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
In a positive move, yesterday, the Australian parliament voted for a Royal Commission into violence, abuse, and neglect experienced by people with disabilities in Australia. Disappointingly, the government’s response gave no timeline to set up the commission, obfuscating behind jurisdictional issues between federal and state governments.

Exactly one year ago, Human Rights Watch released a report exposing how prisoners with physical, sensory, cognitive or psychosocial disabilities – about half the country’s prison population – are abused and neglected.  They struggle to cope in often overcrowded prisons and some we spoke to were sexually or physically abused by fellow prisoners, or in some cases prison staff. Rarely did they report it due to fear of reprisals or of not being believed.

We met prisoners who spent days, weeks and sometimes years in solitary confinement – 22 hours or more per day under constant surveillance but little meaningful human interaction. These cells are used for disciplinary purposes or as “safety units” to protect at-risk prisoners from self-harm. While these cells may succeed in keeping people alive, people with psychosocial or cognitive disabilities often deteriorate in solitary confinement. One man I met in a safety unit had severe bruising on his forehead from where he’d repeatedly bashed his head against the wall. Another described being raped in prison, and said the long hours spent alone in the crisis unit after the rape led him to self-harm because he “was locked in a room with nothing but my thoughts.”

While responsibility for prisons in Australia is held at the state and territory level, a federal Royal Commission is desperately needed because the violence, abuse and neglect that people in prison face is a nationwide scandal the government has been slow to tackle. For example, a 2015 Senate inquiry also recommended a Royal Commission into abuse of people with disabilities, yet no action was taken.

The government should stop dragging its feet, establish the Commission without delay, and do so in consultation with key stakeholders including prisoners with disabilities themselves. And the inquiry should examine and make public the experiences of children and adults with disabilities in prisons across Australia, to help give a voice to people who have long been marginalized.