Gaol behind closed doors: What the media can’t show us when it comes to Home Detention

Paper presented at: UOW Presents: Crime, Cameras, Action, University of Wollongong, 18 February, 2012

Angela Williams

A GET-out-of-jail free card will be given to 750 violent and dishonest criminals under a State Government plan to let them serve prison sentences in the comfort of their homes.

As criminals were celebrating yesterday, victims groups were outraged at Premier Kristina Keneally’s astounding solution to the rising crime rates and overcrowded jails.

Every criminal sentenced in the Local Court, except for sex offenders, will be eligible to serve their sentences at home, costing the Government $46 a day instead of $194 a day to keep them in jail.

The Government made the amazing claim that it was still a “prison sentence”, just administered differently. But it admitted some of the state’s jails were 100 inmates over capacity and there were only 300 empty cells left.

Jones, Gemma 2010, ‘Prisoners sentenced to TV and brekkie in bed’, The Daily Telegraph, June 10,

Sounds a little overdramatic? A pretty one-sided interpretation of the story… But since this is a conference about media and crime we probably all walked in here expecting to discuss gross exaggerations and ridiculous generalisations, right?

Today I would like us to look at some other versions of this story, one of which will be my own. Between my Honours year and PhD I took a gap year – on home detention. I had just walked out of seven years of tertiary study and was probably not the person they wanted reviewing the system from within but an administrative bungle from 1996 was unfixable and unchallengeable so I copped the ten-month sentence sweet. I spent six weeks incarcerated in three different NSW prisons and then was sentenced to the balance of eight-and-a-half months on home detention. I served this under the supervision of the Wollongong Unit of the Community Compliance group.

‘We are sentencing this offender to serve her sentence by way of home detention as society needs to see justice being served’

Parole Board Hearing, March 2010

‘Do not talk to people about home detention, do not show anyone your electronic monitoring device, and do not write about home detention while you are on the program’

Community Compliance Group Assessment Interview, April 2010

These quotes highlight the inconsistencies of the system, as I see it  – if I am being sentenced so that ‘society can see justice being served’ then why am I not allowed to talk or write about it?

Don’t worry, my sentence ended on Jan 17, 2011, so I’m fine to stand up here today.

What is home detention?

Home detention was introduced in NSW in 1997 and is administered by the Corrective Services NSW Community Compliance Group (CCG) (Auditor-General, 2010, 2). The program involves electronic monitoring, home visits, drug and alcohol testing and is, according to the courts, ‘a substantially less onerous sentence than imprisonment within the confines of a prison’ (Judicial Commission of New South Wales, 2011, 4-040). While it may be ‘substantially less onerous’ than full-time prison, there is an expectation that the sentence still be seen as punishment with the Corrective Services describing it as ‘strict’ (Auditor General 2010, 14) and making ‘no apologies’ for the conditions imposed on detainees (Wright & Collis, 2010). Home detention has been available in Sydney, Newcastle and Wollongong, however the CCG have recently begun ‘promoting’ the program in Grafton, Bathurst, Wagga Wagga and Dubbo with ten places being made available in each area from 7 June 2010 (Auditor General, 2010, 5).

The program is designed to be strict, an alternative to full-time imprisonment which aims to ‘constrain an offender’s liberty to an extent that approximates confinement in a minimum security correctional setting’ (DCS, 2009, 1). The social, criminogenic and financial benefits of the program cannot be discounted. Recidivism rates are lower: 36% of home detainees reoffended within the two years from 2005 (Auditor General, 2010 4) compared with 43% of those leaving full-time imprisonment in NSW and the national average of 38.2% (Hale, 2009). The costs of home detention, at $47 per day, are significantly lower than the $187 per day it costs to keep an inmate in prison (Auditor General, 2010 3).  And, yes those numbers are different to those quoted by Jones. These are the correct numbers taken from the Auditor-Generals’ report and DCS statistics.

While the program does lead to lower rates of reoffending and costs much less to implement, there are serious issues with the way the program is run, the lack of accountability or transparency when it comes to enforcement and the potential for individual officers to manipulate, intimidate and harass offenders.

Home detention as a secret

http://www.3aw.com.au/blogs/blog-with-derryn-hinch

Home detention was shoved into the public arena in 2010 when seriously ill radio shock jock Derryn Hinch was sentenced to serve four months on the program for breaching broadcasting guidelines. His much publicised ‘Twitter Ban’ (Kidman, 2011) and post-release interviews and blogs (find source) announced the existence of home detention to the NSW public.

In his first blog post after 5 months on home detention, ‘The gag is off’, Hinch said:

As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted…

Five months under house arrest. That’s 153 days. That’s more than 3,600 hours or actually more than 13 million seconds.

What was it like? I handled it. Didn’t go stir crazy. Didn’t get bored. Got used to the rules after being reprimanded in the first weeks for being 28 seconds late back from the exercise yard.

And for those of you who think: ‘Well, it wasn’t really jail, was it?’ Just imagine having somebody knock on your door at 9.15pm for a random breath test. And having to seek permission to go to the doctor or dentist – the only excuses permitted for me to leave my home. And wearing a cumbersome ankle bracelet from July 21 until it was cut off my leg yesterday.

They call it home detention, which sounds like being kept in after school. But it was house arrest. I was banned from sending emails, from giving interviews, from broadcasting. Banned from earning a living. I was made a non-person.

http://www.3aw.com

Even with particularly sound googling skills, Hinch’s account is one of the only first-hand descriptions of home detention to have found its way into the public eye.

The CCG, the unit responsible for enforcing Hinch’s ‘non-personship’,  made headlines itself in August 2010 when allegations that the ‘secretive’ and ‘aggressive’ unit was ‘harassing and spying on’ hundreds of offenders and parolees were published in the Sydney Morning Herald (Wright & Collis, 2010). Detainees and parolees being supervised by the CCG described ‘extended panic attacks’ regarding visits, fearing ‘retribution’ from Corrective Services if they spoke out about the conditions of supervision and being informed that the officers’ jobs were ‘to catch you out, not to assist you’ (Wright & Collis, 2010).

This is not the first critical coverage of the program. In January 2010, Magistrate and former coroner, Jacquline Milledge, told the Sydney Morning Herald that she would not be sentencing prisoners to home detention as ‘the system is not sound’. Her evidence was the multiple suicides and fatal drug overdoses by offenders sentenced to home detention that she investigated as coroner (Kontominas & Jacobson, 2010).

Unfortunately, the case is that the media can only tell us so much about the realities of the program as those serving sentences are restricted from speaking to journalists or discussing the program on the internet or social media sites. The only voices that can be easily heard on the topic are magistrates, correctives services representatives and academics. A big part of the reason I have chosen to give this paper today is to challenge the limited speaking position of those that find themselves serving or potentially serving home detention sentences in NSW.

Home detention as a punishment

The biggest problem I see with home detention is that it happens out of the public eye. Offenders are expected to welcome these individuals into their homes and to ‘follow any reasonable order given by an officer’ (DCS, ‘Info Sheet’) but there is no clear guidelines about what to do if those orders are unreasonable. People on home detention are placed outside of the social support and accountability network. If the offender is not already in the public eye (like Derryn Hinch), their experiences will not come to public attention unless the order is breached or a crime is committed. Anti-publication orders may be placed onto the order (which could have been the case for Hinch) but can also be imposed by the ‘reasonable request’ of an officer (as was my case). This is prison which happens in a vacuum.

Having lived through home detention in NSW there are two areas that are of particular concern to me. The first is the power given to individual officers and the lack of accountability and respect for human rights and dignity shown by these officers. The second is the absence of a clear complaint handling process and the inability of offenders to know what is appropriate behaviour from their supervising officers and how to handle inappropriate behaviour without risking reimprisonment, intimidation or harassment.

Today I will analyse one specific example of a ‘reasonable request’ from my own incarceration. I will explore whether the people making the request could be trusted to know what a reasonable request might look like, whether the frameworks were in place to handle inappropriate requests and look at how it felt to be excluded from the democratic processes of justice, media and publicity during this situation.

Meet the officers

I was supervised by approximately eight different officers over my sentence and had three different case managers. While I have been advised to not identify any of the officers the following are examples of behaviour that I witnessed directly:

During the assessment process an officer spent two hours interviewing me about very personal medical and mental health information before revealing that I had gone to university with her daughter, and that the officer knew a large portion of my Wollongong social circle. Approximately six months into the sentence I saw a close friend of the officer’s daughter on a train and discovered that this person knew multiple details of my situation, including the fact that this person was supervising my order. I had not disclosed this information to anyone in my social circle.

Early on in the supervision, an officer attended my house and spread out A3 spreadsheets on my dining table which listed the names, photos and contact and employment details of all offenders being managed by the Wollongong CCG office. When I asked if this information should be kept secure and confidential he laughed and said ‘It’s not like you want to go hunting them down, is it?’

Throughout my home detention, one particular officer attended my house regularly and made graphic and highly sexualised jokes, often in the presence of my teenage son. He described catching other detainees in sexually intimate situations, described female offenders as ‘gagging for it’ and implied that conditions were ‘made easier’ for ‘hot young women’.

While these are just some examples of the inappropriate behaviour I witnessed while serving my sentence, these situations do not paint a picture of consummate professionals. These are not people that I trust to know what constitutes a ‘reasonable request’. If these are the people working in the system, then surely the Department will have put in place frameworks to protect the individuals who must offer these people full disclosure of personal details and trust that this information won’t be used against them, right? As government employees given the right to enter your property, search your belongings, and see your naked body, surely there must be some way for offenders to give feedback to and about these people.

Turns out there isn’t.

The walking issue

In prison there are clear guidelines for complaint management posted in an accessible glossy poster format next to every inmate phone. These posters describe the steps to be taken to resolve a complaint, starting with a complaint being lodged with the wing officer and escalating through to complaints to the Minister for Corrective Services and the Prisons Ombudsman.

On home detention I was given no direction of how to deal with complaints, how to measure appropriate behaviour from officers or advised how I was to seek assistance in the case of inappropriate or abusive officers. The word ‘complaint’ doesn’t appear once in any of the documents I was given before or during my sentence. This wasn’t really a problem until things started to get sticky.

Going to prison was not good for my mental health. It had been 14 years since my last arrest, I’d been clean off heroin for 13 years and had just completed seven years at uni with two degrees and first class honours. I was not prepared for the reality of the justice system.

After being released from my six weeks inside, my psychiatrist diagnosed me with an adjustment disorder and rapidly escalating anxiety issues.  To alleviate some pretty serious symptoms he recommended that I walk for at least 3-4 hours per week and wrote a letter stating this to the CCG. This first letter was not enough and I was also asked to provide a letter from my GP stating that I was physically capable of walking for 3-4 hours per week without serious risk of injury or death.

I started the home detention program thinking I might just be able to get through this.

One calendar month from starting the program I received a call from my case officer who informed me that the walks were being cancelled and that I should ‘go and pack away my sneakers’. There were no other options, he informed me, the boss had spoken, my walks were gone, I had to get used to it. I googled like mad but could find no way to make a complaint via the Dept. Corrective Services website and so called the Prisons Ombudsman to get advice. They advised me to complain to the DCS Commissioner and the Minister for Corrective Services and to get back to them if this didn’t resolve the situation.

The complaint

I made a verbal complain to the case manager who said that he would try to get things sorted out and five minutes after getting off the phone to him I received a very aggressive call from the Head of the unit who started the call yelling and only got worse:

‘You are lucky that you are allowed to walk to the bus stop, get on the bus, go to work and then walk around at work,’ He screamed at me. ‘I don’t care what you downloaded off the internet – I know the rules of home detention and I am the boss of home detention. I don’t want to hear any more about these walks. I don’t want you ringing up crying and saying that we have made illegal sanctions on you. You should be in gaol, where you would spend significant periods locked in your cell and not be allowed to walk around at all. And I will tell you that if I do hear anything else about the walks then when you ring up with last minute changes to your schedule which  relate you work you will be getting told ‘No, those changes are not approved’ and then you will be breached and go back to prison.’

Any attempt by me to speak during this call was met with him yelling ‘You do not talk over the top of me!’

Taking the Ombudsman’s advice I wrote a letter of complaint. There is no email address available for the Commissioner of Corrective Services so I sent my letter to the Minister and asked that it be forwarded on. Distrusting the whole process, I also sent a copy to the local Member for Wollongong.

Approximately eight hours after emailing this letter off I received a visit to my house from two CCG officers, one of whom I knew and one who I had never met. The one I’d never met supervised the other officer conducting my first random urinalysis and only identified himself as ‘the boss of home detention in Wollongong’ after this process was completed. This man, who had abused me two days before and just stood outside my open bathroom door while I peed in a cup, then proceeded to berate me for making trouble and ruining his days off. He reminded me again that he was the ultimate authority in this situation and that his word was enough to get me put back inside in a second.

I was in tears by the time he left my house and seriously considered self harm as an option to alleviate the extreme feelings of anxiety and trauma that his ranting inspired.

The next morning I received a phone call from the acting head of the NSW CGG Unit who reinstated one hour of walking per week and advised me that the officer in question had previously been removed from a similar position in a Sydney CCG office for similar reasons and that he would now be removed from the role in Wollongong and found other duties. I never saw the officer again.

It took almost two months to receive a response from the Minister for Corrective Services and when it did come, it was addressed to and forwarded by the Wollongong local member. The matter of the officer’s abuse of me was not mentioned.

So, yeah, the situation was kinda resolved. I got an hour a week to go walking. Which I enjoyed. But the process that I had to go through to get it was horrific. Between sending the letter of complaint and hearing from the acting head, I lived every second expecting the police to turn up and arrest me for breaching the order. People, even people with a MIN number, shouldn’t need to suffer this much anxiety to ensure they are treated like human beings.

Timeline of complaint

March 24, 2010: Released from prison on a temporary release order to be assessed for home detention

Early April 2010: Letter provided by psychiatrist to say that I needed to walk 2-3 times per week to alleviate the symptoms of anxiety and adjustment disorder

Late April 2010: Letter provided by my GP to say that I was physically fit enough to walk 2-3 times a week without risk of injury or death

May 5, 2010: Order made for me to serve 8 months and 14 days by way of home detention

May 6, 2010: Schedules including three one-hour walks approved

June 6, 2010: Received phone call at 7pm on a Sunday from case manager advising that conditions were being tightened and that I would no longer be able to walk

June 7, 2010: Spoke to Prisons Ombudsman and advised to complain to CCG as first step in lodging a complaint and Minister for Corrective Services as my next option

June 8, 2010: Made verbal complaint about tightening of conditions to case manager

June 8, 2010: Received abusive phone call from head of Wollongong CCG, threatening to revoke my order if I made any more trouble

June 10, 2010 (Morning): Wrote to Minister for Corrective Services and local member to complain and ask for investigation

June 10, 2010 (Evening): Head of Wollongong CCG attended house without identifying himself, oversaw first urinalysis, then identified self and berated me for causing trouble and interrupting his holiday, reminded me multiple times that he had the power to revoke my order immediately

11 June, 2010: Received personal call from acting head of CCG who reinstated one walk per week and informed me that the head of CCG in Wollongong had been removed from a similar position previously due to ‘inappropriate behaviour’ and that he would soon be removed from this job

17 August, 2010: Letter sent from Minister for Corrective Services to local member advising that the situation was resolved

Putting it together

If we look, then, at the reality of the situation, we see that this unit is run by people lacking in compassion, courtesy or professionalism, and that when these failures become issues there is no clear way for detainees to respond or complain without feeling endangered and threatened. But surely was can trust that someone out there is watching this secretive unit, right?

Wrong.

The audits and reporting frameworks

Section 28 of the Home Detention Act 1996 states that ‘The Minister is to continue to monitor, and report to both houses of Parliament on, the impact on families. Such a report must be tabled at least once in each calendar year’ (15). While there has been an annual census of community offender services done by the Department since 2007, there have only been two actual reviews of the program: the 1999 ‘Review of the NSW home detention scheme: a study undertaken by the NSW Department of Corrective Services’ and the 2010 ‘Auditor-General’s report: Performance Audit of Home Detention’. The second of these does point out that the original reporting obligations seem to have been dropped, but gives no opinion or analysis of this point (15).

The 2010 report by the Auditor-General did not collect new anecdotal evidence from offenders, instead relying on case studies compiled during the DCS-run review from 1999, (14) and refused an invitation from the CCG to ‘accompany CCG staff in the field’ (9). Considering the lack of any new actual evidence of detainees’ experiences on the program, it is hard to see this new review as a comprehensive audit of the program.

Further to this concern, there are also notable inconsistencies in the information presented in the auditor’s report and that published in the Community Offender Services Policy and Procedures Manual.

These two tables claim to contain the same information: the levels of contact required for offenders (home visits, field visits, telephone visits and electronic monitoring) based on their supervision level as determined by the standardised assessment tool, the Level of Service Inventory – Revised, or the LSI-R.

Policy & Procedures Manual

LSI-R score Supervision level Contacts per month Programs Referrals Case reviews
0-23 Low 2 per month Not required Encourage self referral Every 6 months
24-33 Medium 4 per month Refer Confirm attendance Every 4 months
34-54 High 8 per month Priority Regular contact Every 2 months

Auditor-General Reports

LSI-R score Supervision level Contacts per month Programs Referrals Case reviews
0-23 Low 8 per month Refer Confirm attendance Every 6 months
24-33 Medium 12 per month Refer Confirm attendance Every 4 months
34-54 High 16 per month Priority Regular contact Every 2 months

(See Appendix 3 for full tables)

These two tables were published eleven months apart but contain completely different information. Differences between the two are highlighted in the bottom table.

Let’s look at that a different way.

In this table the blue bars represent the number of contacts per month as outlined in the Policy and Procedure Manual while the red bars show the information that the Auditor-General included in the report. There is a pretty big difference there.

So even if we disregard the fact that the legislative reporting obligations of the Minister for Corrective Services are not being met, the evidence clearly demonstrates the insufficient nature of reviews of home detention.  The people who are analysing the performance of this flawed program are quoting anecdotal evidence information collected over a decade ago by the Department of Corrective Service, declined the opportunity to see any actual offenders or to observe the CCG performing their duties and accepted the information provided at face value.

To conclude

Home detention, as it is currently functioning in NSW, is a gravely flawed program which places the health and wellbeing of detainees at the bottom of a grossly imbalanced hierarchy of priorities. It is prison in a vacuum, prison that makes your home your gaol cell, prison which happens without anyone knowing that you are in prison.

The only views we see of home detention, point to it as a vacation or a dangerous and abusive practice.

Almost absolute power is given over into the hands of individuals who, from my own lived experience, do not show the required level of professionalism, courtesy or accountability required to be allowed this level of control over anyone. The lack of a transparent complaints management process and the constant threat of re-incarceration means that when these individual officers do step outside of the bounds of ‘reasonable behaviour’ offenders are left with no clear line of complaint or enquiry. And finally, the audit and review processes which were built into the original legislation are disregarded, and those audits that are completed are based on out-dated, inherently biased, and blatantly incorrect information.

While writing this paper I spoke to a friend who is a mental health advocate and activist. ‘Angela,’ she said to me, ‘The problem is that society doesn’t care when about the rights of the mentally ill or criminals. They think that we are getting what we deserve.’ According to the boss of home detention in Wollongong I deserved to be in gaol… and maybe he was right. But at least in prison there would be witnesses to the bad behaviour of the officers and a clear process I could follow in case of harassment or intimidation.

It is good the Derryn Hinch has been given the space to talk about this story, but it is bad that his is the only non-Department of Corrective Services, Government or academic voice we hear. While I am in the ivory tower of academia, I am also an ex-criminal, ex-detainee and human being. I hope that by adding my voice to the story today, I have helped you to see a different version of Home Detention in NSW.

Reference list and Appendices available here.

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6 Comments

  1. Bravo Angela; excellent academic paper AND a compassionate, humane, eye-opening, disturbing story. All the best to you, and thank you.

    Cheers
    Debbie

    Like

  2. Bravo indeed, Ange!!

    Based on your account above, absolutely more people need to speak out about the ‘functioning’ of the HDU of the DCS. It also seems that the system needs a severe overhaul by the Auditor-General. Well done in speaking out.

    Cheers

    Craig

    Like

  3. I am to be sentenced to Home Detention in January for a period of 12 Months. After reading the above article, I now have a much better insight into what to expect. As such, I will be installing cameras and such to record any inappropriate behaviour of officers. I am more than happy to give praise where shown but also have no qualms in going public with actual evidence using Social Media and normal media to highlight any concerns. Needless to say, I guess I can only do this AFTER my sentence but rest assured, a report WILL be made. Either congratulating the officers and program for a job well done or crucifying them for a job badly done. Stand by……

    Like

    1. Hey RJ,
      Yep, if I was doing it again, I would definitely install cameras – wise move. But yes, be careful with what you say in public about HD, full time prison is more of a risk than you want to take. But I also (obviously) firmly believe in exposing wrongdoers.

      HD was harder than I think I fully articulated in this article, and one of the hardest bits was not knowing anyone who knew what I was going through. Give me a yell if it starts to grate and you need someone to talk to.

      Ange

      Like

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