Australia

Western Australia's jails are 'damaging' for prisoners with disabilities, Human Rights Watch says

Human Rights Watch has found evidence of neglect and abuse of Australian prisoners with a disability. Source: Supplied

Sixty per cent of prisoners that died in Western Australian prisons in the past decade had a disability, according to a new report.

Prisoners with disabilities are dying in Western Australian jails due to a failure to properly diagnose and treat their conditions, according to a new report.

The report by Human Rights Watch found that between 2010 and 2020, 60 per cent of people who died in prisons in Western Australia had a disability.

“WA prisons are proving to be damaging and deadly for prisoners with mental health conditions, especially Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders,” Human Rights Watch disability rights division senior research and report author Kriti Sharma says.

“There is a failure to assess them, they are easy targets for other prisoners to be bullied and as a result often resort to self-harm.”

The report, titled ‘He’s Never Coming Back’: People with Disabilities Dying in Western Australia’s Prisons', reviewed 102 deaths in custody in WA over the last 10 years.

“Of the 60 per cent (that died with a disability), 58 per cent died as a result of lack of support provided by the prison, suicide, and violence—and half of these deaths were of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners with disabilities,” Ms Sharma says.

The report’s definition of a disability is based on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which recognises mental health conditions such as depression, bipolar, schizophrenia, and catatonia.

The report identified a number of issues around the identification and management of prisoners with disabilities, including a lack of proper assessment and the use of punitive measures such as solitary confinement.

“In Western Australia’s prisons, disability identification relies heavily on self-reporting, which is inadequate since many prisoners are not aware of their disability,” the report says.

“Human Rights Watch found that Department of Corrective Services staff have not had the time, training, or tools to effectively identify people with disabilities and their support needs upon their entry into prison.”

The report’s lead author says the use of crisis care units often amounts to solitary confinement.

“I have walked into these cells across WA, it is a very sterile environment. Prisoners are given a suicide smock, like a dress. They are given finger food, not given cutlery to eat. There’s no human contact and they’re kept there 22 hours per day,” Ms Sharma said. 

“For someone that is distressed, that puts them over the edge. Services are so inadequate they are exacerbating the psychological distress for prisoners, and in some cases resulting in deaths in custody.”

The report also found a shortage of beds in specialised forensic facilities, which are used when a prisoner experiences severe psychological distress.

In Western Australia, there is just one 38-bed forensic facility at the Frankland Centre at Graylands Hospital, despite more than 7,000 prisoners across the state.

Jacinta Miller and Karen Blanket
Jacinta Miller, inset, is grieving for her brother, while Karen Blanket lost her son last year.
Aaron Fernandes, SBS News

This report examined eight cases of people with disabilities who died in custody in Western Australia between 2015 and 2020, six of whom were Indigenous.

“We have high levels of mental health distress in the Aboriginal community, as  a result of trauma, colonisation and systemic discrimination,” United Nations’ Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues member Dr. Hannah McGlade said.

“We have the highest level of indigenous incarceration in the world, and we’re talking about vulnerable people with disability too.”

In July, SBS News reported on two deaths by suicide of Aboriginal prisoners in just over a year at a privately run prison in Western Australia.

In both cases, the families had contacted staff at Acacia prison after becoming concerned about their relatives’ mental health.

“The physical warning signs were there. When they brought him to the hospital, he had cuts on his arm. They were aware that he wasn’t coping because you could see it, the physical signs were there,” Jacinta Miller said, after her 19-year-old brother Stanley died in custody.

“It's just something I can’t get my head around; they had a duty of care to him, he was a human, he was a human being.”

Responding to the HRW report, WA Commissioner for Corrective Services Tony Hassall said a broad range of mental health services and programs were being delivered in WA prisons.

“There are about 800 prisoners with a priority-rated major mental illness, a cohort which includes some of the State’s most vulnerable, dangerous and high-risk individuals,” Commissioner Hassall said in a statement provided to SBS News.

“Significant resources and staff are devoted to the mental health and wellbeing of prisoners and major reforms are underway to enhance prevention and treatment across the custodial estate.”

The Commissioner outlined several initiatives undertaken to strengthen mental health services in prisons, with care and support being provided by psychiatrists, psychologists, mental health nurses and Aboriginal mental health workers.

An Aboriginal Elders program and peer support program are widely used across prisons to provide cultural and emotional support.

Prisons are also equipped with specialised management units for at-risk prisoners, including hourly observations and 24-hour CCTV monitoring and an extra 50 full-time equivalent positions dedicated to Mental Health, Alcohol and Other Drugs (MHAOD) services have been added over the past three years.

The Commissioner also defended the use of solitary confinement units.

“Separate confinement is a management tool for the good order and security of a prison, as well as the safety of an individual prisoner, that is tightly controlled and done in accordance with legislation,” Commissioner Hassall said.

In August, the WA Corrective Services minister Fran Logan announced a suicide prevention taskforce would be set up to examine the management of at-risk prisoners, following three suicide deaths by prisoners in just over two months.

The WA Department of Justice was instructed to establish the unit, which will review existing management policies and the level of suicide prevention training given to staff. 

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