According to a report published by the Human Rights Watch, Australia’s sexual mistreatment of disabled prisoners continues to run unchecked.
Trigger warning: This article discusses instances of rape and sexual abuses. For anyone who has experienced sexual assault or feels at risk, please reach out to Respect.gov.au
“It was a few guys…. 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 superintendents, I filled out the medical request form. 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…. Someone came up behind me and stabbed me in the eye with a pen. They beat me up, stomped on me. Called me a dog [traitor]”
While people with psychological and cognitive disabilities account for 18% of the Australian population, they harrowingly make up 50% of our prison population. Furthermore, although Indigenous Australians make up 2% of our society, as of June 2017 they represent 28% of Australian adult inmates. This figure is expected to rise to 50% by 2020 according to the latest report by Human Rights Watch: Abuse and Neglect of Prisoners with Disabilities in Australia.
According to the report, the problems in diagnosing mental illness in children, indefinite detention, solitary confinement and a lack of access to support services are the factors behind this overrepresentation of disabled people in our jail system. So much so that disabled Aboriginals are more likely to be permanently incarcerated than obtain a university degree, even though the majority of their crimes are summary ‘less serious’ offences such as theft, traffic and public order offences.
Since Don Dale and the leaked footage a mistreated mentally ill woman last year, cries for Australia to address allegations of violence and (sexual) abuse in our prison systems have finally come to the fore.
Under the Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Australia has an international obligation to ensure non-discrimination, security, reasonable accommodation and freedom from violence, exploitation & abuse for all incarcerated disabled persons. However, the HRW Report reveals that of the 136 prisoners interviewed, 41 reported to be experiencing physical violence and 32 described being sexually assaulted by staff and prisoners alike – including carers.
One indigenous male prisoner with a psychosocial disability said in the report: “…four officers tackled me. I had played up the day before so they were trying to teach me 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. They left me naked on the floor of the exercise yard for a couple of hours before giving me fresh clothes. They probably did it to humiliate me. Officers call me ‘black c – ’ heaps of times, it’s normal.”
Facing violence from staff members perpetuates a cycle of distrust and hatred between staff and prisoners – creating a toxic environment which promotes mental illness rather than treating it. One disabled woman shared her experience:
“[We] get hit on sexually by officers quite regularly (…)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.”
Corrupt carers & lack of adequate staff
Per the ABC, many prison officers appoint other inmates as carers for disabled prisoners. These positions are apparently highly sought after as they lessen prison staff’s burden. However, a lack of background checks makes this model an easy-accessed hunting ground for sexual predators. Ms Sharma, a nurse in Queensland, told the HRW that “six of the eight current prisoner-carers in their facility are convicted sex offenders.”
“During a random cell search, officers found blood and faeces on [a disabled prisoner’s] bedsheets. Only then he disclosed he was raped [in custody] on numerous occasions [by his carer]— before that he was too scared.”
Solitary confinement aggravating mental illness
Ms Sharma went on to report about the devastating impact of solitary confinement units. Also known as “observation units”, prisoners at risk of violence, troubled with anxiety & depression, and those with behavioural issues are frequently locked in these small cells for 22 hours a day.
“It pushes them to self-harm, even more, often resulting in increased risk of suicide…they don’t receive any meaningful mental health support, which is extremely disturbing.”
The HRW calls on both State and Territory Governments to implement the systematic screening of all inmates, ensuring that their special needs are met so their confinement is humane. Independent regular reviews and the end of solitary confinement is also encouraged.
The group also recommends increasing access to community-based disability resources through promotion and sufficient funding – providing criminal justice diversionary programs. Likewise, prison officers and staff should receive additional gender, disability & cultural sensitivity training.
It’s safe to say we can expect to hear word of a National Inquiry into solitary confinement & incarcerated people with disabilities sometime this year.