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Prison Escapes and Correctional Policy: an Historical Perspective

by Benedict Taylor,
School of History and Philosophy, UNSW

 

Rates of escape from prison have long been considered a basic performance measure for all correctional departments, and prison managers have long formulated policy with this fact in mind. Yet research into the history of escapes from Australian prisons suggests that prison administrators of the past shared many of the stresses and strains now faced by their present-day counterparts. It also offers some intriguing suggestions for contemporary policy makers.

In the mass media, escapes have always been represented as scandals. Alexander Whatmore, the former Director of Prisons in Victoria, said that prison administrators went to bed with the prayer ‘God save me from the front page headlines’. Nothing made for better copy than reports of convicted criminals on the loose.

Those living in the vicinity of prisons have also made life difficult for prison administrators over the question of escapes. After a number of escapes from the Hayes Prison Farm in Tasmania in the late 1930s, one local resident told the Premier:

It is a very unpleasant state of affairs…my wife will not stay alone & is very nervy. If the prisoners cannot be controlled, in fairness to the district, it would only be proper to close the thing up.

Bureaucrats and politicians have been strongly influenced by such demands, as they still are. Repressive security measures have often been put in place following public outcry, and escapes have forced administrators to be extremely cautious in selecting prisoners for transfer to low security institutions. Escapes—and the consequent bad publicity—have even contributed to the closure of a number of prisons. In the long term, however, these responses have done little to curb the overall rate of escape.

Official anxiety concerning escapes reflects stereotypes about prisoners in general, and about escapees in particular as desperate, dangerous villains. Yet the great majority of prisoners who escaped from Australian prisons in the twentieth century did so for unthreatening reasons, often as a response to crisis either in the prison, or within their families. Indeed, domestic problems alone motivated around a third of escapees. When inmates heard that their wives or girlfriends had left them or been unfaithful, when they heard that their children were neglected or abused, when they heard that their parents were ill or dying, the urge to see these people could be overwhelming. In March 1926, for instance, a recaptured Victorian escapee was anxious that his reasons for escaping be understood. ‘I am a man who has always led a good life’, he said in court,

This is my first time in gaol. I want you to understand this escape was prompted on the spur of the moment. I have had great trouble. My mother is very sick, and will not be long on this earth. I wanted to see her before she passed away…When I had seen my mother, whom I dearly love, I realized the seriousness of my action and then handed myself over.

Other prisoners ran away because they were afraid of being victimised by their fellow inmates, or because, under the influence of drugs or alcohol, it seemed like a good idea at the time. A few even used escape as a form of protest, to draw attention to substandard prison conditions.

After they escaped, inmates did not go on violent rampages. For the most part, they were promptly caught having committed no further offence. Of the handful of who escapees managed to stay at large, some even found respectable employment. Others turned themselves in.

Other countries, most notably in Scandinavia, have recognised that there is no need to sensationalise breakouts. Escapes from prison are simply acts—sometimes desperate, occasionally quite rational—committed by people in difficult circumstances with very limited options. At the Nagle Royal Commission in 1976, the former head of the NSW prison system Walter McGeechen admitted ‘it could well be conceivable that we overstate the importance of escape’. Yet in Australia, escape rates have continued to influence correctional policy, with unfortunate, and arguably unnecessary, consequences.

Instead of looking to drive escape rates down, administrators may be better served aiming to help inmates deal with the problems and behaviours that gave rise to escapes, and explaining the real nature of escapes to their political masters, and to the public. In today’s political climate, electoral success hinges on appearing ‘tough’ on law and order. In the context of prison security, the experience of the past suggests that approaching the matter from a different angle is not soft, but sensible.

Citation: Benedict Taylor, Prison Escapes and Correctional Policy: an Historical Perspective. Australian Policy and History. March 2010.

URL: http://www.aph.org.au/prison-escapes-and-correctional-policy

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