Prisoners take drugs, and sex is rife among prisoners and those who guard them. To those familiar with the criminal justice system, and in particular, the warehouses and hell holes we call jails, the revelations in today’s Age newspaper about drug abuse and sex in Victoria’s womens’ prison will come as no surprise. It is an inevitable result of governments refusing to put funds into effective rehabilitation, drug treatment facilities, and to take measures to alleviate the boredom that is the hallmark of day to day life in our prison system.

Unlike some countries of northern Europe, in Australia we subscribe to the primitive Anglo view of punishment – that people should be treated as less than human when they are deprived of their liberty. The Dame Phyllis Frost prison in Melbourne where, The Age reports, in the “past six months, at least seven — and possibly 11 — prisoners have had one or more serious drug overdoses,” and prison officials are having sex while on duty, is simply a manifestation of that culture.

Until Australian policy makers and the community recognize that prison should in fact be about improving lives and not destroying them, then the sort of conduct that is apparently de rigueur at Dame Phyllis Frost will continue.

Over eighty percent of prisoners, male and female, have either a mental illness or an addiction to legal or illegal drugs, or both. Therapies and programs to address these problematic issues in prisoners’ lives are piecemeal and access to them is restricted by budgetary constraints and because they are used as a disciplinary tool. Play up and you get taken off the program, is the warped logic that prevails in prisons in Australia. Prohibition of drugs ensures that trafficking into prison is worthwhile.

But what about prison officers having sex on the job? Who can blame them? We design our prisons in such a way that they are designed to make those who work in them feel depressed and bored. The average Austrian prison lacks greenery and internally is painted grey, white or beige. There is little or no artwork on the walls, and the work consists merely of counting ‘bodies’ and playing social controller.

The problems at Dame Phyllis Frost, and all Australian prisons for that matter, will not go away until we adopt a more enlightened and effective approach to prison life. Not only do we need to make our prisons more physically conducive to social behaviours but when it comes to drug treatment there needs to be needle exchange programs and methadone programs made available to every prisoner.

In July this year, the British government announced the roll our of methadone vending machines to its prisons and a 2006 research report from the European Union found that “prison needle exchange programs reduces needle sharing very effectively, can increase uptake of drug treatment as well as the safety in the prison, and can reduce abscesses and fatal overdoses.”

It is also time our governments spent money on ensuring that prisons were designed to alleviate the frustration felt by prison officers and prisoners alike. As Michael Jacobson, head of the New York based think tank, the Vera Institute, has observed “Officers serve life sentences eight hours at a time.”

Jim Lewis, the author of a thoughtful essay on prison architecture in the June 10 edition of The New York Times magazine, observed that prisoners and officers “want prisons to be safer and more humane…They want smaller, less anonymous units. They want more natural light.”

Until our prisons become places of wellbeing and rehabilitation then expect officers and prisoners to continue to find solace in drugs and sex.

Greg Barns is legal adviser to Tasmanian lobby group, Prison Action Reform.