Brighton siege gunman Yacqub Khayre

When it comes to Yacqub Khayre — the young man responsible for killing a 36-year-old man and kidnapping a woman in Melbourne’s Brighton earlier this week — no politician wants to address the extent of how the Victorian prison system contributed to the “Brighton siege”.

Isolation, lack of mental health support and little or no rehabilitation — this is the experience of those detained on suspicion of having committed terrorism offences, and, in fact, of young offenders who commit crimes of violence generally, in the prison system.

Khayre was charged with terrorism offences and incarcerated from August 2009 to December 2010 when he was acquitted of the offences. It is important to understand what happened to him in those 16 months to understand his later offending, and what happened in Brighton this week.

When Khayre was arrested on terrorism charges, he was a young man of 20 with a troubled history of drug use and alcohol dependence. He had spent time in a youth justice centre, and of critical importance is the fact that, according to a judge who sentenced him in late 2012, Yacqub was held in “high security remand” while he waited his terrorism offences trial.

“High security remand” is where corrections authorities house those who are charged with terrorism offences, despite their being presumed innocent. There seems to be a view among corrections authorities that simply because a person has been charged with a terrorism offence, they must be housed with convicted violent offenders, who form the major population of Australian prison’s high-security units.

The adverse impact of holding young men charged with terrorism offences in a high-security unit was highlighted in the so-called Melbourne terrorism case in 2008. The 12 accused in that case were classified as high security from the time they were arrested in late 2005, and held in the notorious Acacia Unit at Barwon Prison in Melbourne’s west. The conditions were so appalling that the trial judge, Supreme Court justice Bernard Bongiorno, threatened to stop the trial unless radical improvements were made by corrections authorities. Bongiorno said the conditions were “a risk to the psychiatric health of even the most psychologically robust individual”. Constant strip searching, spending up to 23 hours a day locked in a prison cell, little access to mental health treatment and limited access to family and friends are the hallmarks of high-security units.

Khayre would have endured similar deprivation in the 16 months he was held on terrorism offences. It did not take long for him to resume drug use and re-offend, in a serious way, after he was acquitted at Christmas 2010. In fact, the aggravated burglary he committed in 2012 and in respect of his parole in December last year, was at least partly due to the heightened risk of re-offending that inhumane treatment in maximum security causes.

In a September 2015 report, the Victorian Ombudsman confirmed the widely shared view that “there is a correlation between the maximum security prison locations and a higher recidivism rate. While the explanations for this are complex and varied, the security nature of the maximum prisons generally means prisoners have less out-of-cell hours, and do not have the opportunity to access the same level of transition support and adaptation to more independent living as those in medium or minimum security locations prior to release.”

In the case of those prisoners on remand, once they are acquitted there is literally no support provided to them to readjust to civilian life after the hellish experience of maximum security detention.

If tomorrow’s Council of Australian Governments’ meeting simply postures about the parole system for violent offenders and terrorism offences, it will have completely missed the mark. The fault lies with a corrections system that is obsessed with making prison life as unbearable as possible for certain types of remandees and convicted prisoners. It is a prison system that thinks it is acceptable to subject troubled young people to enduring isolation, boredom, capricious discipline and humiliation.

*Greg Barns is a Spokesman for the Australian Lawyers Alliance and represented one of the accused in the Melbourne terrorism trial in 2008.