People with disabilities in Australia’s prison system are routinely kept in solitary confinement for up to 22 hours a day and are at serious risk of sexual and physical violence, according to an explosive report by Human Rights Watch that’s making political waves.
The report, titled “‘I Needed Help, Instead I Was Punished’: Abuse and Neglect of Prisoners With Disabilities in Australia,” calls for an urgent inquiry into the use of solitary confinement for disabled prisoners. The report says that one man with a psychosocial disability had been in solitary confinement in a maximum security unit for 19 years.
“People with disabilities, particularly psychosocial or cognitive disabilities, are dramatically overrepresented in the criminal justice system in Australia ― 18 percent of the country’s population, but almost 50 percent of people entering prison,” Human Rights Watch said in the report.
“However, prisons fail to adequately identify people with disabilities and are ill-equipped to meet their needs, often lacking the most basic services.”
Sen. Rachel Siewert of the Greens party called for swift action: “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.”
HRW interviewed 275 people, including prison staff, medical professionals and 136 current or recent prisoners, from 14 facilities in the states of Queensland and Western Australia. It found that in most of the prisons, toilet facilities were not adequate for people with physical disabilities, who often had to wait long stretches for help to use a bathroom or take a shower.
“I can’t get my chair in. I have to pee in a bottle,” one man said.
“I have to wear a nappy every day. I don’t feel like a man; I feel like my dignity is taken away,” said another.
Of the 136 former or current prisoners interviewed, 41 said they had suffered physical violence. Thirty-two reported sexual violence at the hands of fellow inmates or prison staff. HRW reported the case of one man with a disability who was raped “on numerous occasions” by another prisoner who was meant to be his ‘prison carer,’ an inmate paid by the facility to help look after people with disabilities.
“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, including bullying and harassment, and verbal, physical, and sexual violence,” the report said.
“It is terrifying,” Siewert said, “to hear that prisoners were appointed to look after other inmates with high support needs and that in one prison six out of eight ‘carers’ were convicted sex offenders. 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.”
One man with a psychosocial disability, who was raped in prison and spent significant time in solitary confinement, said he contemplated suicide.
“I feel hopeless; life isn’t worth living and I’d be happier if I was dead. It has led me to self-harm; the physical pain doesn’t hurt as much as the emotional pain,” he said. “My self-harm increased after the rape. I put razor blades and glass in my penis. I wouldn’t do this if I had activities and therapeutic interventions.”
Another man, who has a cognitive disability, said he was raped, then threatened by guards when he tried to report his rape. He was then punished by fellow prisoners for attempting to report the incident.
“I was sexually assaulted [by other prisoners]…. I know at least one of them raped me, but I kind of blacked out. I was bleeding, I still bleed sometimes. I reported it the same day to two of the supers [superintendents], I filled out the medical request form,” the prisoner said.
“They told me if I report it, I would go to the DU [detention unit] for six months. So I ripped up the form in front of them. Then, when I went back to the unit, I got bashed up by some of the guys, not the ones who assaulted me…. They beat me up, stomped on me. Called me a dog [traitor].”
The HRW report included multiple reports of disabled inmates being subjected to long periods of solitary confinement. HRW said one prisoner with a psychosocial disability, named in the report only as Mary, spent 28 days in solitary confinement and was abused by prison staff during that time.
“After a week, when she was granted access to daily exercise, she was placed in handcuffs connected to a body belt that restricted her movement. During exercise time, correctional officers mocked her, whistled at her like a dog, and told her to crawl on her hands and knees. During her time in solitary confinement, Mary did not have access to a toilet and was forced to use cardboard urine test containers,” HRW said.
HRW called on state and territory governments ― which are responsible for the prisons ― to immediately end the use of solitary confinement as punishment for prisoners with disabilities and to provide “reasonable accommodations” for disabilities and adequate access to support and mental health services.
Queensland Corrective Services Commissioner Peter Martin told the Courier Mail newspaper that “multiple” investigations were underway into the state’s prison system following the cases cited by HRW. “It’s a taking of some extreme examples ... but in no way do I believe they are endemic of the state of prisons in Queensland.”
Western Australia’s independent Inspector of Prisons, Neil Morgan, told The Australian newspaper that his state too would investigate the claims. “But the most fundamental issue is inadequate screening of prisoners for disability, and a lack of records.”
On a national level, HRW called on the federal government to launch an inquiry into the use of solitary confinement, as well as commissioning studies to map the number of disabled prisoners in Australia’s prison system.
Sen. Jordon Steele-John, also of the Greens party, the third-largest in Parliament, called Wednesday for a royal commission, a parliamentary investigative body, to be established to report on the prison system.
“How many cases of systemic abuse, violence and neglect do we have to hear before the government commits to a royal commission into this issue?”he said. “These abuses are occurring in a pervasive manner across the country as we speak. This government’s refusal to act means that so many people with disability in institutional settings continue to experience abuses.”