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A world where prisons are a last resort

Jesuit Social Services recently released the ‘Prisons, climate and a just transition’ discussion paper, which argues that in a world of worsening climate change, Australia’s reliance on imprisonment is increasingly untenable. John Ryks, Policy and Research Manager who works with Jesuit Social Services’ Centre for Just Places, spoke to us about the thinking behind the paper.

Hi John. Jesuit Social Services discusses a just transition to a zero-emissions future. Some people may not be familiar with the concept of ‘just transition’. What does it mean?

A just transition is about moving from inequitable economic and social systems to a more ecologically sustainable world. In a just transition those least able to cope with climate change receive the support they need to adapt.

Why does Jesuit Social Services argue that prisons should be a focus of the conversation about a just transition?

Already, disadvantaged people are some of the worst affected by the impacts of climate change. Our most recent Dropping off the Edge report into locational disadvantage across the country included environmental indicators for the first time, in addition to factors such as unemployment, criminal offending and family violence. The results confirmed what we already suspected – that Australia’s most socially and economically disadvantaged areas also experience disproportionately high levels of air pollution and extreme heat.

People in prison are among those people whose health, wellbeing and lives are most at-risk during extreme weather. The powerful image on the front cover of the paper is one example. When bushfires burned close to Lithgow Correctional Centre in New South Wales in 2019, people in the surrounding areas were evacuated while the Lithgow prisoners remained locked inside. During heat, fire and flood, people in prison have limited options. They can’t choose to go elsewhere. Their lives depend on the policies and resources others have put in place to support them.

In a just transition, people in prison would be supported to adapt (for example, providing people in prison with access to air conditioning), but it goes further than that – a just transition requires addressing the root causes of offending and reducing the need for prisons.

In the paper, Jesuit Social Services talks about the ‘radical potential’ of a just transition. What does this mean?

I think this is about the potential for transformative change. Change very broadly in terms of how we relate to the environment and each other, and specifically in terms of how, in moving to a more sustainable future, no one gets left behind as we attempt to redress ecological harms. Part of this radical potential is also the opportunity to go beyond adaptation to completely rethink our justice system and how we switch from investing in more prisons to investing in communities and supporting them to work with the most vulnerable members of our society.

In a socially and ecologically just future, prisons will truly be a last resort.

What is the role of place-based initiatives in a just transition?

Place-based initiatives are community-driven solutions to local social and ecological justice problems. They are critical to a just transition. They require listening to the voices most impacted by the justice system, and adequately resourcing communities to address local needs rather than using a one-size-fits-all approach. Research from the United States and New Zealand shows that punitive policies and simply building more prisons does not reduce crime or keep people safe. The emphasis should be on investing in communities and promoting a locally-informed approach to tackling the underlying causes of offending and driving down the need for prisons in the first place.

The Centre for Just Places is working with governments, community service organisation and local leaders to develop place-based approaches to social and ecological justice issues, including climate risk and adaptation.

What do you hope this discussion paper will achieve?

We hope it will spark a conversation about the overlapping social and ecological harms of the prison system – this is something that hasn’t received a lot of attention in the past but is becoming increasingly important.

We also hope it will shine a light on the obligations that federal and state governments have to enable better detention practices and avoid mistreatment in detention including by fully implementing OPCAT, the international anti-torture convention, as well as national temperature standards for prisons. We had a situation earlier this year where the temperature at Roebourne Regional Prison in Western Australia reached 50.5 degrees, yet those in prison did not even have access to air conditioning. To us, this example speaks to the intersection between climate and justice and the daily challenges to people’s health, safety, dignity and human rights. There is a better way.

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