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Justice groups criticise funding for new prisons in the NT

Dechlan Brennan -

The Northern Territory government has been criticised for announcing an expansion and new funding for prisons, with justice groups arguing the funds should be used for evidence-based solutions rather than further imprisonment.

On Friday, the NT government announced two new standalone women's prisons - one in Darwin and one in Mparntwe/Alice Springs - would be funded in the upcoming budget, with Attorney-General Chansey Paech saying they were invoking a "common-sense corrections model".

"One of our primary objectives of these rehabilitation and reintegration centres is to address the underlying factors that contribute to criminal behaviour such as past trauma, substance abuse, mental health issues, and poor access to education and employment opportunities," Minister Paech said.

Both facilities will repurpose existing ones previously occupied by NT Health, with the Stringybark Centre in Berrimah to house about 110 inmates, and the Paperback facility in Mparntwe/Alice Springs housing about 30.

Expected to be delivered in the second half of the year, more than $57 million has been allocated to delivering the upgrades.

Some of this funding, however, will also be used to temporarily repurpose the infamous Don Dale Youth Detention Centre into a training facility for male prisoners after youth detainees are moved to a new youth prison later this year.

Don Dale has long been heavily criticised, particularly since graphic footage was shown on ABC TV in 2016 of detainees being tear-gassed.

The resulting 2017 Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children saw the NT government accept in full or in principle all 227 recommendations at an estimated cost of $229 million – including the closure of Don Dale.

However, the facility remains open.

Nyikina and Jabirra Jabirra woman and founder of the Northern Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA), Natalie Hunter, told AAP the Territory government needed more services rather than prisons.

"When are they going to listen to our black voices instead of blocking them out?" Ms Hunter said.

"It has been decades of neglect, of not properly implementing recommendations from report after report."

NAAJA themselves have been heavily critical of the continual operation of Don Dale in any capacity, saying earlier this month in response to a riot which saw 14 children on the roof of the facility: "On any given night, there are approximately 40 mostly Aboriginal young people detained inside Don Dale with little access to the support they need to address the complex array of factors that have contributed to them being there in the first place."

"Don Dale should have been closed on the recommendation of the Royal Commission over six years ago, and it's simply incomprehensible that it remains open today."

The NT government have said they do not see the use of Don Dale as a permanent option, saying $14 million has been invested in improving the facility, but that it will be demolished in the near future.

"The government does not see this as a permanent use of this facility and future planning is being undertaken as part of the Corrections Infrastructure Master Plan," the government said in a statement.

The Justice Reform Initiative's executive director Mindy Sotiri said the establishment of two new women's prisons was an "expensive step in the wrong direction".

"The Attorney-General calls this a common-sense approach, but there is no sense in spending millions of dollars to prop up broken infrastructure in a failed system," Dr Sotiri said.

"We know prisons don't work. All the evidence shows us that locking people up does not make safer communities, it does the opposite and makes future offending more likely."

Dr Sotiri said there were several community- and Indigenous-led bail and restorative justice support programs in the NT that were achieving "remarkable outcomes" in reducing crime and contact with the justice system, despite being "chronically under-resourced and under-valued."

"This sudden move to repurpose health facilities to squeeze in more prison beds highlights the lack of any long-term vision or strategy to tackle the deep-rooted issues around justice and safety in the NT," she said.

"Territorians deserve to have smart policies based on evidence, not ad hoc announcements to patch a broken system."

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