TRUE OPINION: JUSTICE FOR SALE! The Real Costs of Going to Jail

TRUE OPINION: The Victorian Government has announced it will spend $345 million over three years on almost 500 new cells to deal with the state’s overcrowded jail system and increasing prison population. True Crime News Weekly correspondent Gary Johnston wonders whether throwing hundreds of millions of dollars into a failed system is a wise move.

Anyone familiar with the board game ‘Monopoly’ will be aware of the repercussions of landing on the square that demands you ‘go to jail’. In addition to cooling your heels in chokey for a turn or three, the hapless player will also forgo the bonus of $200 for passing GO (Unless, of course, you happen to have access to a ‘get out of jail free card’ – known, in real life, as a smooth-talking barrister. Although, in actuality, it will be anything but free).

That’s pretty much the only sanction of being behind bars in Monopoly; on release, you can get on with the game again without any sort of blameworthiness, given that, if you play long enough, everyone else will eventually roll the dice that directs them towards the area of confinement. It is, after all, a matter of chance.

But in the week that the Victorian Government announced triumphantly that a sum of $345 million is to be set aside for the building of new prison cells across the state, none of the mainstream media outlets who dutifully reported the news, took the time to assess the positive benefits of increased incarceration for its beleaguered citizens. That’s because, as in Monopoly, there really aren’t any.

Unlike in the game however, the cost of jail in the real world, is significantly more than $200. To imprison a single inmate in Australian prisons, according to the Corrective Service’s department’s own figures, costs an eye watering $100,000 a year, a figure which is compounded by the same department’s figures on rehabilitation. Most released prisoners will go on to commit a further offence – and subsequently be re-incarcerated – within two years.

Jail, you see, as a method of eradicating or even reducing crime, doesn’t work.

Oh, I know what you might think: prisons are too soft, veritable holiday camps with ready access to gourmet food, widescreen televisions and various recreational pursuit and as a result, most wrongdoers return there because it’s a far easier life than on the outside.

Even if that were true – it isn’t – force feeding them a diet of bread and water with sundry additional hardships thrown in for good measure would, you might think, automatically make it a less attractive option. It might, you could further suggest, also be a lot less expensive.

Possibly, but the reality is – and was – even when conditions were significantly more punitive – the cat o’ nine tails, systematic beatings and daily gruel, incarceration still had little effect on rehabilitation.


Locking people up and subjecting them to any sort of institutional regime, with or without creature comforts, is a wholly ineffective method of achieving attitude and behaviour change.

It doesn’t even work as a deterrent because, most prisoners – and more than 30 years of working with offenders has led me this view – do not consider the consequences of being apprehended when they commit their crimes – other factors being far more influential.

Alcohol or drug abuse, mental illness, poor or non existent consequential thinking skills, lack of education and employment opportunities, dysfunctional family backgrounds, a dearth of support or coping mechanisms, singularly or more often combined, leads to people continually breaking the law.

Putting them behind bars, no matter how painless a penalty you might think that to be, only delays the inevitable until they’re released. When, the various stimuli, left alone, untouched throughout the period of confinement, inspires and effects the carousel of offending, detection and imprisonment to begin all over again.

Australia is currently sending more of its residents to jail than at any time in the past – no mean achievement considering its original status as a penal colony. What’s more, this movement toward confinement isn’t typical of a world-wide trend; most other countries in the world, aware of the inherent failure of locking people up at great expense, are experimenting with other options. Even Texas, that famous bastion of orange jumpsuits, lethal injections, and large tattooed blokes called Big Bubba lurking in the showers, is jailing, on a proportional basis, fewer criminals than we are.


There are, certain local factors at play: partly because of the tragedy of certain individuals who have committed horrific crimes whilst on bail or parole, the knee jerk response has been to contain, more people, for longer, and, naturally, that costs. But the ongoing costs – and don’t forget that for every single new prisoner, a further $1000,000 has to be found – will eventually blow a hole in the budget large enough to become impossible to accept. It’s a matter of time – hard or soft.

Spending $345 million on more prison cells may well salve the conscience of the government and kowtow to reactionary newspaper editors but, in reality, if past statistics are anything to go by, it will eventually result in more – not less – crime.

Making the announcement of the new funds was seen by the press as a good news story, in reality, it’s anything but, being very much a bad news story.

And, what’s more, a brazen and tacit, admission of failure.


TRUE OPINION: JUSTICE FOR SALE! The Real Costs of Going to Jail

About Gary Johnston 38 Articles
Gary Johnston is an author, academic and former parole officer with decades of experience in the criminal justice system. He is True Crime News Weekly's Melbourne correspondent. His book 'No Previous Conviction' was published in May 2017 and is available on Amazon.

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