Young unidentifiable teenage boy holding hes head at the correctional institute in black and white, conceptual image of juvenile delinquency, focus on the wired fence. Young unidentifiable teenage boy holding hes head at the correctional institute in black and white, conceptual image of juvenile delinquency, focus on the wired fence.

People with disability suffer cruelty and maltreatment in detention: report

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Ben Knight
Ben Knight,

The extent of neglect and abuse suffered by people with disabilities in prison and custody systems in Australia has been revealed.

People with disability are subjected to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in incarceration. Those are the findings of a new report led by researchers from UNSW Sydney, which unveils the systemic and ongoing maltreatment and harm that occurs when people with disability are detained in Australia.

Vulnerable people are held in solitary confinement, are detained indefinitely, have their medications withheld, suffer physical and sexual assault, and are regularly humiliated, the report finds. It also uncovered the demeaning and dehumanising practices that people with disability regularly experience in places of detention, including being strip searched and having to beg for sanitary products.

“I’m aware of disabled children put into solitary confinement and people with intellectual disability strapped into restraint chairs and injected with tranquillisers,” says Mr Patrick McGee, Churchill Fellow and Coordinator Australians for Disability and Justice, who is the first author of the report. “They are scared, they are fearful, there is no one to tell them what is happening or when it might end.”

Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment of People with Disability in Places of Detention shines a light on the lived experience of people with disability in institutional detention settings. It details the findings of a National Forum attended in 2023 by academics, researchers, and advocates to produce a blueprint for state and territory governments to safeguard people with disabilities in detention and protect them from institutional ill-treatment and abuse.

“Australia regularly detains young people and adults with disability every year,” says Dr Maree Higgins, Senior Lecturer at the School of Social Sciences at UNSW Arts, Design & Architecture, and co-author of the report. “Some are held indefinitely; others cycle in and out of prisons and other places of detention.

“Many are subjected to traumatic, cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.”

Media enquiries

For enquiries about this story and interview requests, please contact Ben Knight, News & Content Coordinator, UNSW Arts, Design & Architecture.

Phone: (02) 9065 4915

People with disability are dramatically overrepresented in detention. Photo: Adobe Stock.

“Most Australians would be horrified to know the extent of the treatment meted out to vulnerable people in our detention centres,” says UNSW Professor Emerita Eileen Baldry AO, a co-author of the report. 

The report was launched last week by Commonwealth Ombudsman, Mr Iain Anderson

“Reports such as this are crucial for effective monitoring of detention environments. They help inform the work of oversight bodies such as my Office, what issues require closer scrutiny, and how monitoring could be done better,” Mr Anderson says.

Cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment

People with disability, particularly those with cognitive impairment and psychosocial disability, are dramatically overrepresented in detention. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, almost 39 per cent of people entering prison have a disability. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disabilities also represent 32 per cent of the prison population.

Ms Taylor Budin, an Indigenous person with a disability and justice advocate with the Intellectual Disability Rights Service, has experienced humiliating treatment first-hand while in detention.

“It’s just not safe for people with disability in detention,” Ms Budin says. “I was vulnerable to both degrading treatment from the prison’s guards who treated me like a dog, but I was also humiliated and hurt by other prisoners.”

Mr Phillip Jenkins, a disability and justice advocate, is also a person with a disability who has lived experience of detention. 

“I soon learnt that I was a problem for wanting my health needs met,” Mr Jenkins says. “This treatment leaves you without dignity, it exacerbates your vulnerability, and blatantly ignores your fundamental human rights.”

Most Australians would be horrified to know the extent of the treatment meted out to vulnerable people in our detention centres.
Emeritus Professor Eileen Baldry

Australian governments are signatories to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability and have obligations to ensure that people with disability are not deprived of freedoms. In October 2022, the delegation of the United Nations Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture (UN SPT) terminated their visit to Australia, citing a lack of cooperation from the authorities detaining people with disability. 

Prolonged detention contributes to and exacerbates mental health problems. Many people in detention have traumatic pasts and poor care makes things worse.

“There is a lack of basic services, high risk of verbal abuse, physical and sexual violence, and a lack of cultural safety,” Mr McGee says. “People deemed unfit for trial due to cognitive impairment may be detained indefinitely.”

Systemic reforms needed

Dr Higgins says it is vital to centre and acknowledge the lived experiences of those with disability who have experienced detention and develop a National Report Card to make a difference. 

“This report is unique because little work has been done to give a prominent voice to those directly affected,” Dr Higgins says. “It’s vital that we hear them and include them in the decision-making process to find solutions that work.” 

The report details several recommendations for governments to protect people with disability in detention, including abolishing indefinite detention and establishing a well-funded, independent body to advocate for forensic patients and their families. 

“The recurring message was the need for greater oversight, monitoring, and accountability in places of detention,” Dr Higgins says. “We have a proactive obligation to prevent people with a disability suffering ill-treatment which extends to places of detention.” 

Legislative reform to address shortcomings of the legal system, including ensuring access to Medicare in detention and legislating requirements for appropriate medical and disability assessment for all people entering detention, was also recommended. 

“This is a call for care and love that is desperately missing from the system to date,” Dr Higgins says. “We hope this report stimulates meaningful action and fosters a deeper understanding both of what is happening and what must change.”