From SMH Peter Jensen May 14, 2007 The subject of law and order and what we do with offenders comes up at every state election. That is exactly the wrong time. We need space and time for mature and well-informed debate on the issues. Politicians respond to our fear of crime by being anxious to avoid all risk and so creating a stricter regime of policing and imprisonment. Hence their promises of more people in prison for longer periods and under harsher regimes. And we have received the end we desired. There are many more people in many more prisons. There are now almost as many prisoners in NSW than there were prisoners in the whole of Australia in 1977. The prison population is burgeoning at a rate far exceeding population rise. There are evil people in jail and proper punishment on behalf of their victims is appropriate. Without excusing crime, however, we need to be aware that there are disproportionate numbers of indigenous and mentally ill people in prison. There are also increasing numbers of women, including indigenous women prisoners. The rate of return to prison is unacceptably high. The cost to the community for each prisoner is about $60,000 a year. It is an expensive, discriminatory and ineffective method of ensuring our beloved "law and order". One of the key tests for the spiritual health of a community is the quality of its prisons. How are vulnerable people treated when they are at our mercy? Prisons do not serve only the purpose of retributive punishment. As human beings, those being punished deserve a system that balances rehabilitation and restoration alongside retribution. It is so easy to demand that offenders be locked up, and then to forget about them. What is it like to be imprisoned? What does it do to a person? Are injustices perpetrated in prison? What does detention do to the family of the person imprisoned? Do we approve of prisoners being locked in small cells, like caged animals, for 17.5 hours a day? There are reports that this has happened in some places because of staff shortages and overcrowding. The former Supreme Court judge John Nagle recommended in the 1970s that prisoners not be locked in their cells for more than 10 hours a day. These are not easy matters to tackle. The first change needs to occur in the heart of the ordinary citizen. Law and order is a fundamental necessity for community life. But the words have become a slogan to induce governments to be hard on offenders, without having to justify the numbers being imprisoned, or the conditions under which they are detained. Now is the time for the community to say that, as part of the cry for law and order, we look for a just and compassionate corrective system, one that helps people not to reoffend and that allows for more options in treating ill people. We need to say that if detention is to be the answer, we are not expecting stern conditions of detention, except where they are required for disciplinary and safety reasons. One crucial place to start is with prison officers. Prison officers do their job on behalf of the community. They are in a position to deliver daily justice or daily injustice to relatively helpless people. We expect the highest standards of them as human beings, in one of the most difficult of all jobs. It is hard for them to maintain job satisfaction and morale. We need to tell them that we honour and esteem them highly for what they do. Their pay and conditions should reflect that esteem and so should their training. In speaking to the Premier, Morris Iemma, about these matters last year, I was pleased to hear he has a particular concern for the mentally ill in our prison system. Why don't we encourage the Premier to devote wisdom and energy to the problems posed by the prison system in this state? We need to urge our representatives to ensure that those held in our custodial system are treated humanely, even though in some cases their crimes are horrendous. There is considerable concern among the churches over some of these issues, and many are engaged in practical programs to assist prisoners to be connected to a supportive community, especially in life after prison. This reflects the biblical mandate for us to care for one another. But the underlying problems belong to the entire community. With the election behind us, now is the time for the media to lead the way in an informed and in-depth analysis of our treatment of offenders, including matters such as the remand system, options for magistrates, the economics of imprisonment, the morale and training of prison officers, schemes of rehabilitation and life after prison. God's challenge to us is that we be a community that is just and compassionate in our treatment of others, especially those who are in our custodial care.