NSW prisons at breaking point, ex-AG warns

NSW law and order officials are “overheating” the prison system – and riots could be the result if the system boils over, a former attorney-general warns.


One-time Liberal leader and retired Supreme Court judge John Dowd QC will address a forum at parliament on Wednesday night to call for a new approach for the state’s prisons.

He says they are plagued by overcrowded cells, inadequate medical treatment and now a ban on smoking.

The forum has been prompted by a report from the inspector of custodial services, released in May, which found inmates were being crammed into inadequate facilities as the prison population soared.

Mr Dowd told AAP the Baird government had managed a new ban on smoking in prisons well, but that it introduced a new pressure point in an already over-stressed system.

“The prison system is now well over capacity, with many inmates living three-to-a-cell,” he said.

“And unless more prisons are built or unless the court system gets rid of more cases, then it will continue at the rate that it’s going now.”

He blamed tough new bail laws, a rise in the number of accused people choosing to go to trial rather than plead guilty, and District Court logjams for the dramatic increase in prisoner numbers.

Mr Dowd said part of the solution involved additional judges and he expected current Attorney-General Gabrielle Upton would be forced to take action.

She has already appointed two new specialist judges to the District Court to preside over child sex abuse cases, while at the other end of the justice chain, Corrective Services Minister David Elliott has promised to create 1000 new beds for inmates at Grafton and Parklea.

But Mr Dowd said more was needed to avoid break-outs, unrest and full-scale riots.

“If you overheat the system, and take away things like smoking, then you’ve got a formula for problems,” Mr Dowd said.

“The public is, generally, not concerned about prisoners: they don’t identity with them; they don’t understand them.

“But many of them are wrongly charged, and haven’t committed offences.

“And in international terms, we’re a developed community, and we should be looking after these people.”