An insight into the prison system with Commissioner Peter Severin

Wednesday 20 September, 2017

On Wednesday 20 September 2017, it was Corrective Services NSW Commissioner Peter Severin who was welcomed as the formal dinner guest at Warrane College. The Commissioner since September 2012, he came to the job with an extensive knowledge in corrections - over three decades of senior executive experience. Commissioner Severin offered the boys an insight into his career as well as the prison system. 

He began: “Prisons are there to deal with people who breach the law; people who step outside the boundaries of what’s right, and subsequently, convicted by a court independently from any other power in society, to spend a period of time under conditions of deprivation of liberty - meaning they’re not entitled to continue to make decisions about their own life, and particularly, where they want to spend their life.”

“That being said,” he continued, “the objective of a prison is not just to take people out of circulation; not just to ensure that the community is kept safe... but most importantly, it’s about offering those who have failed - those who are a risk to the community - every opportunity to change, every opportunity to address the reasons why they actually ended up in prison in the first place, and hopefully develop some strategies, behaviours and abilities to not reoffend.”

The situation in Australia

Commissioner Severin told the boys that NSW has the largest prison system in the country with 36 prisons at the moment – soon to be more; and he explained how the prison system also supervises a certain number of people in the community. He told the boys that while crime is declining, and is occurring at a much lower rate than 10 years ago, imprisonment is increasing. 

He described the journey of a prisoner in brief: first, they are captured and charged. A magistrate decides how they will spend their time awaiting court, whether it be in prison or out on bail. Once found guilty, they are classified for risk by specialists – to determine the level of security they require (minimum to maximum). Once in prison, the system hopes to put that person through with every opportunity to improve their chances of successfully reintegrating into the community. 

“The modern prison system anywhere in the developed world is about safety and security - that is absolutely paramount - we need to make sure that the community can be confident... But also as I mentioned, also offering offenders opportunities to address the reasons they came into prison and reduce reoffending,” said Commissioner Severin. 

As Commissioner Severin explained, many of the worst offenders have an education level below that of a Grade 8 student– and so the prison system puts an emphasis on education. It tries to teach them structure so they learn to run their lives in an organised way, and it encourages them to get a job to keep them busy and lower their risk. It is recognised that woman have completely different needs and so the system for managing female is poles apart from that for male offenders. In other words, prisons work on a finely-tuned system. 

“For me, prisons aren’t at the end of the conveyor belt,” said Commissioner Severin. “For me, prisons are at the centre of public services. Because we’re... dealing with every issue. We’re dealing with every single aspect that affects a person’s life.”

Working in the prison system

So how did Commissioner Severin end up in the job? He was motivated towards the cause when he was living in Germany in 1980, aged 17. “I was in a Youth group and we went in and we met with young offenders, who weren’t much older than we were, and talked about their lives and so on,” he said. “At the time my career decision was made, I was very committed to doing something in human services; and having an opportunity to do something that affects every aspect of a person’s life in a positive way was a real drawcard.”

“All of that being said,” continued Commissioner Severin, “we cannot deny the fact that deprivation of liberty is a tough consequence. This is not an easy journey...doing time in a jail is a tough experience, especially at the maximum security end.”

Not to mention trying to have a life after prison and the difficulties of finding employment - something that Commissioner Severin also touched upon. “What we’re doing now – we have a program where every inmate who’s interested...can start their CV in prison by doing courses,” he said. “And six months before they’re discharged or eligible for parole, we feed that CV to job agencies...that connects people with the agencies that then organise a job for them.

We also have a range of employers is Australia who have a very strong conviction to give a second chance, as they call it...to do something to make a difference.”

(Photos from the evening are available here)

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