Craig Camblin has spent much of his life in prison, but says he’ll die before returning. (ABC News: Daniel Fermer)
Craig Camblin is superstitious. So much so, he always keeps a matchstick in his mouth. That way, he says, he’s always touching wood.
He reckons the one time he wasn’t chewing on a match, he was arrested for armed robbery. But in truth, it was hardly bad luck.
Mr Camblin has spent 30 of his 50 years in jail for armed robberies he committed to feed his heroin addiction.
His first stint in Melbourne’s Pentridge Prison was when he was 16.
“When you first get locked up, no-one can punish you more than you do yourself,” he said.
“You beat yourself up over and over and over and you swear to yourself that you will never do it again.
“But after that, it becomes mundane. You get used to it, and it’s no longer a punishment — it’s passing time until they let you out.”
And each time he got out, he knew more about armed robbery than he did when he went in.
“I was taught lessons in jail and I put it into practice [when I got out]. Unfortunately that kept putting me back into prison.”
Mr Camblin is a classic recidivist — a habitual criminal, for whom being in jail is less scary than being out.
But this time, he said, he’ll die before he goes back.
“Now it’s just a madhouse,” he said.
“People are still using ice in jail and it’s destroying everybody’s minds [and] they’re real quick to slash you or cut you open for no apparent reason. It doesn’t matter who you are.
“They’re all running with gangs. It’s becoming so much like the American system it’s not funny.”
A lot has changed in Victoria’s prisons in the past decade. The state’s prison population has nearly doubled, while the cost of running the system has now topped a billion dollars a year.
‘Not getting bang for buck’
Victoria spends $131,400 per prisoner each year.
That is well above Australia’s national average of $109,821. In fact, if Victoria were its own country, it would have the fourth-most expensive prison system in the OECD, based on the most recent analysis by the Institute for Public Affairs (IPA).
Its figures show only Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands spend more on each inmate.
But one in two Victorian prisoners return to jail within two years of their release.
“I don’t think anyone could claim we are getting great value for it,” Victorian Victims of Crime Commissioner Greg Davies said.
Mr Davies is no bleeding heart when it comes to locking up criminals. With his crew cut and bushy moustache, he still looks and talks like the tough-on-crime senior sergeant he used to be.
But he scratches his head when he looks at how much Victoria is spending on jails, for such appalling results.
“Our recidivism rates in Victoria are at almost 45 per cent,” he said.
“If you were running a business where you did a particular thing in a specific way, and it failed nearly 45 per cent of the time, you probably wouldn’t keep your position as the CEO for very long.”
As the state’s Victims of Crime Commissioner, Greg Davies has strong views on sentencing. (ABC News: James Oaten, file photo)
Another perhaps surprising critic of Victoria’s tough approach is the right-wing think tank, the IPA, which did the cost-per-prisoner number-crunching.
“We are not really getting bang for our buck,” researcher Andrew Bushnell said.
“No-one is saying that prison isn’t important. One of the vital things that prison does is keep our community safe by taking the most dangerous people off the streets.
“The question is, are we making that class of people too big?
“If we are putting people into prison who can safely be punished outside of prison, then obviously we are taking on a much greater cost than we need to.”
Law changes crowd prisons
The rise in Victoria’s prison population is no surprise. In the past decade, both Labor and Coalition governments have been getting tougher on crime, often in response to horrific incidents like the Bourke Street car attack.
- The Government has created a number of new offences and is building a 700-bed prison
- Labor has promised to support early intervention strategies, court diversion programs and specialist courts
- It is also looking to enhance support for prisoners’ mental health
As at November 5, 2018
Suspended sentences have been abolished, parole has been tightened, and changes to bail laws mean more people are on remand than ever before.
As a result, prisons are bursting. Victoria has one new prison in the pipeline: a $700-million, 700-bed maximum security jail at Lara near Geelong.
Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass said building more prisons was not making Victoria safer.
“It is easy to say, ‘Let’s build more prisons’. It looks tough to do that,” Ms Glass said.
“What we are losing sight of is that over 99 per cent of prisoners are going to get out one day.
- The Coalition wants to introduce mandatory minimum sentences for repeat violent offenders
- It is also proposing the introduction of new offences and tightened bail laws
- It has pledged to build a “proper, high-security” youth prison
As at November 5, 2018
“One in every two prisoners are leaving prison, then committing crime and going back there. The question we need to ask is: what are we doing to make sure people get out of prison and don’t go back?”
The answer, according to Craig Camblin, is nothing.
“All jail is doing now is creating more and more problems,” the former inmate said.
“They aren’t helping people deal with the reasons why they were doing what they’re doing. They are just going to punish them until they let them out again. Then they’ll just go back into the same old habits and do the same old thing.”
‘If Texas can do it, surely so can Victoria’
The Victorian situation is a stark contrast to what’s happening in deeply conservative parts of the United States, where governments are taking money out of building prisons, and putting it into programs designed to keep people out of jail.
- 70 per cent of prisoners used illicit drugs before their arrest
- 40 per cent have a mental health condition
- 35 per cent were homeless before their arrest
- More than a third have a cognitive disability
Source: Victorian Ombudsman
“Some of these reforms have come out of the rock-ribbed conservative states like Texas and Georgia, where you almost have Republican one-party rule,” Mr Bushnell said.
“And that’s because it unites a few different strands of conservative thinking. One is obviously the costs.
“But also there is this argument that this is a massive intervention into people’s lives. If we are going to be undertaking it, how do we do it most effectively?”
The ombudsman also believes Victoria could learn from the US experience.
“They saw the financial necessity in investing in diversion, and what they saw there is a reduction in crime and a reduction in cost,” Ms Glass said.
“Now if Texas can do it, surely so can Victoria.”
The alternative is putting someone like 22-year-old Charlie Wood in jail.
Four years ago, Charlie Wood was wanted for drug trafficking and on the run from police. (ABC News: Daniel Fermer)
Mr Wood came within a whisker of following Mr Camblin’s path to a life in and out of prison.
“I started dealing drugs as soon as I started using drugs, because my habit had gotten out of control,” Mr Wood said.
Four years ago, police raided his home and found large quantities of drugs and cash.
He went on the run, wanted for trafficking, and living in a perpetual state of psychosis.
His mother, Leonie Wood, was terrified her teenage son — then about to turn 18 — would end up in an adult jail.
“Suddenly everything was a lot more serious,” she said.
“It was a very frightening experience.”
Jail ‘makes you cold, hard’
The person who kept Mr Wood out of jail was Tania Wolff, a pro-bono lawyer working at First Step, a not-for-profit mental health, addiction and legal services hub in St Kilda.
She convinced Mr Wood to hand himself into police, and pulled strings to get him into detox and rehab.
By the time Mr Wood’s case got to court, he was clean. Instead of jail, he was given an 18-month community corrections order and 200 hours of community work.
Leonie Wood said she was proud of the way her son had turned his life around. (ABC News: Daniel Fermer)
“I don’t think I ever would’ve got out of it had I gone to jail,” he said.
“I would’ve been introduced to the wrong people, I would’ve learnt the wrong things, because I was hanging out with some bad people in the midst of this and that’s what happened to them.”
Mr Wood has now been clean for four years, is studying science at university, and plans to go on to medical school.
Ms Wolff said keeping people like Mr Wood out of jail was better for the community.
“It might not satisfy that primal urge for revenge or retribution, but it’s smart,” she said.
“That person will end up being your neighbour, living around the corner from you, integrating with you in your daily life, driving on the same road as you.
“If you don’t deal with that person, and what they need to fix the behaviour that is underneath it, then you will have a repeat cycle.”
Mr Camblin agrees jail isn’t the place for the likes of Mr Wood.
“It makes you cold, hard, it makes you hate authority, distrustful,” he said.
“What the prisons are doing is putting a bandaid over a problem. They’re just covering it up, so society doesn’t see it.”