Malcolm Baker, a 67 year old Australian prisoner, is being subjected to forced medication and 15 years of solitary confinement, 23 years after being given a natural life sentence. Tracy Brannigan died of drug overdose due to negligence by prison authorities, just three months shy of her possible release. Over 13 years after being found not guilty of manslaughter and malicious damage to property by reason of mental illness, normally subject to a 3 and a half year sentence, Saeed Dezfouli is still being held indefinitely while being forcibly medicated.
Justice Action stands beside each of them, and without such support, these people would be isolated without hope. These situations illustrate the ways in which the justice and mental health systems marginalise and degrade people. It is struggles like these that provide context for the fight for prisoners’ rights.
The prisoner movement traces its history back in Australia to colonisation, when it existed as a penal colony. The slavery and overall degradation of human beings that occurred prompted the rise of the prisoner movement. Justice Action exists as a part of this movement and has fought to target abuses of authority against vulnerable citizens. Justice Action is especially focused on those who are most disadvantaged, such as prisoners and mental health consumers and patients. In addition to its work defending human rights, Justice Action aims to improve the social and mental health of the community and advocate for methods of reducing recidivism.
As an independent non-governmental organisation, Justice Action has the important distinction of being self-funded through the social enterprise Breakout Media Communications, which strengthens its ability to perform its watchdog functions. Our team comes from all walks of life, drawing its lifeblood from prisoners, ex-prisoners, and their families, who bring their concerns about prison to the public sphere. It also relies on the work of students and community members, who provide their passion for social justice and their desire for learning, as well as on lawyers and academics, who lend their skills and expertise. Justice Action believes that meaningful change in Australia’s criminal justice and mental health systems can only be achieved through the free exchange of communications and greater community involvement, with all members of the community taking responsibility.
The organisation works in many ways to effect social change. For example, to end the social exclusion faced by those in prisons and locked hospital, Justice Action launched iExpress in 2013, the world’s first prisoner social media system. iExpress empowers people in prisons and forensic hospitals by reducing the divide that exists with the outside world, and providing a means for social integration prior to release. Free services, such as personal emails and online profiles, provide community intergration. The service also serves as a creative outlet by allowing prisoners to showcase their artwork and musical compositions, which encourages positive communication and expression.
While the rhetoric of rehabilitation is active participation, prison culture conditions people to wait for time to pass and become submissive. In response, Justice Action has advocated for prisons to implement online counselling through computers in cells as a cheaper and more effective therapy. Online counselling is a stable service that is not affected by transfers and can continue to be accessed long after incarceration; building counsellor-patient relationships and promoting psychological health. Voluntary online counselling in cells encourages self-management and active use of cell time which are skills which are important upon release and in preventing recidivism. Justice Action has also produced a research paper on the issue, Computers in Cells, presented at the 15th International Conference on Penal Abolition in Canada. This paper generated widespread interest from authorities both in Australia and abroad, and subsequently helped gather support for a roll-out of this program in Australian and New Zealand prisons and mental health hospitals.
Justice Action has also defended prisoners’ right to storage of their possessions during incarceration, as proper storage is essential to reintegration. The loss identification documents poses obvious practical problems, while the loss of letters, photos, and family heirlooms have less tangible but no less real consequences. Given that prisoners often do not have a home or job to return to and often have lost their connections to the outside world, the storage of belongings has become an important factor in ensuring a high quality of life. Assisting the NSW Prisoners Aid Association, Justice Action advocated for their continued funding as a storage facilities provider, which has allowed them to continue offering services to prisoners. This campaign has been rolled out to other states, territories, and New Zealand in 2015 to ensure the right to storage is respected widely.
Justice Action’s work does not stop at research. It also works on a case-by-case basis to uncover and rectify abuses of authority. After three Supreme Court cases, Justice Action experienced success in the area of mental health, particularly in regards to the issue of forced medication. These issues include defining the role of hospitals, the limitations of tribunals and holding the public accountable. Justice Action presented our publication Mad in Australia at the Ninth National Forum on Reduction and Seclusion and Restraint Forum, voicing the detrimental effects of forced medical intervention.
Justice Action also publishes JUST US, the only newspaper in Australia and New Zealand distributed to people in prisons and hospitals. JUST US is crucial to Justice Action’s continued engagement with the community it serves. Showcasing art, poems, articles and letters from the inside, along with news and information on prisoner and patient rights, JUST US continues to keep our audience informed about their rights and pertinent issues in the criminal justice system. The most recent JUST US publication provides statements from political parties regarding criminal justice issues and reminds people in prisons and hospitals that they have the right to vote in elections, empowering them to be enaged in the community.
Justice Action prepared a questionnaire working in a coalition to examine political parties’ responses to a spectrum of prison-related criminal justice issues prior to the 2015 election, allowing an open dialogue between political parties and the community in bipartisan policy development. Some issues raised include those pertaining to Indigenous Australians, women, juveniles in custody, bail, and education and training in custody. The role of Justice Action is a stance of challenging authorities and the tendency to abuse those they control.
Justice Action works for the rights and welfare of prisoners, mental health patients and their families, expressing the views of the prisoner community. With the support and participation of the wider community, Justice Action’s work will be effective.