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Prisoners with Disability Subject to Harrowing Abuse, Report Finds

7 February 2018 at 4:19 pm
Luke Michael
People with disability in Australian prisons are subject to harrowing sexual and physical abuse, are disproportionately held in solitary confinement and face a severe lack of access to services, a new report has found.

Luke Michael | 7 February 2018 at 4:19 pm


Prisoners with Disability Subject to Harrowing Abuse, Report Finds
7 February 2018 at 4:19 pm

People with disability in Australian prisons are subject to harrowing sexual and physical abuse, are disproportionately held in solitary confinement and face a severe lack of access to services, a new report has found.

Human Rights Watch investigated 14 prisons in Queensland and Western Australia, revealing systemic abuse and neglect of prisoners with disabilities, particularly for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

HRW interviewed 275 people for the report, including 136 current or recently released prisoners with disabilities, and a range of other stakeholders like prison staff, health and mental health professionals, family members and government officials.

The report found that prisoners with disabilities with high support needs were being abused by their “prison-carers” – other prisoners paid by authorities to look after them.

One staff member told HRW that six out of eight carers at their prison were convicted sex offenders, one of whom had regularly raped the prisoner with disability they cared for.

This staff member – a senior nurse in Queensland – said she thought such abuse occurred quite frequently due to a lack of supervision.

“At the end of the day at six o’clock, the prisoners are locked in here [all night] with their carers,” she told HRW.

HRW documented 41 cases of physical violence perpetrated by fellow prisoners or staff, and one male prisoner with a psychosocial disability said he was beaten by four officers in his detention unit to “teach [him] a lesson”.

“The senior officer stood on my jaw while the other hit my head in and restrained me. They said, ‘You don’t run this prison little c***, we do,’ and they cut my clothes off,” he said.

“They left me naked on the floor of the exercise yard for a couple of hours before giving me fresh clothes.”

The report found most prisoners with disabilities that were interviewed had spent time in solitary confinement for 22 hours or more a day, including one man who spent more than 19 years in solitary confinement in a maximum security unit.

Kriti Sharma, a disability rights researcher at HRW and the author of the report, said the use of solitary confinement was “common practice” for prisoners with disability.

“Hauling people into the detention unit or safety unit has become common practice for prisoners with mental health conditions,” Sharma said.

“Without proper training and alternatives, staff often feel they have no option but to lock them up in solitary confinement.

“Australian officials should immediately set up inquiries into the use of solitary confinement of prisoners with disabilities, with a view to ending this dehumanizing practice.”

The report also found prisons were failing to adequately identify people with disabilities and were ill-equipped to meet their needs due to a lack of adequate services.

In nine out of 14 prisons investigated, prisoners with physical disabilities had to either wait for bathroom access, or face having to shower, urinate, or defecate in “humiliating conditions”.

“I can’t get my chair in. I have to pee in a bottle,” one prisoner said.

Another prisoner said he had to wear a nappy every day.

“I don’t feel like a man; I feel like my dignity is taken away,” he said.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners with disability faced added discrimination, with HRW finding evidence of racism in 11 out of 14 prisons.

“Persistent institutional racism and discrimination further marginalises Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders with a disability in prison. In some cases, Human Rights Watch found they did not feel comfortable seeking services because they faced racist stereotypes,” the report said.

People with disabilities are dramatically overrepresented in Australian prisons, making up 18 per cent of the country’s population but almost 50 per cent of those in prison.

Meanwhile Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people comprise just 2 per cent of the national population, but make up 28 per cent of Australia’s full-time adult prison population.

And Indigenous people with disability are even more likely to end up incarcerated than Indigenous people without a disability.

The report contained a number of recommendations to remedy these abuses, including conducting a national inquiry into the use of solitary confinement of prisoners with disabilities, systematically screening prisoners for all types of disabilities upon entry into prison and ensuring prisoners with a disability have adequate access to support and mental health services.

People with Disability Australia (PWDA) assisted HRW with various parts of this research, and PWDA’s co-chief executive officer Therese Sands, told Pro Bono News the evidence uncovered was “alarming and disturbing”.

“What’s probably also important to note is that this isn’t surprising. What we have now though with this report, is documentation of practises that we know occur which we have had difficulty in being able to really identify or record beyond anecdotal information,” Sands said.

“So this information is really important in putting on the table what we know are serious human rights violations that occur for prisoners with disability.

“The conversations that HRW had with prisoners with disability all illustrate that we have a systemic crisis and that this is an issue that needs to be urgently addressed, particularly for the higher rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people with disability in Australian prisons.”

In wake of the report, the Australian Greens have called for a royal commission into abuse, violence and neglect of people with disability in institutional settings.

“We already know that many people with disability are wrongfully detained in our prison system so to hear about this utterly harrowing abuse and neglect highlights the need for a royal commission and for reform,” Greens Senator Rachel Siewert said.

“This is despicable and not a standard we would accept out in the community, and it has culminated in rape and sexual abuse of vulnerable people. It is time for the government to urgently address this issue.

Sands said PWDA “absolutely supported” the creation of a royal commission into this abuse.

“We’re been calling for a royal commission for a number of years now, it was also the key recommendation from a Senate inquiry into the violence and abuse in institutional settings for people with disability,” she said.

“We need to be able to interrogate what is happening in prisons but also in a range of institutional environments for people with disability, so that we can have full judicial weight behind an inquiry and have people with disability tell their stories and have some measure of justice.”

In response to the report, The Department of Corrective Services (DCS) in Western Australia admitted data relating to prisoners with a mental health disability was “not readily available”, but said they were developing draft standards to make prisons more accessible for those with disability.

“For all new prisons, the department is developing draft standards… for planning and construction of new facilities,” DCS said.

“[These would] ensure that reasonably achievable, equitable, and cost-effective access to buildings, and facilities and services within buildings, is provided for people with disabilities.”

Meanwhile Queensland Corrective Services (QCS) commissioner Peter Martin, said QCS was implementing recommendations from Queensland Parole System Review Report and developing a 10 year strategic plan, which they anticipated would capture “many of the concerns” raised in the report.   

“QCS is dedicated to providing safe, secure and humane management of prisoners in correctional centres. QCS is also committed to ensuring equal opportunities for prisoners with disabilities,” Martin said.  

Luke Michael  |  Journalist  |  @luke_michael96

Luke Michael is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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