Prisons Punish More Than Just The Prisoners

Sentencing and incarceration should only punish the guilty party.

Pictures emerged last week of Harriet Wran, who was recently released from prison, and her mother Jill Hickson having a coffee in the sun. Wran looked healthy and happy, but I was focussed on her mother. I felt enormous relief for the woman. I thought: "Thank God she is no longer in 'prison', either". Hickson must have been in hell from the moment her daughter was arrested.

I was focussed on Hickson because, for the past year, I have known a woman who is the mother of a prisoner. Her son is a young man who was arrested and incarcerated for a 'white collar crime'. That's the basics of the situation; what actually happened was so much more.

The woman received a call from her son, from interstate, when she was at work. "Mum, the police are at the door, they're coming for me," he cried as she sat clutching the phone, hundreds of kilometres away, hearing the police banging and shouting in the background. She didn't know what was happening, and wouldn't know for another three hours until he was able to call her for 30 seconds from custody. Her son had never mentioned he was in trouble. She found out what he was arrested for when his extradition from one city to another made the news that night.

And so it began. Apart from being distraught about what was happening to her son, the woman also had to deal with the overburdened legal and prison systems. It wasn't merely the frustration from the lack of communication, the delays between court appearances, the protracted process of justice or the gross uncertainty. She wasn't simply a witness to these things happening to her son, they were happening to her, too.

​​​​The woman never thought she would experience what life is like on the other side of the law. An upstanding citizen who has contributed significantly to her community for decades, she has now found out that the law does not care about prisoners' families. She made bi-weekly visits to the watch house, then the remand centre, for months. Her son pleaded guilty, but still the process from arraignment to sentencing was almost 11 months.

In that time, this woman became the mother of a number -- because that's all prisoners are identified by. She called twice a week to reserve her visitation. She immediately discovered that simple things we take for granted as free civilians, such as wearing earrings or carrying a handbag, were not permitted. Mail had to go through Australia Post and could not be hand-delivered. She watched silently as babies were scanned with metal detectors.

A gentle woman who was accustomed to her pharmacist greeting her personally each week learnt that there would never be a civil face to greet her. The guards, as they processed her fingerprints before each visit, were cold and indifferent at best; aggressive and rude at worst, depending on the number of visitors and the pressure they were under.

A woman whose hands had caressed and fed and changed nappies and applied bandaids was now finger printed twice a week in the name of love for her son. It was a new world that never got easier; it was always intimidating, always undignified.

Depending on the facility, she would see her son through glass, or in a cavernous room with 50 other table settings. A greeting and a farewell hug were allowed, but apart from that, no touching. In fact, one time when she'd bent down to adjust her sandal while seated at a table and her son coincidentally bent to scratch his foot, the guards descended on them swiftly, thinking a drug exchange had taken place. The woman found it an unnatural feeling to sit on chairs nailed to the floor, bottom metaphorically nailed to the chair; but she grew accustomed to it. Of course, all of these safety measures were intended to protect the prisoners and their visitors, but that didn't mean it wasn't terrifying.

Then her son was moved to a facility four hours out of the city, and it became abundantly clear that the system was not designed to facilitate relationships with family as part of prisoner rehabilitation. Visiting hours were only weekends and public holidays, and you were given an appointment time dependent on the prisoner's classification. The first time the woman went, she had to wake at 4 am to make the appointment time of 9:45 am. This 69-year-old woman will need to do this eight-hour trip every fortnight for the next two years if she wants to see her son.

The alternative is for her not to go, but she refuses to make her son feel abandoned. She is his only supporter. She feels enormous guilt as a mother that she failed him in other ways that led to his offending, and she won't let him down again. No matter how difficult the system is making it for her, she knows he needs to see her -- she is his only contact with the outside world.

For many other people, visits are impossible. They can't afford the petrol money, or don't have a car that can travel eight hours in one day. It begs the question as to why some prisons are so restrictively located, with no regard to prisoner needs for contact and maintenance of relationships. Of course, there is a need to protect the community and there is a need for space for such large facilities. But surely that could be accommodated an hour out of the city rather than four.

The only conclusion I can draw is that all claims of prison being a rehabilitative experience are lip service. It actually seems that isolating prisoners as much as possible, alienating them from regular contact with their loved ones, is an accepted part of their punishment. But such an approach serves no constructive purpose at all. In fact, it puts prisoners at higher risk of self harm by contributing to breaking their spirit because they are so alienated from support. Is that really what we want -- former criminals in our community who are totally broken, who have to rebuild their networks from scratch?

Of course there are some crimes that are committed where the negative consequences for the guilty party's family are outweighed by the gravity of the crime. And I am not arguing that incarceration shouldn't happen. But the system is in dire need of a review. It is archaic, it is degrading to everyone involved, and thus, it's usually counter-productive.

It's easy to say that part of the son's punishment is knowing the indignities and stress inflicted on his mother and family. But that's not the purpose of the law -- sentencing and incarceration should only punish the guilty party. In all other areas, it should work to support the guilty in terms of rehabilitation -- not break their spirit in every way, so that they are almost inhuman upon their release. How does that benefit anyone?

So, I am glad that Jill Hickson has been freed of her prison shackles. I look forward to day that happens to my friend, too.