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Rising NSW prison population a result of 'policy failure': Gillian Triggs -

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ELEANOR HALL: The New South Wales Government is expanding the state's prison system to accommodate the skyrocketing number of inmates.

The prison population grew by 12 per cent last year double the national rate.

And today, the State Government has announced 650 new prison beds, on top of 1,000 that were already on the way.

The Australian Human Rights Commission says the beds are necessary, but they're symptomatic of a much bigger policy failure, as Angela Lavoipierre reports.

ANGELA LAVOIPIERRE: Its money the Government doesn't want to spend, but with the prison population rising steeply, an immediate expansion is unavoidable.

The New South Wales Minister for Corrections, David Elliott.

DAVID ELLIOTT: In response to the increase in demand for prison cells, we will be delivering another 1,650 beds into the system.

This will see more beds in Grafton, in regional New South Wales, as well as an increase in the capacity of Parklea of Sydney's north-west, which will see an extra 250 beds.

ANGELA LAVOIPIERRE: Demand has increased significantly - there are now 12,100 adult prisoners in the state - up 12 per cent in one year.

A report from the New South Wales Inspector of Custodial Services last year revealed serious overcrowding problems, with three people crammed into some one-man cells.

David Elliott is confident the expansion will ease that problem.

DAVID ELLIOTT: The 1,650 new extra cells and beds that we're announcing today will go a long way in alleviating the demand and the pressure on the prison service.

We've got to make sure that those new cells are complimented by an improvement in rehabilitation as well.

ANGELA LAVOIPIERRE: The president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, Gillian Triggs, is concerned by the overcrowding, as well as the high number of people in custody without a conviction awaiting their trial.

GILLIAN TRIGGS: Short term, perhaps it's acceptable but I think what we're seeing is a rise in numbers for example on remand, where of course people are waiting for their trials.

And by definition of course they haven't been convicted and it really does seem unacceptable to have people in crowded conditions when they've not yet been tried.

And where these really do seem to be overcrowded conditions that lead to ultimately a failure to ensure that people are given opportunities to reform.

ANGELA LAVOIPIERRE: The Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research says there are several reasons for the especially large increase in New South Wales.

There's been a jump in the arrest rate for serious offences, meaning more people are going before the courts.

People are also spending a longer time in custody waiting for their trial, because of congestion in the district court.

The Bureau also says that the courts are tougher than ever.

The Minister David Elliott points to harsher bail laws.

DAVID ELLIOTT: What we have in New South Wales in the last two years is the toughest bail act in Australian history.

The Government has decided that bail laws needed to be changed and those changes have meant that our prison system has to be able to have the ability to house more people.

That's not something that we make an apology for - that is something that the community voted for.

ANGELA LAVOIPIERRE: The decision to expand the state's prison system comes after the number of beds was reduced in Kirkconnell, Parramatta, Grafton and Berrimah.

Gillian Triggs says the reversal of that trend represents a policy failure.

GILLIAN TRIGGS: One can hardly blame the law enforcement agencies and our judges for being concerned with the primary objective of protecting society.

But at the same time when we see this constant seesawing of numbers and ultimately a failure to resolve the problem with growing numbers. I think we really need to rethink what we're doing and indeed rethink how we're spending these huge dollars - $2.6 billion estimated nationally.

ANGELA LAVOIPIERRE: The average daily cost of accommodating a prisoner in Australia is $292 a day.

David Elliott admits it's not how Governments prefer to spend their money.

DAVID ELLIOTT: Nobody likes spending taxpayers’ money on maintaining prisoners, that's money that should be spent on health and education.

But what I've got to make sure is that we have the capacity to do it more efficiently.

ANGELA LAVOIPIERRE: Gillian Triggs believes that money could be better spent elsewhere.

GILLIAN TRIGGS: We really should be getting a better outcome from our money than we are at present, and we're housing people as a solution. Maybe a short term one but it's not a long term one.

It actually builds longer term problems and fails to understand of course also the disproportion effect on the most vulnerable in Australia, particularly Indigenous Australians.

ELEANOR HALL: That's the president of the Human Rights Commission, Gillian Triggs, ending that report from Angela Lavoipierre.