The Federation Press

Prisoners as Citizens

Human rights in Australian prisons


Edited by David Brown (Professor of Law, University of NSW) and Meredith Wilkie (Director, Race Discrimination Unit, Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission)

As prison populations continue to expand across the western world the question of the rights of prisoners has become an increasingly pressing issue, particularly in the light of new human rights discourses.

This important new book gives voice to a diverse range of viewpoints arising out of this debate in the Australian context, while the issues raised will have powerful echoes elsewhere. The contributors to this book include the prisoners themselves, human rights activists, academics, criminal justice policy makers and practitioners.

Overall the book presents a powerful argument that prisoners do and should have rights in any society that professes to be a democracy, bringing to the fore a debate that society would often prefer to forget.


Should prisoners be deprived of rights to such things as voting, personal safety, health, family connection, information, and education? In a series of 17 essays, many of them research-based, writers look at aspects of the surprisingly varied Australian prison situation. Topics include the nature of prison systems and populations, and historical and international perspectives. Also considered are the siutations of particular prisoners, such as women and Indigenous Australians, as well as those from non-English speaking backgrounds, and those with intellectual disabilities. The collection is a timely and thought-provoking source of information. - SCAN (Curriculum K-12 Directorate NSW), February 2004

One of the most poignant aspects of this collection is the contribution that prisoners themselves make ... Collectively, [their] testimonies depict a deep-seated sense of feeling ’forgotten’, anonymous and utterly disenfranchised.. They serve as a candid reminder that prisoners are living now, without proper access to basic medical care or family contact and live in physical conditions that fall short of any acceptable level of decency and care in a democratic society. ...
Practical measures that will immediately improve the recognition of human rights for prisoners are usefully discussed ...The book possesses a certain clarity and common-sense tone, its contributors approaching rights not from a philosophical but from a more concrete concern with ’rights as claims to certain minimum standards of treatment’. ...
With a wide variety of contributors, the book represents a rich sourcebook of opinions on prisoners’ rights. ... it is an important publication that merits attention from anyone interested in the legal rules governing prisoners’ rights, possible psychological effects of imprisonment and prisoner welfare generally. - Howard Journal of Criminal Justice, Vol 4(3), July 2003

[A] very valuable analysis into many, if not most, of the changes [of the past two decades]. ... a scholarly contribution to the history and contemporary views of punishment and corrections [which] is full of surprises. - Civil Liberty, December 2002

This outstanding and comprehensive collection of essays on prisoners’ rights which offers historical, international, jurisprudential, empirical and legal perspectives. ... This is thoughtful but disturbing reading. - Reform, Spring 2002

... makes an important contribution to the reconsideration of prisoners as human subjects possessing certain rights. - Chris Cunneen, Adelaide Law Review, 2002

A valuable and well-informed contribution to the debate about prisons and prisoners. - Matthew Groves, UNSW Law Journal, 2002

Australia’s leading academics, activists and prison experts ... highlight why it is critical that these rights [of prisoners] be recognized by the Australian community. This vision, which seems altogether in keeping with contemporary ideas of human rights and democratic citizenship, turns out to entail profound challenges to the current ways of thinking, our law and institutional routines. The authors understand the ideals of democratic debate and try to extend that debate in a manner that is at once principled and constructive. This is a timely, well-researched and important book and presents a significant contribution to an understanding of the status, role and rights of prisoners and their capacity to participate in their community as full citizens. - Educational Book Review (India), 2002

A constructive political and public discourse about the role of prisons and prison reform has been sadly lacking in Australia. Instead, fuelled by self-serving political agendas and tabloid journalism penal policy has been punitive, short-sighted and ultimately a failure. Refreshingly, Brown and Wilkie have taken a provocative new approach towards prisons and their inmates arguing that prisoners do and should have rights in any society that professes to be a democracy. - Professor Paul Wilson, Chair of Criminology, Bond University

A landmark collection on prisoners’ citizenship rights in Australia. Partly report-card, partly a plural conversation on options for change, this book should be disturbing reading for citizens concerned about the decency and social justice of our democracy. - Professor John Braithwaite, ANU, Canberra

This book has the potential not just to bring back to public attention the issue of imprisonment in Australia; in addition, it also sheds new light on the nature of imprisonment iself, and its pains and deprivations, with contributions from academics, criminal justice policy makers and practitioners and, not least, prisoners themselves. - Dr John Pratt, Institute of Criminology, Victoria University of Wellington

At last -- after 1999’s ’Republic without citizens’ debate -- we have a serious look at citizenship from the bottom up! Prisoners as citizens is where any discussion about rights and a republic in Australia must begin, and this book does it well. - Tim Anderson, former prisoner and civil rights activist

For decades it was said that the victim was the forgotten party in the criminal justice system. That is no longer true as victims’ rights have come to supplant prisoners’ rights in the public consciousness. The state of the prisons is now of far less public and political concern than the state of a victim’s health. In sentencing, the uneasy balance between the interests of the offender, the state and the victim has shifted from the former to the latter. This important and useful book gives voice to a diverse range of viewpoints, some of which have been suppressed, some ignored and many which have failed to achieve their due recognition because of the significant, but one hopes, not permanent changes in communal priorities. It puts back on the criminological and political agenda the unpopular issues which must be addressed as our prison populations continue to burgeon. - Professor Arie Freiberg, Department of Criminology, University of Melbourne

This book makes a timely and wide-ranging contribution to an overdue debate about our attitudes to imprisonment and detention. Australians who value their freedom are indebted to the co-editors for encouraging such a well-qualified group of contributors to share with us their unique insights. - The Most Reverend Dr Peter F Carnley AO, Anglican Primate of Australia

Prisoners do have rights and this outstanding collection highlights why it is critical that these rights be recognised by the Australian community. Australians deny the rights of the imprisoned at their own peril, since the behaviour of those incarcerated after their release is largely influenced by their experiences behind the prison walls. - Father Peter Norden SJ, Director, Jesuit Social Services and former Pentridge Prison Chaplain

As the language of rights is manipulated to serve questionable ends and as rights become exclusive, often only available to those who are visible and able to voice their concerns, Prisoners as Citizens offers a comprehensive and challenging consideration of the diverse rights and interests of an ever-increasing but invisible population group within our society. - Andrea Durbach, Director, Public Interest Advocacy Centre

This is a timely and important publication. The controversial issues surrounding penal policy and specifically, the perception of, and treatment of, prisoners and their role in their community are regularly misunderstood and misrepresented in public discourse. This well-researched and thoughtful series of accounts by a diverse range of authors usefully presents eclectic perspectives.
Many of the themes explored could have been fruitfully extended to additional areas including juveniles in detention, the international transfer of prisoners and the detention of asylum seekers.
Nevertheless, the book represents a significant contribution to an understanding of the status, role and rights of prisoners and their capacity to participate in their community as full citizens. - George Zdenkowski, NSW Children’s Court Magistrate

Table of Contents

Part I - Prisons and Prisoners

Prisoners and the penal estate in Australia
Russell Hogg
Words from the prisoners: Impacts of overcrowding
The rights of Indigenous prisoners
Loretta Kelly
Words from the prisoners: Prisoners at risk
Deprivation of liberty - deprivation of rights
Debbie Kilroy & Anne Warner
Words from the prisoners: Family
Experiences of inmates with an intellectual disability
Jenny Green
Words from the prisoners: Staying healthy in prison
Prisoners of difference
Greta Bird
Words from the prisoners: Catering for prisoners speaking English as a second language

Part II - Regulating Prison and Prisoners Rights

’Not the King’s enemies’: prisoners and their rights in Australian history
Mark Finnane and Tony Woodyatt
Words from the prisoners: Law and Order (a poem) by Noel Han
Televising the invisible: prisoners, prison reform and the media
Catherine Lumby
Words from prisoner advocates: Queensland Prisons: 1980s and 1990s
Margaret Reynolds, former Qld Senator (ALP)
An insider’s view: human rights and excursions from the flat lands
Craig WJ Minogue
Words from the prisoners: Legal assistance
Protection of prisoners’ rights in Australian private prisons
John Rynne
Words from the prisoners: Impacts of privatisation
Prisoners as citizens: a view from Europe
Vivian Stern

Part III - Citizenship and Rights

International human rights law applicable to prisoners
Camille Giffard
Institutional perspectives and constraints
John Dawes
Words from the prisoners: Prison discipline
David Robinson
Prisoners’ rights to health and safety
Michael Levy
Words from the prisoners: Health care
Crime victims and prisoners’ rights
Sam Garkawe
Words from the prisoners: Preparing for release
Prisoners and the right to vote
Melinda Ridley-Smith & Ronnit Redman
Prisoners as citizens
David Brown

Of interest...