Adjournment speech to Legislative Council

5 June 2008
NSW Legislative Council


Ms SYLVIA HALE [5.07 p.m.]: The Greens call upon the Minister for Justice to reverse the new arrangements at Long Bay prison hospital under which patients are locked in their cells from 3.30 p.m. until 8.30 the following morning. In effect, they are being held in solitary confinement in bare cells that lack even a television set for 17 hours every day. Until 2 April this year, the evening lock-up time was 9.00 p.m. The 53 prisoners subjected to this new regime suffer from severe mental illness. Their suffering will now be worse. Psychiatrists Professor Paul Mullen, Clinical Director of Forensicare, Victoria's peak government forensic mental health authority, in an email to Justice Action, which has been campaigning strongly on the issue, outlined the impact on mentally ill people of placing them in seclusion for long periods. Professor Mullen said:
The placing of mentally disordered individuals in effective isolation for a large part of the day is likely to be even more potentially distressing and disturbing than it would be to the general prison population.

In people with serious mental illness an important element in coping with their active psychotic symptoms is the interaction both with mental health staff and with other custodial staff and fellow prisoners. Left to themselves, the delusions and the hallucinatory experiences become the sole way in which they understand and experience the world. They lose both the reality checks provided by everyday social interactions and the opportunity to obtain some kind of therapeutic assistance through interactions with trained professionals. The effect of this over any lengthy period is to potentially drive them further and further into their psychotic state.

His disquiet is shared by another forensic psychiatrist, Dr Bruce Westmore.

A letter from a patient in Long Bay Prison Hospital to the Minister described the new regime as "maddening, un-therapeutic, destructive, oppressive, savage, barbaric, depressing and frustrating".

But prisoners and psychiatrists are not the only ones to speak out. Alison Peters, the Director of the New South Wales Council of Social Services wrote to the Attorney General and Justice Minister Hatzistergos on 16 May 2008:

NCOSS believes these changes are in breach of New South Wales and International standards for the treatment of people with a mental illness, including the Charter for Mental Health Care in New South Wales

The New South Wales Council of Social Services' fears are shared by the New South Wales Nurses' Association. The General Secretary, Brett Holmes, in a letter to Minister Hatzistergos, reiterated the association's "opposition to the practice of locking down of 'secluding' mentally ill inmates/patients", which they described as "a cost cutting exercise that imposes such deleterious consequences on the physical and mental health of people in your custody". The policy was "completely unacceptable" and deprived patients "of a basic standard of humane care". The Association's letter noted that "locking and isolating mentally ill patients in a room for such extended periods is in direct conflict with the Department of Health policy on seclusion".

The Aboriginal Justice Advisory Council supported the association's position. It cited Recommendation 150 of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, and Principles 1.1, 8.1, 9.1 and 20 of the United Nations Principles for the Protection of Persons with Mental Illness, as well as Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which provides that "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment". The Aboriginal Justice Advisory Council contended:
…increased lockdown periods may be tantamount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Confining vulnerable or ill individuals in their cells from 3.30 p.m. especially during the warmer months, as well as depriving them of health care, is harsh and additional punishment to the sentence imposed.

Has the change come about because the Premier, the Minister and the Department of Corrective Services are callously indifferent to the welfare of prisoners under their control? Undoubtedly when thumping the law and order drum and trumpeting ever-harsher sentencing regimes, the Government is shameless when it comes to ignoring the rights and needs of vulnerable prisoners.

But there is more to this than sheer callous indifference. What we are witnessing is a simple cost-cutting measure. Under a policy ironically named "Way Forward", 28 prison officers have been removed from the Long Bay prison hospital area. Clearly, if one wants deliberately to understaff a facility, the easiest to go about it is to lock up prisoners in solitary confinement for hours on end, regardless of the effect on their already deeply damaged mental health.

The policy of locking mentally ill prisoners in their cells at 4.00 p.m. rather than 9.00 p.m., as was customary, came into effect on 2 April 2008. It is clearly the intention of Corrective Services that it continue for six months, until October, when a new forensic facility is completed at Long Bay. That is bad enough, but there is a deep unease shared by many that the real intention is for the change to be permanent. It is intolerable that anyone should countenance the existence, let alone the continuation, of this draconian and inhumane regime. The Greens call upon the Minister to end it immediately.


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