. I sit behind glass barriers and watch as a 22-year-old man is charged with spitting on a police officer after a street altercation. The prosecution wants him jailed for six months. If he's convicted he will enter the most overcrowded prison system in Australia.
As of late last year, Queensland has the most overpopulated jails in the country. Four of Australia's five most crowded men's prisons are located in the regional areas of the state. More people are being charged, arrested and jailed than at any other time in the state's history. In the last five years the number of people behind bars in Queensland has increased by more than 20 per cent. As a result nine of the state's 11 high security prisons are now filled beyond capacity—resulting in an increase in staff and inter-prisoner assaults.
One of Australia's most overcrowded prisons is Maryborough Correctional Centre, located in Hervey Bay. Thirty-five kilometres west of the court house, it's where most of the men sentenced today will be housed. The Queensland Corrective Services website boasts: "The centre is considered to be one of the safest in the world, using state-of-the-art technology such as drug and contraband scanners, and high-tech equipment capable of detecting sound and movement around the perimeter".
But at the courthouse a former inmate tells me that the place is bursting at the seams. "Sometimes people have had to sleep in the kitchen because there aren't enough beds" he says, "there's people bloody everywhere, there's always heaps of fights and shit... there's never enough space".
Maryborough Correctional Centre's capacity is 516, but it currently houses 598. Last year, overcrowding came to head when prisoners rioted on three occasions. During the most recent altercation, police needed to bring in tear gas and dogs to quell the violence. A month earlier, prisoners managed to smash bulletproof glass and destroy a cell block office. In December 2013, a man was stabbed and several prison cells were set alight. Back in 2012 a man was killed with a single, deadly blow from two-pronged metal bar which pierced a hole right through his skull.
We know prisons are often violent places; however the prison officers union argues that much of the recent trouble at Maryborough is a direct result of overcrowding.
Back in the courthouse during a court recess, I find myself speaking to a community lawyer who asked not be identified. He says that, over the past few years, he has seen a huge growth in the number of people being arrested, charged, prosecuted, and imprisoned on public nuisance charges. He claims that these nuisance charges are the reason that the state's prisons are filling up.
He explains: "If somebody has to move to the other side of the street because you behaved in an offensive way then technically the person gets charged." For a single offence the individual probably won't be convicted and handed jail time, but if they have a similar instance of disorder, and throw in perhaps a minor assault or a shoplifting charge, then in the future they will likely end up in jail.
Although it's understandable for police to take signs of disrespect seriously, in many cases the sentences appear extreme. In Queensland courts spitting at a police officer carries a maximum 14-year jail term.
The number of people being charged in Queensland per year has increased by 30,000 since 2011. If you live in Maryborough there is a one in 30 chance you will be charged by the police and have to front up to court.
One of the major causes of the increase in prison numbers has been the jump in illicit drug charges; in some cases possession, as opposed to trafficking, is earning people jail time. Queensland has the highest number of illicit drug arrests in the nation. Arrests for cannabis use and possession are particularly high: nearly five times more people are arrested for cannabis use here than in the more populated Victoria.
Many point the finger at the former state government for the increase. Indeed, in the five years prior to 2012, imprisonment rates in the state had been stable. The Newman government promised to balance the budget and get tough on crime. This meant less money for specialist courts, legal aid, and youth social programs and more money for the police. The LNP Government axed the Murri Court, the Drug Court and the Special Circumstances Courts (for the offenders with mental health issues). The Government also wound back several jail work programs for prisoners. The Newman Government then funded 1,100 extra police costing $358 million.
This last fact comes to mind back at the courthouse when a social worker named Rachel spots me interviewing someone and wanders over. "I think that the police run out of things to do," she says when I ask her why so many people are in the region are going to prison. "There are too many of them, there's no jobs, there's no work."
Later, I interview Fiona Allison, Senior Research Officer at The Cairns Institute at James Cook University. She tells me her work has revealed that nearly 50 percent of questioned Aboriginal people have had an issue with housing, and nearly one in three with racial discrimination.
"We have uncovered the very common connections between Indigenous criminalisation and unmet need in areas like housing, social security, child protection, discrimination and credit and or debt," she said. "Unresolved issues can quickly escalate to offending, or they contribute to broader social exclusion of Indigenous Australians — which then feeds into offending.
The new local ALP member, Bruce Saunders, has made it clear his party is committed to building more cells at the prison rather than reducing the number of people being locked up. They have not made any explicit commitments to reducing the number of people being arrested and sent to jail. Labor and Liberal Governments, state and federal have all presided over periods in which there are more Australians in jail than ever before. The number of Indigenous Australians in prison has grown by more than 80 percent in 10 years.
Fiona Allison adds that improved access to justice, the restoration of diversionary courts and funds to "increase positive outcomes in education, health and employment" in the indigenous community would be an effective way to reduce their incarceration rates.
Yet, tough-on-crime is increasingly becoming a bipartisan stance, and with all this in mind to some extent, it might all be a case of democracy in action. In central Queensland, the Left Wing is what many in cities would identity as soft-conservative, and even those who are the apparent victims of the system often don't seem to want it changed.
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