Life sentence

The Persecution of the Diagnosed

This is Aboriginal Land. This is Aboriginal Land. Indigenous Cultural Respect, Land Rights & Peace.
*Warning: Medical terms may cause offence! We’re not dissing you. Just talking about the situation.

“Whenever I go to jail, I get put in a strip cell in underwear and injected with Largactil” Ex-prisoner with historical diagnosis of schizophrenia. (Largactil is an old-style heavy-duty anti-psychotic with drastic physical and mental effects, also known as “chemical straitjacket”)

On the “outside” is a social justice emergency damning people with psychiatric, intellectual, neurological and developmental diagnoses and difficulties (PIND D&D) to poverty, homelessness, the removal of rights, institutional abuse and being capsicum sprayed by the police.

Like other oppressed groups, our life is criminalised by the injustice of law.

According to C. Quadrio, of Corrections Health Service(CHS), a mental health diagnosed offender is more likely than other offenders to be arrested, to be remanded to custody rather than be granted bail, to be viewed as dangerous, to spend longer in remand before court process completion, and to spend more time in prison.

People with PIND D&D are on the receiving end of much prejudice and hatred, to the extent that we are shot in police execution exercises - like the recent fatal shooting (that involved 70-100 police and an airplane) on a ‘mildly disturbed’ man in Tumit, NSW. We can be kept up to a week in police cells awaiting access to pre-court hospital assessments. Why are “normals” so scared?

Ideas of normalcy are defined by those with power and control. This relegates others to submission and/or the diagnosis of deviancy and disorder.

Although trans-cultural psychiatry has gone some way in recognising and addressing this, it is still a major problem in a society disrespectful of diversity and ignorant of the multiplicity of norms of cultural belief and expression. Simultaneously those of us with actual difficulties of comprehension, communication and organisation, especially in terms of the legal system, are largely unassisted.

This prejudice is magnified in jail through “in-jail” disciplinary procedures and diagnoses, lack of access to alternatives to traditional psychiatry, lack of language services and lack of culturally appropriate services. This leads to the mass medication of prisoners covering up abuse, and the extensive use of restrictive isolation.

People with PIND D&D are told they are incompetent, but given no leniency in this. Instead we become a non-person with no rights, invalid opinions, and are punished. We are locked up in a reversal of the presumption of innocence.

If you are deemed a “forensic” prisoner held at the “governor’s pleasure” you are subject to indefinite detention and dependent on the political timidities and tabloid media sensitivities of the Minister for Health.

The concept of dangerousness is integral to the containment of people with PIND D&D, but dangerousness is both difficult to predict and considerably over-predicted. Alternative language or communication styles of people with PIND D&D are deemed to be threatening. Perhaps because this reminds people that we are not all identical robots and communication between us is always imperfect. The efforts of people with PIND D&D are often misunderstood, ignored or not reciprocated. Dangerous? In fact we are more at risk of violence in jail than other inmates and 3-4% more likely to be raped (according to CHS).

Prisoners have no real choice in where or who they live with or in whether they transfer out of prison to a forensic hospital, transfer from general jail population to a jail hospital or avoid the whole psych system altogether and just do the time.

“It’s easier to get into a safe cell than to get out.” Correctional Officer, Long Bay.

Informed consent is a right often removed from people with PIND D&D. This truth is stark in jail. As an environment of control, prison is devoid of true consent. The culture of prison is punishment. There is only coercion or outright force. For prisoners, information, visitors, proper health care, preventative health measures (including appropriate food, shelter, clothing, sport, art, education and welfare) are privileges, not rights.

If it is decided that a prisoner is to be transferred to in-jail or out-of-jail hospital, you wait in a safe cell for up to 73 days before placement.

So-called Safe cells, suicide cells, observation cells, strip cells (supposedly designed to prevent suicide)~ they are part of the problem. A prisoner’s tale of the Mum Shirl (may she rest in peace) Unit in Mulawa:

“Imagine yourself locked in a cube of thick Perspex with a series of small air holes in it. The electric light is always on. The camera is always watching you. You are allowed to use the toilet. Sometimes you are allocated a pill. You are not allowed a pillow to cry into, or hug. You are alone. This is 24 hours a day.”

These torture chambers rely on such things as no hanging points to die on. But they ignore why suicides or murderers are looking for hanging points for the victim. It is merely a short term solution to a problem of utter human devastation. These cells are commonly used as punishment. Cell mates tell of prisoners taken away in the night to the cells, hearing the screaming and breaking down at their inability to do anything.

Forced/coerced psychological programming, medication and experimental procedures are standard in jail for people with PIND D&D. This is torturous, counter-productive and sometimes fatal. One prisoner died from injection of Haloperidal:

“His brain melted and he was literally bouncing off cell walls screaming until he collapsed and died”

“Over 95% of women are on prescribed medication at MWCC [a Victorian jail]. The prime cause of overdoses are not illegal drugs, but tastes of illegal drugs in bodies saturated with prescribed medications.” - Amanda George, Women in Corrections Conference Nov 2000

Prisoners are often on multiple medications, eg. Zyprexa tablets and Largactil injections (both anti-psychotics). Prison drugs include anti-psychotics, tranquilisers, anti-epileptics and anti-depressants. Their side effects, complications and the increased risks associated with high doses are well documented if you look beyond the sales pitches of pharmaceutical corporations. They include seizures (which are a big problem for people with multiple disabilities, particularly if they're on multiple medications and under stress), tardive dyskinesia, heart problems, skin disorders, anxiety, depression, hallucinations, paradoxical psychosis, concentration problems, zombiedom, physical slowness and clumsiness, sight deficiency and so on. These drugs are not safe, but prisoners complaining of side-effects or lack of access to alternatives are met with jail discipline reactions.

“Almost nowhere we saw real professional help, especially for the young first offenders. The profit and probably testing-ground for the Pharma industry must be immense.” - excerpt from a prisoner’s letter to Justice Action.

Dual diagnosis (with drug use and PIND D&D) is a common reason to be in jail. But this is the height of hypocrisy. It is ridiculous to be told you are bad to take drugs, we will lock you up in hell and shoot you full of another drug. Why aren't harm minimisation principles applied in full in jail? Why are there jail laws which ensure more risks to prisoners so desperate? Self medication needs to be looked at from the sufferers' perspective. Why on earth is drug use a crime and not a personal and health issue?

Even if they claim innocence, it is demanded of prisoners that they address their “offending behaviour” by undergoing psychological programmes in order to move through the jail system regarding ‘classification’ (a jail judgement determining security standard), jail placement, and access to privileges, parole and work release. Security standards now include the extreme Goulburn High Risk Management Unit -a jail within a maximum security jail - which is based on isolation and deprivation, and which is to contain people with paranoia.

One programme was The Eye Movement Desensitisation and Realignment (EMDR) experiment on women prisoners with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome which focused their minds on their experiences of severe long-term abuse. This brought to the fore memories that they then had to deal with in a cell with no escape. Cell mates tell of nights of tortured women screaming and the hell they were in not being able to help. Some women were put under disciplinary procedures as a result of their reaction to this retraumatisation.

There is a desperate need for survivors of trauma to be shown compassion and assisted in a non-abusive way. It is an abomination that the abuse is continually replicated by the community, police, courts and jail. Survivors of genocides, wars, eugenics policies (eg the Stolen Generations), child abuse(as wards of the state, or in family), domestic violence and institutional abuse are all retraumatised by jail, which is an inherently abusive, non-rehabilitative environment that creates and exacerbates psychiatric problems. This is torture.

We must end these cycles of abuse now. We need a humane and compassionate society. We need to stop the wars we are creating. We must rescind laws against Social Justice. We need an end to discrimination against people with PIND D&D. We need an end to discrimination against people who are ex-prisoners. Everyone’s wisdom and their experience and opinions on their treatment should be respected. We need to end the use of jail as public housing. We need to create alternatives to abusive institutions, such as the successful “Berlin Runaway House”, and provide access to properly funded social support services. Everyone should have adequate and appropriate food, water, shelter and clothing.

Further reading and Information Sources:
Mental and Legal Issues leaflet; Justice Action; 2001
The Palimpsest Kaleidoscope: A Justice Action review of justice and dignity, well-being and disability, surrounding and within Prison; Justice Action; 2001 (this includes references to major papers on prison and PIND D&D, so you can look them up)

Request via Justice Action ph (02) 9281 5100 PO Box 386, BROADWAY NSW 2007

On the web:
(off the cuff, a non-exhaustive list)
Runaway House

Lemon Tree Learning Project

Deaths In Custody W.A.

schizophrenia stuff

The Great Social Security Conspiracy Case (which led to the establishment of the Welfare Rights Centre)

Support Coalition International

Penal Lexicon Homepage

Mental Health Advocacy Service (legal aid)

Epilepsy stuff with links to neurological info and drug indexes

Info on autistic spectrum disorders & some beautiful writing

www.atmhn.unimelb.edu.au Australian Transcultural Mental Health Network

www.healthinfonet.ecu.edu.au/ Australian Indigenous Health Infonet

Info & links on forensic psychiatry Also check the ABC and SBS websites for their program transcripts (such as “No Safe Place” 4 corners).

On Paper: Check the State & Mitchell Libraries next door to NSW Parliament, or ask through local library interlibrary loan service. Many important reports are now out of print, eg HREOC’s Burdekin Report. Libraries also hold important info such as the MIMS Annual & Supplements drug lists.

If you have someone in jail: You can ring the CHS mental health number Ph. 1800 222 475 (If in Juvenile Justice ring their case manager).

You can request the Official Visitor to visit a prisoner if you believe that their concerns are not heard or they are being maltreated.

You can contact Justice Action and/or other prisoner support groups.

Written for the Stop the Women's Jail Campaign Anti-Prisons Resource Kit Published June 2001
by Justice Action  (02) 9660-9111


  • get involved2
  • donate
  • breakout-logo2



Justice Action
Trades Hall, Level 2, Suite 204
4 Goulburn Street
Sydney NSW 2000, Australia

T 02 9283 0123
F 02 9283 0112
E ja@justiceaction.org.au
© 2020 Breakout Media Communications
breakout-logo  womens justice network icon logo-community