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Disability RC hears how criminal justice system fails people with disabilities

  • 02 March 2021
  Content warning: Descriptions of abuse 'Melanie at that stage was dressed in a safety smock. She had a big lump on her forehead. There was blood on her forehead, which seemed like fresh blood. There was dried blood down the front of her smock. And her room was bare. There was sort of sofa without a back or ottoman that was long, perhaps a little bit longer than this table, maybe a little more narrow, that was covered in a brown vinyl.

'The thing that stood out to me the most about that room is that Melanie had graffitied the room with her own blood. The smell of dried blood mixed with body odour and the sight of that graffiti is something that will be with me until the day that I die.'

This sounds as though it could come from a description of Bedlam, the notorious 18th century English dumping ground for people with mental illness. In fact, it is an extract from testimony given last week to the Royal Commission into Violence, Neglect and Exploitation of People with a Disability.

Hearing 11 of the Commission has looked at how Australia’s justice system treats people with disabilities. Melanie, not her real name, is a First Nations woman with multiple disabilities and a history of being abused who was held for over 20 years in NSW facilities. Nearly seven of these were in 23-hour ‘seclusion’ (a euphemism for solitary confinement) and the account above comes from a solicitor who visited her there. (Patients were expected to clean their own cells — and she was denied access to cleaning materials). If she had served maximum prison terms for the offences which brought her to court, she would have been out in under ten years.

Melanie said in her statement to the Commission, ‘I'm a strong proud black Aboriginal woman that is here before you today to come and get help where I need it and fight for my rights… it was inhumane to keep someone locked up for that long.’

Another man, ‘A’, who has a rare chromosomal formation resulting in intellectual disability, has been ‘secluded’ for over six years, with police dogs used as a means of behaviour control.

Understandably, no-one called to the Commission so far seems to have argued that ‘seclusion’ has any therapeutic value. Nevertheless, it seems to be in widespread use — often formalised and normalised as a therapeutic intervention. Predictably, it has