Senate debates

Thursday, 15 February 2018



6:55 pm

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

Tonight I rise to speak on the Human Rights Watch report 'I needed help, instead I was punished': abuse and neglect of prisoners with disabilities in Australia. The report was released last week and takes an in-depth look at the experience of adult prisoners with disabilities whilst in prison. The focus of the report is the experiences of those in WA and Queensland prisons. These jurisdictions were chosen because:

… they are geographically and ethnically diverse and are representative of the issues people with disabilities, particularly Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people with disabilities, face in the criminal justice system across Australia.

Research in the report was primarily conducted in the form of interviews. They visited 14 prisons and interviewed 275 people, including 136 current or recently released prisoners with disabilities between the ages of 17 and 78. Of those, 63 were Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

People with disability make up almost 50 per cent of the prison population, although they only make up around 18 per cent of Australia's population. That, for a start, should start raising concerns. The report also draws attention to the fact that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are overrepresented in our prisons. People will note that I've talked about that in this place on numerous occasions. In June last year, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people made up 28 per cent of the country's full-time population in adult prisons. It is expected that, by the year 2020, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people will make up a staggering 50 per cent of the prison population. If this is not a crisis, I'd like to know what is.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disability are even more likely to end up behind bars. They face many additional challenges. As the report says:

… the disability is often undetected in childhood, and even when it is, support services are difficult to access, putting them on a path where they are more likely to be incarcerated than get a university degree.

The offences they are charged with are often less serious, such as public disorder and vehicle regulations offences. The report, which aims to contribute to the limited information available on the experiences of people with disability in prison, details harrowing, systemic abuse of this group. It also illuminates the government's failure to fulfil its international obligations, particularly under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

We already know that life behind bars is challenging. Prisoners with disabilities face additional challenges including overcrowding, a lack of accessible facilities and negative staff attitudes, and often find it difficult to adapt to this new environment and its extraordinary stresses. They are also at a higher risk of violence and abuse, including bullying and harassment and verbal, physical and sexual violence. The report says:

In all 14 prisons visited, Human Rights Watch found that prisoners with disabilities are viewed as easy targets and as a result are at serious risk of violence and abuse …

Thirty-two cases of sexual violence and 41 cases of physical violence were documented as a result of research interviews. The report says:

One woman with a disability told Human Rights Watch: "The officers [use] intimidation tactics. Especially for us girls, that just reminds us of our domestic violence back home, it scares us. If you want to get through to us, they should be nice to us."

Such experiences perpetuate the cycle of violence and lead to distrust of the prison staff. An Aboriginal woman with psychosocial disability said:

I'm an easy target because of mental illness. If we get caught fighting, they will tell the officer, 'She hit first because the voices told her.'

Those with psychosocial or cognitive difficulties:

… can find it extremely challenging to understand prison rules and follow instructions. As a result, they are at higher risk of violating the rules and of facing violence from other prisoners and staff.

More support and reasonable accommodation would assist these individuals. It is simply staggering to read that prisoners were appointed as prison carers to look after other inmates with high support needs. In at least one case it culminated in the carer repeatedly raping his ward.

The case of a man with a psychosocial disability spending more than 19 years in solitary confinement in maximum security units is also highly distressing. The report outlined:

Prisoners with a psychosocial or cognitive disability can spend weeks or months locked in solitary confinement in detention, or crisis or safety units, for 22 hours or more a day.

The report makes key recommendations on how to better the experiences of people with disability whilst in custody, including ending the use of solitary confinement for prisoners with disabilities, and asks the federal government to:

Conduct a national inquiry into the use of solitary confinement of prisoners with disabilities.

The report demonstrates the need for a comprehensive, independent study of people with disability in prison. This needs to include the type of disability and their support needs. This needs to be undertaken at a national level and should look at the conditions of people with disabilities in prisons. People also need to be systematically screened for all types of disabilities when entering prison, and then receive appropriate supports including mental health services. Prison staff need to be properly trained to identify and support people with disability in prison.

Currently, the system relies mostly on self-reporting, and this is problematic as many prisoners do not know they have a disability and do not identify as having a disability. This is particularly the case with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. They may not have been diagnosed before they enter prison or are cautious to make it known they have a disability for fear of stigma.

The report overwhelmingly demonstrates the need for consistency and independent monitoring of places of detention. Western Australia already has an independent inspector, whereas Queensland does not, nor does the Northern Territory, Victoria or South Australia. But these states were not subjects of the report.

The evidence shows that there is a marked difference in the treatment of those in prison when there is an independent mechanism. There is an improvement in the treatment of the prisoners and the complaints are investigated faster.

This report highlights the disgrace of the impact of the abuses that people with disability are suffering in prison, particularly impacting on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. I urge the government to take on the recommendations from this report. I repeat for the government: 'I needed help, instead I was punished.' I urge the government to take on board these reports.

The other thing, for me, that came out of this report when I read it is that we need to be making sure that people with disability don't end up in the justice system. When 50 per cent of the population of prisons have a disability, that sends a massive signal that we are doing something very wrong. The government needs to be taking that on board as well, and making sure that we end this disgrace where people with disability are more likely to end up in prison. I urge the government to take on board these recommendations.


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