The distance restriction that came into effect in September 2012 and was rescinded in October 2012 directed that generally:
Attendance will be restricted to those funerals/visits located no more than 200 kilometre return for the nearest prison facility (excluding Work Camps) with the distance calculated using Google Maps.
In metropolitan Perth, there are six major cemeteries; Fremantle, Guildford, Karrakatta, Midland, Pinnaroo and Rockingham. For prisoners wanting to attend funerals or services at these cemeteries, each of the metropolitan prisons lies within the distance restriction. Therefore, whether a prisoner was held at either a male or female custodial facility in the Perth area, funeral attendance at these locations was possible subject to further assessment.
The policy also allowed prisoners to transfer to the closest prison facility to accommodate funeral attendances. Therefore, if a prisoner from a regional prison applied to attend a funeral or burial at one of the six major metropolitan cemeteries, this criterion was readily met.
However, given the geographical realities of Western Australia – 2.5 million square kilometres and a scattered population – it was obvious that a uniform distance criterion would have a disproportionate impact on regional areas and therefore on Aboriginal people.
If the 200 km distance criterion had been applied to those who were approved to attended funerals in 2011-12, over half the applicants for regional funerals would have been refused. Even if prisoners were transferred to the nearest local prison, many large regional towns such as Carnarvon, Esperance, Meekatharra and Port Hedland are well above the 200 km return road travel journey from the nearest prison. Aboriginal communities and towns such as Fitzroy Crossing, Halls Creek, Kununurra and Tjuntjuntjara are also outside the boundary.
The 200 km limit raised some very obvious substantive equality issues. Almost all (93%) of the applications for attending funerals over 200 km from the nearest prison in August 2012 were made by Aboriginal people.
In order to understand the Department’s reasoning we requested details of the analysis and research which had preceded the changes. We were provided with a memo and a table listing the distances of some funerals from the nearest facility. This was the only analysis that was conducted. Despite the obvious implications of the policy change, there was no detailed analysis on the percentage of funerals that would be denied under the new criterion or whether this would have a disproportionate effect on Aboriginal people.
This is contrary to the Department’s Aboriginal Impact Statement and Guidelines which were developed to make sure that the needs and interests of Aboriginal offenders are incorporated in the development of new corrective services’ policies, programs and strategies. The Guidelines contain a checklist with 12 key questions that must be considered in the development, implementation and evaluation of any new program, policy or strategy. This checklist includes the following questions:
- Does the policy, program or strategy clearly identify the impacts it will have on the number of Aboriginal people incarcerated?
- Have these effects been adequately addressed in the policy, program or strategy?
A technical argument might be constructed to the effect that these guidelines apply only to new policies, and not to changes to policy. However, this is not sustainable. As in this case, changes to policy can, in effect, amount to new policy and substantial changes of this sort should be subject to the same process if the Department is to comply with whole of government requirements.
The Policy Framework for Substantive Equality (the Framework), applies to all Western Australian government departments. It recognises that policies and practices which appear neutral can unintentionally disadvantage minority groups by not catering for their needs. The objective of the Framework, originally issued in 2004, is to achieve substantive equality in the Western Australian public sector through several measures including assessing how policies, programs and practices affect Indigenous people and ethnic minorities. The Department of Corrective Services, along with other departments, is required to annually negotiate the scope of implementation for the Framework and Chief Executive Officers are responsible for ensuring that the Policy Framework is considered in shaping new policy and initiatives.
In addition, the Department’s own Substantive Equality Policy commits it to continuously develop and maintain substantive equality in three distinct but interrelated areas; policy and planning, service delivery and employment. In other words, substantive equality needs to be maintained in policy and planning throughout the Department and is not restricted to only new policies.
It is difficult to comprehend how the impact on Aboriginal people was not considered in making the September 2012 changes to the policy affecting funerals attendance.
Not surprisingly, the distance criterion was very poorly received by families and the community. On 18 September 2012 a protest was held outside the Department’s head office by the family of a prisoner denied approval to attend his mother’s funeral based on distance. The denial was overturned. Advocacy groups also responded forcefully to the funding cuts by holding public action meetings. The public pressure resulted in the policy directive being rescinded in October 2012 through an ACCO notice, one month after its introduction.
This may be portrayed as Departmental ‘responsiveness’ but the real point is that the 200 km criterion was always fundamentally flawed. As noted earlier, the problems are compounded by the fact that although the distance criterion was said to reflect cost, the Department was unable to properly identify costs or quantify cost savings.