Prisons 21st Century asylums

Forum participants: Justen Thomas, Paul Ramcharan, Deborah Glass, Colleen Pearce and Rob Hulls.

Victorian prisons have become 21st Century asylums, according to the Director of the Centre for Innovative Justice, and former Attorney-General, Rob Hulls.

Mr Hulls was speaking at a forum on disability and justice hosted by the Office of the Public Advocate (OPA) and the Future Social Service Institute (FSSI), which heard that Victorians with a mental illness or other disability were vastly over represented in the justice system.

Public Advocate Colleen Pearce told the audience that 40 per cent of Victorian prisoners have a mental health condition. Additionally, 3 per cent of prisoners have a registered intellectual disability compared to 1 per cent in the community, and rates of Acquired Brain Injury are up to 20 times higher. This, amongst other evidence, called into question the fairness and effectiveness of the Australian justice system.

Mr Hulls said the entire community needed to take responsibility for preventing politicians from spiralling into increasingly tougher stances on crime.

‘We are warehousing people with mental health issues, with acquired brain injury issues, with alcohol and drug and other issues in our prisons and it’s just not working, it’s not making us safer as a community…if we keep going down this path we are going to be spending more on prison beds than hospital beds or classrooms,’ Mr Hulls said.

‘Is that what we want as a community?  Or do we want to reinvest that money and put wrap around services around these people so we don’t have to continue to build more prisons?

‘Justice reinvestment’, Mr Hulls said, is more effective, more ethical, and more economic.

Justen Thomas, who has lived experience of being imprisoned as a child, teen, and adult with a disability, explained how important it was that others listened to people with disabilities and put their stories in the public domain, a theme repeated by other panellists. It was vital to have support services in place to avoid people with a disability reoffending, Mr Thomas said.

‘You should be able to talk to someone one-on-one about your goals on your release,’ he said. ‘You need someone to show they care.’

Ombudsman Ms Deborah Glass OBE, detailed the distressing story of ‘Rebecca’, who had a developmental disorder, and was kept imprisoned in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day over an 18-month period, after being found to be unfit to face court – on charges that were unlikely to have led to a custodial sentence. (Download the report here.)

‘There was nowhere else for her to go,’ Ms Glass said. Rebecca’s case highlighted the need for secure, therapeutic facilities for women with similar issues, she said.

Acting Director of FSSI, Paul Ramcharan said the forum on the barriers to justice faced by people with a disability was the second in a series of collaborative events held by the Future Social Service Institute with the Office of the Public Advocate, whose values of rights, respect, social justice and justice aligned with those of the institute.

This forum was not just about information, Colleen Pearce said. It was about everyone taking responsibility to tell stories of injustice, to listen to the voice of people with a disability and mental illness, to make the economic case for justice and, subsequent to the event, to take action to achieve justice for people with disabilities in Victoria.