Chronic prison overcrowding in Queensland, along with a failure to provide adequate care – including mental health treatment – and properly rehabilitate offenders, “makes our community less safe”, according to a respected judge.
The comments were made last Friday as the Supreme Court considered sentencing submissions in a case of a distinguished three-tour Afghanistan commando veteran being denied “essential therapy for his war-caused mental illness”.
Supreme Court Justice Peter Applegarth delayed sentencing of convicted drug trafficker Christopher James Finn, 35, saying Queensland Corrective Services (QCS) was failing to provide the “elite soldier” with specialised treatment and rehabilitation.
Justice Applegarth adjourned the hearing – ordering QSC provide medical reports on Mr Finn’s mental health and the “current circumstances and difficulties encountered with him receiving essential psychological treatment … whilst in custody”.
To explain the appalling state of Mr Finn’s mental health, Justice Applegarth gave a brief outline of the 35-year-old army veteran’s life so far and his current predicament of not receiving proper mental health care while sleeping on the floor, next to a toilet, in an overcrowded maximum security cell at Woodford – 85km north of Brisbane.
“Mr Finn served this nation and also the people of Afghanistan with great bravery and distinction,” he said. “As an elite soldier, he displayed courage under heavy enemy contact in Afghanistan.
“After serving in East Timor in 2006, he completed three tours of duty in Afghanistan in 2008, 2011 and 2013 for six-and-a-half months at a time.
“He saw death, destruction and human suffering over that lengthy period of service.
“He witnessed these things both as second-in-command of an elite team of soldiers and as the Team Medic.
“Mr Finn’s experiences included seeing his hero and commander, Cameron Baird VC, shot dead in front of him, as the commander pushed past him to enter a building. Mr Finn had to assume command and retreat to safety with his commander’s body.
“Mr Finn wrongly feels responsible and thinks that it should have been him who died. This is described by his psychologist as Survivor Guilt over the incident.”
However, Justice Applegarth also used his 40-page ruling to address prison overcrowding and its negative future impacts on the wider community.
“Evidence-based answers to that question appear in the reports of our State’s and our nation’s Productivity Commissions, which have extensively analysed the criminal justice system,” he said.
“The Queensland Productivity Commission concluded that increasing imprisonment reduces community safety over time.
“One reason is that prisons are not effective at rehabilitation and can increase the risk of reoffending.
“Prison overcrowding makes it hard for dedicated people within the corrective services system to rehabilitate offenders in custody.
“It exacerbates tensions, increases acts of violence, jeopardises the mental health of inmates, and renders any term of imprisonment harsher by way of punishment.
“The punishment entailed by imprisonment is supposed to be the denial of liberty during incarceration, not inhumane treatment that jeopardises rehabilitation and increases the risk of reoffending upon an individual’s eventual release.
“These consequences flow from overcrowding, and reduced access to mental health care, programs and vocational training in custody.
“Prison overcrowding makes our community less safe. It makes the rehabilitation of the mentally ill within prison harder, and inadequate treatment of mental conditions of individuals in custody overburdens parole authorities upon these individuals’ release.
“Based on the findings of the Productivity Commission, many informed citizens may think that the money spent on building more prisons might be better spent on constructing secure rehabilitation facilities at which prisoners, released on parole, can be securely and safely accommodated as they gradually transition from the prison environment and at which they can receive rehabilitation services and other support.
“These, however, are policy or political decisions for the Executive Government to make about the most cost-effective use of public funds to make our community safer.
“It remains to be seen whether, by the time Mr Finn reaches the last part of his terms of imprisonment, government resources will be spent on building even more prisons or, instead, be spent on secure rehabilitation centres in which offenders released on parole are securely accommodated, rather than drifting through the community in search of accommodation.
“Locating suitable accommodation for offenders who should be subject to parole is a continuing challenge for the parole authorities and often leads to parole being refused for people who otherwise have earned that privilege.”
Justice Applegarth said the absence of suitable accommodation in purpose-built rehabilitation centres contributed greatly to prison overcrowding.
“The result is that Mr Finn and other prisoners with severe mental illness serve their sentences in overcrowded prisons.
“Due to overcrowding and other systemic issues, Correctional Services struggle to rehabilitate offenders as well as they might. This diminishes the protection of the community.
“Because of his distinguished war service, the plight of Mr Finn may seem more compelling than the plight of other mentally ill inmates. But it is not categorically different.
“Equal justice should incline me to treat his circumstances in custody similarly to other inmates with serious mental conditions who must suffer the harshness of imprisonment in overburdened and overcrowded correctional centres.”
Read the decision.