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The Nightmare Lives of Indigenous Prisoners in Australia

On International Day of World’s Indigenous Peoples, Government Should Address Marginalized Group

A prisoner lies in his solitary confinement cell in the safety unit at Lotus Glen Correctional Centre, northern Queensland. Prisoners in solitary confinement typically spend 22 hours or more a day locked in small cells, sealed with solid doors, without meaningful social interaction with other prisoners; most contact with prison and health staff is perfunctory and may be wordless.  © 2017 Daniel Soekov for Human Rights Watch

“The senior officer stood on my jaw while the other [officer] hit my head in and restrained me. They said, ‘You don’t run this prison … we do,’ and they cut my clothes off. They left me naked on the floor of the exercise yard for a couple of hours before giving me fresh clothes.”

For Waru (not his real name), an Indigenous prisoner with a psychosocial disability (mental health condition), the unspeakable is almost routine. As an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander man with a disability in an Australian prison, Waru was tragically accustomed to being locked up in solitary confinement, facing physical abuse, and hearing racial slurs from prison officers.

More than 35 years after the United Nations first instituted an International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples continue to be left behind.

I visited 14 prisons across Australia, and heard story after story of Indigenous people with disabilities, whose lives have been cycles of abuse and imprisonment, without effective support. The result is Australia’s prisons are disproportionately full of Indigenous people.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples make up just 2 percent of the population, but they represent 28 percent of the full-time adult prison population. Multiple forms of disadvantage mean that they are more likely to live in out-of-home-care, end up homeless, have earlier contact with the police, and end up in prison more frequently than their non-Indigenous peers. Within this group, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with disabilities are even more likely to end up behind bars.

Once in prison, their lives continue to be rife with racism and abuse. Due to a lack of training, custodial staff often misinterpret the behavior of a prisoner with a disability and respond in a punitive rather than supportive manner.

The Australian government should commit to making it a priority to address abuse against, and meet the needs of, Indigenous prisoners with disabilities. That includes working closely with organizations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and people with disabilities to develop culturally appropriate resources and training materials for prison staff, service providers, police, and the judiciary. The government should fund representative organizations to provide specialized and culturally appropriate support to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with disabilities in prison.

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