Warning: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples should be aware that this report contains images and names of people who have passed away. In many areas of Indigenous Australia, it is common practice that when a member of the community passes away, the person’s name is changed in accordance with cultural beliefs. Names and photographs in this report are used with the permission of the families.
(Perth) – Three suspected suicides in the last four months in Western Australia’s prisons have highlighted the urgent need for better mental health services and support for prisoners with mental health conditions, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
The 42-page report, “‘He’s Never Coming Back’: People with Disabilities Dying in Western Australia’s Prisons” examines the serious risk of self-harm and death for prisoners with mental health conditions, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners, in Western Australia, nearly 30 years after the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. A Human Rights Watch analysis of coroners’ inquest and media reports between 2010 and 2020 found that about 60 percent of adults who died in prisons in Western Australia had a disability, including mental health conditions. Of the 60 percent, 58 percent died as a result of lack of support, suicide, or targets of violence – and half of these deaths were of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners.
“Western Australia’s prisons are damaging and at times deadly for people with mental health conditions, particularly Aboriginal people,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch. “People with disabilities often fall prey to violence or resort to self-harm because proper support is lacking.”
The 1991 Royal Commission found that Aboriginal people were more likely to die in custody in part because they were incarcerated at disproportionate rates. This remains true. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people constitute just 4 percent of Western Australia’s population but make up 39 percent of the state’s full-time adult prison population. Within this group, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disabilities are even more likely to end up behind bars.
Since September 2019, Human Rights Watch has examined eight emblematic deaths in custody that exposed inadequate mental health support in prisons in Western Australia. Human Rights Watch interviewed 40 people including prisoners, family members, mental health professionals, lawyers, Aboriginal leaders, and disability rights and death-in-custody experts in the cities of Perth and Broome. Human Rights Watch also conducted an extensive study of the 102 cases of deaths in prisons, police custody, and immigration detention in Western Australia between 2010 and 2020.
After three suspected suicides in the state’s prisons since the beginning of the year, on August 18, 2020, the Western Australian government announced a task force to assess the current management of at-risk prisoners. The task force should examine the conditions of solitary confinement for prisoners with disabilities and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners and meaningfully consult at-risk prisoners, particularly prisoners with psychosocial or cognitive disabilities and Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander prisoners.
Even in cases in which the prisoner’s disability or mental health history was well known and documented by the prison, staff failed to provide adequate and timely support that could have prevented the prisoner from taking their own life or from an attack by fellow prisoners.
The brother of a murdered Aboriginal prisoner with disabilities described an earlier prison stay: “When he had come out we knew there was something wrong. Because his life just went downhill. When he spoke out about it to us, then we have seen the signs, the pattern, of how his life changed…. That justice was never even done about it.”
Due to limited resources, mental health services in Western Australian prisons are inadequate. At times, they are reduced to distributing medication through a slot in the cell door, monitoring prisoners to prevent self-harm, and acute crisis counseling. The quality of counseling varies across prisons and can often be limited to a perfunctory, “How are you doing?” through closed cell doors, allowing for the response to be heard across the unit, including by prison guards.
The Western Australian Office of the Inspector of Custodial Services stated in 2018, “The State is not meeting the mental health needs of prisoners” and “Daily management of people with serious mental health needs is left to custodial staff who have limited training, few management options and poor access to information.”
The Western Australia Department of Corrective Services has taken several measures to reduce the number of deaths in custody, but it has largely focused on reducing access to tools that can be used for self-harm and keeping at-risk prisoners under strict observation. Little has been done to address the deteriorating conditions of confinement, the inadequate access to support or mental health services, and the overuse and harm of solitary confinement. The 1991 Royal Commission found that solitary confinement causes “extreme anxiety” and has a particularly detrimental impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners, many of whom are already separated from their family and community.
Corrective services should immediately improve long-overdue training of custodial staff about disability and mental health, recruit adequate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff, and ensure that services are culturally sensitive, Human Rights Watch said. They should also overhaul mental health care, in close collaboration with Aboriginal health services, to ensure that they are meaningful as opposed to a suicide assessment checklist.
The current Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability should investigate the multiple and compounding forms of disadvantage and abuses people with disabilities, particularly those who are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, experience on a daily basis in prison.
It is crucially important for the government to end solitary confinement for prisoners with disabilities, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners, Human Rights Watch said.
“Australia's warehousing of at-risk prisoners with disabilities in solitary confinement causes severe psychological distress that pushes many over the edge,” Pearson said. “This dehumanizing practice has no place in Australian society.”
If you or someone you know needs mental health support, these organizations can offer advice. In Australia, Lifeline WA and Lifeline can be contacted on 13 11 14, and Beyond Blue can be contacted on 1300 22 4636. In the UK, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123, and other international helplines are available at Befrienders Worldwide.