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Disability RC hears how criminal justice system fails people with disabilities

 

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.

Main image: Statue of blindfolded Lady Justice holding scales and a sword (William Cho/Pixabay)

'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 not enhanced the prospects of release of those subjected to it.

 

'While these hearings still have some way to go, the overall picture emerging — as in the ten previous sets of hearings — is a bleak one.'

 

As the Commission has heard, their cases are not unique.

The intersection between disability and the criminal justice system is, unfortunately, not a happy one. As Counsel assisting informed the Commission in her opening address, people with a cognitive disability form some two per cent of the population in Western Australia. They form more than half of those committed to local courts on criminal charges there.

In Australia, too, poverty, homelessness, abuse and First Nations background all serve as risk factors for the treatment of people with a disability by the justice system. Too often, as witnesses put it, people would ‘cycle’ between prison and homelessness, with offences such as trespassing (due to the lack of a home) being used to send them back to prison.

Where there have been success stories, these usually seem to result from people being given access to specialist assistance programmes at an early stage of their contact with the legal system — allowing for specialist assistance and options for rehabilitation and community support. The Commission’s counsel has heaped particular praise on the Cognitive Impairment Diversion Programme, run by the Intellectual Disability Rights Service in NSW. Funding for this programme was ended last year and funding for its successor, the Justice Advice Service, will be terminated in June.

Another feature which has emerged from the hearings has been the uneasy relationship between the public and private sector. Given that the NDIS is run through private sector providers, the question of coordination with the justice system has arisen — Counsel to the Commission has spoken of people being ‘shuffled between’ the states and the NDIS and at least one witness has spoken of the difficulties of coordinating with private providers who operate on their own systems and measures of disability. Presumably, the NDIA (which is responsible for administering the scheme) will be given the opportunity to address the Commission at a later date.

While these hearings still have some way to go, the overall picture emerging — as in the ten previous sets of hearings — is a bleak one. It would seem that, in Australia, the situation has not changed since the 2015 Parliamentary report which described the abuse of disabled people in Australia as ‘widespread’ and, in institutional settings, ‘epidemic’. The Royal Commission has asked for an extension of its life until 2023. It is fair to say that, however long it lasts, its reports will not be comfortable reading.

 

 

Justin GlynFr Justin Glyn SJ has a licentiate in canon law from St Paul University in Ottawa. Before entering the Society he practised law in South Africa and New Zealand and has a PhD in administrative and international law.

Main image: Statue of blindfolded Lady Justice holding scales and a sword (William Cho/Pixabay)

Topic tags: Justin Glyn, disability, ableism, disability RC, criminal justice

 

 

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