Criminal justice system not accommodating for people with disability

Posted 1 year ago by Alex Jacobs
Dianne Lyons has muscular dystrophy and spoke of her experiences while in prison. [Source: Livestream]
Dianne Lyons has muscular dystrophy and spoke of her experiences while in prison. [Source: Livestream]

The criminal justice system is not accommodating for people with disability with several experts and people with disability sharing their experiences with the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect & Exploitation of People with Disability this week.

The Disability Royal Commission investigated ‘Conditions in detention in the criminal justice system’, including the violence and neglect of young people with disability in youth detention and the high rates of incarceration for First Nations people with disability.

A lack of accessibility, staff training and specialist support services are among the biggest issues within the criminal justice system.

Indigenous people with disability are missing key supports

First Peoples Disability Network (FPDN) Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Damian Griffis has called on the Royal Commission to establish a dedicated hearing into the overrepresentation and indefinite detention of First Nations people with disability.

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are 14 times more likely to be imprisoned, with one third reporting a disability, 50 percent reporting a history of psychosocial disability, and 25 – 30 percent of prisoners having an intellectual disability,” Mr Griffis explains.

“We know that by the time a First Nations person has come into contact with the justice system, they are likely to have had a lifetime of their disability related needs [being] unsupported.

“This country must face the reality that First Peoples with disability are being ‘managed’ by police, courts, and prisons, instead of having access to critical community-based services.

“This is not an issue the Royal Commission can choose to ignore.”

Trevor Barker, Support Coordinator for NDIS support provider Gallawah Supports & Services, says there is also a lack of ongoing support for many Indigenous people who have never officially received a disability diagnosis.

“One of the challenges for people in prison is that they may or may not have the assessments they need to get [a] plan that’s going to help them when they transition out of custody,” Mr Barker says.

“The ideal time to be doing a lot of those assessments is when they are in prison and can have access to clinicians and get the plans in place that help people.”

Mr Barker says that providing support in a structured setting will help deliver targeted support once Indigenous people with disability return to their communities.

Those thoughts were echoed several times through the week’s hearings.

Eamon Ryan, Inspector of Custodial Services Western Australia, undertakes detailed inspections of Western Australia detention centres once every three years.

He says the inspection does not specifically assess conditions for prisoners with disability, but it instead is a “high incidence” theme.

Mr Ryan says an assessment for younger people in detention would be especially beneficial.

“I think it would be incredibly valuable for every young person that comes into detention to have a comprehensive diagnostic assessment,” Mr Ryan says

“It would not only inform their detention, it would inform their release back into society and it may impact their life going forward.

“For engagement with the NDIS, you need to have a diagnosis and in the absence of a diagnosis that’s going to be even more challenging.”

Limited sign language service leading to prejudice

Today’s public hearing included a session with Megan Donahoe, Solicitor at the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency.

Ms Donahoe says one of the recurring challenges for her clients is the limited access to Auslan and sign language interpreters.

Those issues are heightened for clients who have no formal sign language training or use a “culturally based sign language that may be specific to their family or community”.

Interpreter delays and communication issues often lead to prejudice for many hearing impaired Indigenous people, Ms Donahoe claims.

She says many clients are ultimately held in remand or imprisoned for a time period longer than their actual court sentence dictates as meetings and court dates are delayed beyond a reasonable timeframe.

Delays also cause anxiety and anger for clients who do not understand what is happening, but access to full time interpreters would assist in reducing communication issues.

“It is a casual workforce. Interpreters are booked on a need, ad-hoc basis,” explains Ms Donahoe.

“It would be great to have a full time workforce or the option for some to work full time, and be based at court so they are available on a full time basis.”

Ms Donahoe says that hearing tests must also be included in disability screening tests as many Indigenous people have never been formally diagnosed with hearing impairments.

The Royal Commission also heard from Alen (a pseudonym), a deaf man who had spent time in prison.

Alen had to wait four weeks to speak with an interpreter once he was in prison. Aside from the occasional note, he could not communicate with guards or other inmates.

“I didn’t have any interpreters for anything. Sometimes I might, you know, do some drawing or something myself, but I wasn’t able to engage in any courses or workshops or any kind of program because there was no interpreters,” explains Alen.

“I can remember one time there was a fight between two of the inmates, and Corrective Services came up [and] grabbed us all.

“We had to line up, put our hands up on the wall. We were patted down and then we were locked into our cells. I didn’t know what was going on.

“I just had to follow what everyone else was doing and try to work it out from watching others, but no one told me what was happening.”

Alen says that it would benefit many inmates if guards learned Auslan, while more visual aids need to be installed in prisons, including alarms.

Guards are not trained for disability support

A widespread issue facing all people with disability in prison or youth detention is the lack of disability support training for guards.

Alice Barter, Managing Lawyer of the Civil Law and Human Rights Unit at the Aboriginal Legal Service Western Australia (ALWSA), says their organisation has “heard of children being teased about their disabilities” by guards.

There are also instances of guards hitting or spitting on young children with disability, and violent and punitive measures reportedly used frequently.

Ms Barter explains that their “cognitive disabilities are often compounded by poor management” and a fight or flight response is the result.

Witness, Dianne Lyons, a woman with muscular dystrophy, provided evidence of her personal experience in prison, including being repeatedly dropped when transferred in and out of her wheelchair.

She spent four years in prison and says the guards acknowledged they were not trained to lift her.

“At one stage, I thought they were trying to kill me because they thought I was a problem, because I spoke up for myself,” Ms Lyons says.

“I tried not to show fear but I was very afraid.”

She says the prison itself was often inaccessible as the wheelchair was too wide for most doors, and those she could fit through, she would injure her hands and arms when hitting the narrow frames.

Ms Lyons was denied access to her wheelchair from 6 pm to 7 am while in prison, and she says her condition worsened after she was not allowed to access National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) approved physiotherapy treatment.

She says that when she entered prison she had some walking capabilities, but following her incarceration she has completely lost her strength.

The fifth day of this public hearing will be held on October 6, making up for the day lost due to the National Day of Mourning on September 22. To get ongoing coverage of the Disability Royal Commission, subscribe to the Talking Disability newsletter.