Punishment in Australia
Punishment in Australia arises when an individual has been convicted of breaking the law through the Australian criminal justice system. Australia uses prisons, as well as community corrections (various non-custodial punishments such as parole, probation, community service etc). The death penalty has been abolished, and corporal punishment is no longer used. Prison labour occurs in Australia, prisoners are involved in many types of work with some paid as little as $0.82 per hour. Before the colonisation of Australia by Europeans, Indigenous Australians had their own traditional punishments, some of which are still practised.
Prisons in Australia are operated by state-based correctional services departments, for the detention of minimum, medium, maximum and supermax security prisoners convicted in state and federal courts, as well as prisoners on remand. In the June quarter of 2018, there were 42,855 people imprisoned in Australia, which represents an incarceration rate of 222 prisoners per 100,000 adult population., or 172 per 100,000 total population. This represents a sharp increase from previous decades. In 2016-2017 the prison population was not representative of the Australian population, for example, 91% of prisoners were male, while males were only half of the population, and 27% of prisoners were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders, while indigenous people were only 2.8% of the population. In 2018, 18.4% of prisoners in Australia were held in private prisons.
Australia also detains non-citizens in a separate system of immigration detention centres, operated by the federal Department of Home Affairs, pending their deportation and to prevent them from entering the Australian community. Controversially this includes the detention of asylum seekers, including children, while their claims to be refugees are determined. The purpose of immigration detention is not punishment and a non-citizen can lawfully be detained indefinitely without charge or trial. It has been stated the different purposes make little practical difference between immigration detention and imprisonment, and that detainees often experience immigration detention as if it were punishment.
- 1 History
- 2 Imprisonment
- 3 Prisons
- 4 Prison labour
- 5 Immigration detention facilities
- 6 Non-prison punishments
- 7 Involuntary psychiatric treatment
- 8 Corporal punishment in Australia
- 9 Capital punishment in Australia
- 10 Deaths in custody
- 11 Former prisons
- 12 Cultural depictions
- 13 See also
- 14 References
- 15 Further reading
Traditional indigenous punishments
Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the indigenous people of Australia - Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders - had their own traditional punishments which they carried out on people who broke tribal customary law. These included:
- Spearing - a corporal punishment where someone is pierced with a spear, often through their leg.
- Singing - an elder sings, which is believed to call evil spirits/misfortune upon the offender. There are reports of this happening as recently as 2016.
- Public shaming
- Compensation - such as by adoption or marriage.
- Exclusion from the community
- Death - this could be either directly through execution, or indirectly through magic.
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New South Wales, as the founding site for British colonisation Australia in 1788, has had prisons for as long as Australia has had European settlement. The first Australian colony was founded at Port Jackson (now Sydney) on 26 January 1788, and marked the commencement of many decades of convict arrivals from the United Kingdom. Penal colonies were also founded in what is now the states of Queensland, Tasmania, and Western Australia.
Two penal colonies were briefly founded in the area that is now Victoria. Both were abandoned shortly after. Later, after a free settlement had been established, some convicts were transported to the region.
Norfolk Island (an external territory of Australia), the site of two penal colonies from 1788–1814 and 1824-1856, has no prisons at all in the 21st century. When Glenn McNeill was sentenced in 2007 to 24 years in prison for murder on Norfolk Island, the absence of prisons meant he was imprisoned in NSW.
Corporal punishment and capital punishment were both used in colonial Australia.
Convicts in the 19th century were subject to forced hard labour, such as quarrying sandstone. William Ulthorne, an English Catholic Bishop described convict labourers in the 1830s: “They are fettered with heavy chains, harassed with heavy work, and fed on salt meat and coarse bread, [...] Their faces are awful to behold, and their existence one of desperation.”
Additionally, there was the punishment of young children. John Hudson was reportedly only 9 years old when sentenced for burglary and 13 when transported to Australia. He was one of 34 children on the First Fleet in 1788.
Each state and territory runs its own department to oversee correctional services, for example the South Australian Department for Correctional Services is responsible for prisoners and the provision of the rehabilitation opportunities in South Australia.
Number of prisoners
|Year||Number||Rate per 100k adults||Source|
In the June quarter of 2018, there were 42,855 people imprisoned in Australia, which was an incarceration rate of 222 prisoners per adult 100,000 population, or about 172 prisoners per 100,000 total population.
Australia's prison population is now at the highest it has ever been, after a 20-year long surge in incarceration. From 2007 to 2017, the prison population of Australia is grew quickly in both total numbers and incarceration rate per capita. The highest rate of increase was seen among prisoners on remand (ie: unsentenced, awaiting trial or sentencing), women and indigenous Australians. From 2012 to 2017 the number of people in prison on remand grew 87 percent. This might be due to more people being refused bail, and a backlog of cases in the courts.
In the 30 years from 1988 to 2018, Australia's incarceration rate per 100,000 adults more than doubled.
In 2017 males made up 91.9% of prisoners, despite males only being roughly half the adult population.
In 2017 the female imprisoned population in Australia was 8.1% of the total adults that are incarcerated.
The percentage of the total female prison population has risen 1.7 percent since 2000. In the year 2000 there were 1,385 female prisoners, in the latest recount in 2017 there were 3,333 female prisoners. The female prison population rate is calculated based on the national population total, making the female prison population rate 13.5 per 100,000 of the national population. Although women are still a very small proportion, their percentage of the prisoner population has grown significantly over the past decade. The increase in Indigenous women prisoners accounts for most of that growth. The increase in Indigenous women prisoners is due to a higher number of Indigenous women entering prison again for re-offending, as well as increased policing and tougher sentencing.
From 2008 to 2017 there was an increase in the rate of Indigenous people imprisoned, from 1.8% of the indigenous population to 2.43%.
In 2017, indigenous people were over 15 times more likely than non-indigenous people to be imprisoned.
State and territory prison populations
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics as of 30 June 2017 the number of adult prisoners according to each state and territory were as follows:
|State/Territory||Number of Prisoners||Percent Change From 2016||Percent Male||Percent Female||Percent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander|
|New South Wales||13,149||+4||92||8||24|
|Australian Capital Territory||449||+2||91||9||21|
†Note that Indigenous Australians make up 25% of the Northern Territory's population, compared to under 5% in all other states and territories, and 2.8% nationally.
State and territory incarceration rates
In 2017 the Northern Territory had by far the country's highest incarceration rate at 878 per 100,000 adult population. This was more than 3 times the national imprisonment rate. However, it was a decrease from 923 per 100,000 the previous year. In June 2018 this had increased to 965.
|State/Territory||2017 incarceration rate|
|New South Wales||216|
|Australian Capital Territory||141|
Prisoners in 2017, by most serious crime committed:
- Illicit drug offences - 6155 individuals - 15% of all prisoners
- Sexual assault - 4785 individuals - 9.8%
- Homicide - 3110 individuals - 7.7%
- Acts intended to cause injury - 9659 individuals
- Unlawful entry with intent - 4378 individuals
- Offences against justice procedures - 3066
- Robbery/extortion - 3255
From 2013-2017, the largest increase was in prohibited weapons crimes, and illicit drug crimes.
In 1990, 1347 people were in prison with the most serious offence being an illicit drug offence. This was 10% of all prisoners (total of 12,965).
- Federal prisoners
Federal prisoners are persons sentenced under commonwealth (federal) law, or transferred from another country to serve their sentence in Australia. In June 2018 there were 963 federal prisoners serving sentences in Australia.
Place of birth
Overall, foreign-born people are less likely to be imprisoned than people born in Australia. In 2017, foreign-born people were 35% of the adult population, but only 18% of the prison population.
The incarceration rate differed depending on country of birth. People born in Australia, New Zealand, Vietnam, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Samoa, Afghanistan and Tonga all had incarceration rates higher than the national average. Meanwhile people born in China, Hong Kong, India, Sri Lanka, Philippines, South Africa, United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Italy, Turkey, Greece, Germany, Taiwan, South Korea and Fiji had incarceration rates lower than the national average.
However, these rates are not age-standardised, meaning they do not account for the fact that different groups tend to be younger or older on average. This matters, because teenagers and young adults are much more likely to commit crime than older adults. For instance the Sudanese-born population tends to be much younger on average, and this can help to explain their over-representation in the prison population.
In Australia the minimum age of criminal responsibility is 10 years old, meaning children under 10 cannot be charged with a crime. In 2018, law experts called for the age to be raised to 16 and the various Attorneys General decided to investigate the matter.
- 91% were male
- 84% were aged 10–17
- 64% were unsentenced
- 53% were Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander youth
- Abuse in juvenile prisons
In 2016 the ABC aired a Four Corners report which revealed abuse of youth occurring at Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in the Northern Territory. This included an incident where, in 2015, Dylan Voller, then a minor, had his face covered with a spit hood and was strapped into a mechanical restraint chair for 2 hours. As a result the Australian government established the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory.
Life imprisonment in Australia
In Australia, life imprisonment is of indeterminate length. The sentencing judge usually sets a non-parole period after which the prisoner can apply for release under parole conditions, or in the case of a criminal who has committed particularly heinous crimes, the sentencing judge may order that the person is "never to be released".
For extremely high-risk offenders, Australia operates several supermax prisons.
- History and statistics
In 2018, 18.4% of prisoners in Australia were held in private prisons.
Modern prison privatisation began in the U.S. and Australia followed shortly thereafter. On 2 January 1990, Borallon Correctional Centre opened as the first private prison in Australia, located in Queensland. Borallon was managed by the Corrections Company of Australia (which was owned by John Holland Group, Wormald International and Corrections Corporation of America). In 2007 Serco won the bid to take over the prison. In 2012 Borallon closed. In 2016 it reopened as a government-operated prison.
As of November 2018, there were no private prisons located in Tasmania, the Northern Territory or the Australian Capital Territory.
- Violence and overcrowding
In June 2018, an investigation by the ABC revealed high rates of innmate violence, prison guard brutality and overcrowding at Arthur Gorrie Correctional Centre in Queensland. At that time, the contract for the prison was up for tender. In 2016, the rate of prisoner assault at the prison was more than double the next highest prison.
- Arguments for and against
A 2016 article by Anastasia Glushko (a former worker in the private prison sector) argues in favour of privately operated prisons in Australia. According to Glushko, private prisons in Australia have decreased the costs of holding prisoners and increased positive relationships between inmates and correctional workers. Outsourcing prison services to private companies has allowed for costs to be cut in half. Compared with $270 a day in a government-run West Australian jail, each prisoner in the privately operated Acacia facility near Perth costs the taxpayer $182. Glushko also says that positive prisoner treatment was observed during privatisation in Australia by including more respectful attitudes to prisoners and mentoring schemes, increased out-of-cell time and more purposeful activities. As Australia’s prison population has grown and existing facilities have aged, public-private partnerships have provided opportunities to build new correctional centers while enabling governments to defer much needed cash flow. Glushko points out that at Ravenhall Prison in Victoria, the operator is compensated on the basis of the recidivism rate, and this strategy may make the operator more concerned about the wellbeing of its inmates after prison which in return would benefit the entire Australian correctional system.
Conversely, a 2016 report from the University of Sydney found that in general, all states of Australia lacked a comprehensive approach to hold private prisons accountable to the government. The authors said that of all the states, Western Australia had the "most developed regulatory approach" to private prison accountability, as they had learnt from the examples in Queensland and Victoria. Western Australia provided much information about the running of private prisons in the state to the public, making it easier to assess performance. However the authors note that in spite of this, overall it is difficult to compare the performance and costs of private and public prisons as they often house different kinds and numbers of prisoners, in different states with different regulations. They note that Acacia Prison, sometimes held up as an example of how private prisons can be well run, cannot serve as a general example of prison privatisation.
Additionally, community corrections orders have been argued to be cheaper and equally as effective as public or private incarceration. See the section on community corrections for more details.
- List of private prisons in Australia
|Private prisons in Australia, June 2019|
|Private prison||State or territory||Operating company|
|Mount Gambier Prison||South Australia||G4S|
|Port Phillip Prison||Victoria||G4S|
|Fulham Correctional Centre||Victoria||GEO Group Australia|
|Arthur Gorrie Correctional Centre||Queensland||GEO Group Australia|
|Parklea Correctional Centre||New South Wales||MTC-Broadspectrum|
|Junee Correctional Centre||New South Wales||GEO Group Australia|
|Ravenhall Prison||Victoria||GEO Group Australia|
|Acacia Prison||Western Australia||Serco|
|Southern Queensland Correctional Centre||Queensland||Serco|
- Former private prisons
- Borallon Correctional Centre - Australia's first private prison, currently a government operated prison.
- Wandoo Reintegration Facility - Opened in 2012 on former site of Rangeview Juvenile Remand Centre. Managed by Serco until 2018 when it came back into public hands. Now a women's drug rehabilitation facility.
Cost of prisons in Australia
In 2016-17, Australia spent $3.1 billion on prisons.
Prison labour occurs in Australia. Prisoners pack airline headsets for Qantas, and are involved in many other kinds of work. Pay differs depending on the state/territory and the type of work, it can be as low as $0.82 or as high as $16 per hour. All prison workers are not paid any superannuation, and their employers don't pay payroll tax.
In Victoria prisoners fabricate metal and make timber products.
- New South Wales
In New South Wales, prisoner work is organised by Corrective Service Industries (CSI), an arm of the state justice department. Prisoners sew national and state flags and ambulance flags, and paint boomerangs. CSI said in 2017 that 84.9% of NSW innmates who can work, do so. In 2017, NSW prisoners were paid from $24.60 to $70.55 for a 30-hour work week. This is about $0.82 to $2.35 per hour, compared to the Australian minimum wage of $17.70 per hour. CSI made $113 million revenue and $46.6 million profit in 2016. CSI said that prison work helped prisoners pass time, and that 1% of their sales went to the Victims Compensation Levy (a government compensation fund for crime victims).
In 2019, about 20 prisoners at Dawn De Loas Correctional Centre were assembling computers. The identity of the company using this labour was unknown, but CSI overseer Jasvinder Oberai said that the program provided innmates with work experience, that PC parts came from government donations and the assembled PCs were given back to government departments.
- Northern Territory
In 2015, NTCI made $20 revenue and $2 million profit. In 2016, concerns were raised concerns that prison labour in the NT was competing unfairly with private businesses and taking jobs away from free people. NT lawmaker Robyn Lambley said "we have been told numerous times that the products that are made by NTCI are sold at a competitive price in the open market. But you're not paying all the overheads of employing people; you're not paying superannuation, you're not paying insurance, you're not paying payroll tax, you're not paying all those expenses associated with employing someone and that is a big saving." The NT Corrections Commissioner Mark Payne denied that prison labour is competing with local businesses, and that if they think they are competing, they stop doing that work.
In 2013, NT prisoners were working at a salt mine in remote center of the NT. The prisoners earned about $16 per hour, compared to $35 for a regular union employee. 5% of earnings went to the Victims Compensation Fund and some funds were deducted for board, and the prisoners had $60 spending money per week. The mining union United Voice said that this was akin to "slave labour", that these workers were undercutting other workers, and that if anyone is working in the mines they should be paid at a market rate. Territory Correctional Services Minister John Elferink said the work provided inmates with valuable work experience, because otherwise they would be sitting in a "concrete box".
Immigration detention facilities
Australia also operates several immigration detention facilities. A non-citizen may be detained pending deportation because their visa has been cancelled (such as those who have been charged or convicted of crimes), or because they have over-stayed the term of their visa. Detainees also include non-citizens who have arrived without a valid visa, such as asylum seekers, including some children, who are detained while their refugee status is determined and they are either admitted to Australia or deported. In many cases people have been in immigration detention for several years. This, as well as poor conditions, neglect, harsh treatment, and deaths in some of the centres, has been the source of controversy and criticism in Australia and internationally. While immigration detention is distinguished from imprisonment, it has been stated that there is little practical difference between many of the features of immigration detention and imprisonment. While the purpose of immigration detention is not punishment, it is often experienced as such by the person who is detained.
In 2004 the majority of the High Court of Australia held that the detention of non-citizens was lawful as an administrative function that did not require a judicial decision because the purpose of the detention was to enable the non-citizen to be deported or to prevent the non-citizen from entering the Australian community. The applicant in the case, Mr Al-Kateb, was a stateless person, so there was no country to which he could be deported. The High Court held that his indefinite detention was also lawful.
Community Corrections is the term used for various punishments and court orders in Australia that do not involve prison time. Types of community corrections include:
- Home detention
- Suspended sentence
- Good behaviour bond
- Community service order
- Non-conviction bond - you are found guilty, but do not get a criminal record provided you go for a certain period without committing another crime
In the June 2018, there were 69,397 people in community corrections, an increase of 1,406 (4%) from June 2017. 55,867 (81%) were male and all of the remainder were female (Australia allows people to legally register as X/third gender on some identity documents).
In June 2006, there were 52,212 persons in community-based corrections in Australia.
In June 2018 most common type of community corrections orders were, in order:
- Sentenced probation
- Community service
Please note that people may receive two or more different corrections orders at the same time.
- Cost and effectiveness
In 2016-2017 financial year, Australia spent $500 million ($0.5 billion) Australian dollars on community corrections.
An article in The Age, citing a report by the Institute of Public Affairs (a conservative think tank) as well as other figures, said community correctional orders are argued to be significantly cheaper than the cost of private or public incarceration (roughly 10% of the cost of putting people behind bars), "16 per cent of offenders who completed a CCO returned to corrective services within two years" compared to the nearing 50% in traditional prisons. Community-correctional orders CCOs are increasingly commonplace in Victoria and show that crime rates can be meaningfully affected.
Additionally, a June 2018 report from the Australian Institute of Criminology also found that in the short term, for a certain kind of prisoner (comprising roughly 15% of prisoners in Victoria), dealing with them via community corrections orders had similar outcomes to prison but was 9 times cheaper.
Other non-prison punishments
- Monetary fines
- Confiscation of property (eg: impounding cars used in offences, confiscating contraband) etc.
- Apprehended violence order (a type of injunction or restraining order)
Involuntary psychiatric treatment
In Australia people can be given a court order (Treatment Order, Involuntary Treatment Order etc) to enter into psychiatric treatment. There are strict legal requirements for this to occur: the person must be deemed by psychiatrists to be a) mentally ill, b) require treatment c) unable to make their own decisions, and d) a danger to themselves or others. The exact requirements differ by state and territory. In some cases the treatment order will mandate that they be committed to and kept in a psychiatric hospital, in other cases it will simply mandate that they engage in treatment - such as taking medication - whilst living in the community.
Corporal punishment in Australia
Flogging (also called whipping, lashing) was used from 1788 up until 1958. The Australian folk ballad Jim Jones at Botany Bay, dated to the early 19th century, is written from the perspective of a convict wanting to take revenge on those who flogged him. The last men flogged in Australia were William John O'Meally and John Henry Taylor, at Pentridge Prison, Victoria on 1 April 1958 (technically William was flogged second, and so was the last).
Corporal punishment of school children is legally banned in public schools nationwide. It remains legal in private schools in South Australia and Queensland, though in practice it is very rare.
Capital punishment in Australia
On 3 February 1967 Ronald Ryan was the last individual to be executed in Australia after he killed a prison officer whilst attempting to escape Pentridge Prison. A few years later the Federal Parliament passed the Death Penalty Abolition Act 1973, abolishing the death penalty amongst federal law however not prohibiting its use in state or territory law.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) is a multilateral treaty outlining the obligations of its parties to respect and promote the civil and political rights of individuals. Article 6 of the ICCPR states the death penalty may only be used in countries that have not abolished capital punishment for the severest of crimes. The Second Optional Protocol to the ICCPR was created as an accompaniment to the ICCPR and altered Article 6 to ensure the abolishment of the death penalty in all cases worldwide.
In Australia the second optional protocol to the ICCPR has been signed and ratified into domestic law. This is seen through the Crimes Legislation Amendment (Torture Prohibition and Death Penalty Abolition) Act 2010. The act fully abolished the death penalty and effectively ensured no state or territory is able to reintroduce it.
Deaths in custody
In 2013-2015, there were 149 deaths in custody in Australia, the majority occurred in prison while a minority occurred in police custody. The majority of prisoners who died in prison and police custody were male, over 40 years of age and non-Indigenous. For deaths in immigration detention, see the section on immigration detention facilities.
|Type of custody||Total number||Male||Female||Aged 40+||Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander|
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths
Indigenous Australians are highly over-represented among deaths in custody, as they are only 2.8% of the general population. This led the government to establish a Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1987, which delivered its report in 1991. However, in general there has been a lack of action on reports into deaths, including a failure to implement the recommendations of the 1987 royal commission, and indigenous deaths in custody remain disproportionately high.
Police custody deaths
Of the 34 deaths that occurred in police custody in 2013-2015, 50% resulted from gunshot wounds. Of those, 13 were police shootings while 4 were self-inflicted.
7 of the 34 occurred during motor vehicle pursuits, while 6 occurred in sieges and 2 in raids. 10 were listed as "other".
From 1989-1991 until now, people aged 25–39 have been overall the most represented group in police deaths, followed by people aged under 25, then 40-54 year olds, then people aged 55+. However, as noted above, in 2013-2015 the majority of deaths were people aged over 40. Furthermore from 1989-1990 to 2014-2015, the overall most common situation for deaths in police custody to occur, was during a motor vehicle pursuit.
7/10 prison deaths were due to natural causes, and 1/3 of those were due to heart disease. The rate of deaths per 100,000 prisoners was 0.16 for sentenced prisoners (ie prisoners who were convicted and serving a sentence) and 0.18 for unsentenced prisoners (ie: in prison awaiting trial).
|Sentence status||Natural causes||Hanging||External/multiple trauma||Alcohol and other drugs||Other|
In 1979-1980, there were only 15 deaths in prison custody. This increased until in 1997-1998 there were 80 deaths in prison custody. Deaths then decreased sharply to 28 in 2005-2006, before rising again to 54 in 2013-2014 and 61 in 2014-2015. In the late 1990s there was a large disparity between the rate of death (per 100,000 prisoners) for sentenced and unsentenced prisoners, peaking at 1.18 for unsentenced prisoners to 0.28 for sentenced.
Prison deaths by state/territory:
|State/territory||Prison deaths||Percent of national prison deaths|
|New South Wales||34||29.5%|
|Australian Capital Territory||3||2.6%|
Deaths in immigration detention
From 2000-2018 there have been dozens of deaths in immigration detention, many from suicide. Additionally, some people have died after being released, for reasons connected with being detained.
Former Australian prisons which are now open to the public as museums.
- Old Dubbo Gaol
- Boggo Road Gaol
- Fremantle Prison
- Fannie Bay Gaol
- Old Gladstone Gaol
- J Ward
- HM Prison Geelong
- Adelaide Gaol
- Mount Gambier Gaol
- Redruth Gaol
- Maitland Gaol
- Wentworth Gaol
- Old Melbourne Gaol
- HM Prison Beechworth
Other former prisons
Many movies and television shows have depicted the punishment of early convicts and bushrangers in Australia. See those articles for more information.
- Prisoner was a soap opera which ran from 1979 - 1986 and depicted life in a fictional women's prison in Australia.
- Wentworth is a drama that started broadcasting in 2013. It is a contemporary re-imagining of Prisoner, in the same vein as Orange is the New Black and Bad Girls.
- Underbelly is a drama series which depicts the lives of Australian criminals, including many prison scenes.
- Ghosts of the Civil Dead is a 1988 drama film set in a fictional Australian prison in the desert.
- The Hard Word is a 2002 heist film partly set in an Australian prison.
- Crime in Australia
- Crime in New South Wales
- Crime in Queensland
- Crime in South Australia
- Crime in Tasmania
- Crime in the Australian Capital Territory
- Crime in the Northern Territory
- Crime in Victoria
- Crime in Western Australia
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