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"I needed help, instead I was punished": abuse and neglect of prisoners with disabilities in Australia

Prison administration Prisoners People with disability Aboriginal people (Australia) Prisoner health Civil rights Residential care Neglect (People) Australia

People with disabilities, particularly a cognitive or psychosocial disability, are overrepresented in the criminal justice system in Australia—comprising around 18 percent of the country’s population, but almost 50 percent of people entering prison.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are especially overrepresented in the prison community. While they comprise just 2 percent of the national population, as of June 2017, they made up 28 percent of Australia’s full-time adult prison population. By 2020, the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in custody is expected to reach 50 percent of the prison population.

Within this group, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disabilities are even more likely to end up behind bars. Multiple forms of disadvantage mean that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are more likely to end up in jail than non-indigenous peers, including greater likelihood as youth and adults of living in out-of-home-care, being homeless, or having earlier and more frequent contact with the criminal justice system.

Those Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have disabilities experience added challenges: the disability is often undetected in childhood, and even when it is, support services are difficult to access, putting them on a path where they are more likely to be incarcerated than get a university degree. Research shows that most offenses by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disabilities are relatively less serious and pertain to theft, public order, traffic, and vehicle regulations.

While research has focused on the barriers to justice for people with disabilities, including their placement in indefinite detention, there is little information across different Australian states on their experiences once in prison.

This report aims to contribute to filling this void. Based on research between September 2016 and January 2018 in Western Australia, Queensland, New South Wales, and Victoria— including interviews with people with disabilities, prison-related and government professionals, mental health experts, academics, lawyers and civil society representatives—Human Rights Watch finds that Australia is restricting and violating the rights of prisoners with disabilities, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disabilities.

The government’s failure to fulfil its international obligations, particularly under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, compromises a range of rights for people with disabilities in its prison system, including equality and non-discrimination; liberty and security of the person; freedom from violence, exploitation, and abuse; reasonable accommodation; health; and an accessible environment.

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