Over the last decade the New South Wales prison population has surged by 35%, prisoners on remand have doubled. Is the increase in the number of people with disabilities in prisons a sign the current policies for dealing with disadvantage are wrong? STEPHEN HILL reports.
The lack of adequate disability support services is driving a number of people into the prison system according to a range of policy analysts, with over a half of the people in prison currently suffering from some form of disability.
In particular, there are fears that the rollout of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) is perversely increasingly this problem as state governments retreat from previous service obligations.
“A lot of people are in prison because there is nowhere else for them to go, and the NDIS has increased that a lot,” said Kelly Watson, manager of the Criminal Justice Network.
The lack of services is already causing consternation among homeless advocates and disability providers, with individuals with complex needs finding it increasingly difficult to negotiate a convoluted NDIS model.
In a submission to the Standing Committee on the NDIS, the Australians for Disability Justice (ADJ) said it “fears more people with intellectual disability will find themselves in prison for long periods as a result of delays in getting disability support.”
As state services under the old model are abolished, the individualised tendered services that replace them are not always proving adequate for specific groups of disabled individuals.
“As of the 30th June this year there will be no NSW government funded disability services,” said UNSW Chair in Intellectual Disability Behavioural Support, Professor Leanne Dowse.
“This is putting a huge cohort at risk of never accessing the NDIS or receiving the services they need,” said disability case-manager Benjamin Garcia-Lee.
With many people not having a diagnosis of disability or knowledge of how to claim the NDIS, people with a cognitive disability are currently “falling through the gaps … [because]… they are currently not engaged with services,” said Garcia-Lee
According to Professor Dowse, this produces a group of people “who do not fit any one service and get bounced around to the point that they are sent to the two services that can’t turn them away: hospital and prison,”
“This group are known as the ‘churners.’ They are not committing serious crimes. They’re getting picked up for defaulting on fines, not having tickets on public transport, poverty crimes- not having food, money,” said Dowse
“Their most common offences are theft, low-level violence and public order offences.
“They are usually in prison on remand. They hang around on remand for ages and when they finally go to court they get time served or a short sentence. So those people are churning- they are always in and out.
“Also if you’re in prison and you’re on remand, you’re just in purgatory. You don’t get any services, you don’t get any interventions of any kind,” said Professor Dowse.
And with recent revelations about the abuse of prisoners in the February Human Rights Watch report Abuse and Neglect of Prisoners with a Disability there is considerable evidence that prison overcrowding, use of solitary confinement and a lack of staff training was contributing to poor health outcomes for disabled prisoners.
The report also highlighted “a lack of proper assessment and identification of disability,” with disabled prisoners being mistreated by wardens and targeted by fellow inmates.
This included one former inmate who was threatened with six months of solitary confinement if he reported being sexually assaulted by another prisoner.
“I was sexually assaulted [by other prisoners] … I know at least one of them raped me, but I kind of blacked out. I was bleeding. I still bleed sometimes. I reported it the same day to two of the superintendents. I filled out the medical request form. They told me if I reported it, I would go to the detention unit for six months. So I ripped up the form in front of them,” the prisoner told Human Rights Watch
Research about the poor treatment of disabled prisoners and the increasing number of cognitive impaired individuals in prison has seen a push within the legal community for better mechanisms to identify people with a disability before they reach the prison system.
In December this saw the state government launch a two-year trial of the Cognitive Impairment Diversion Program (CIDP), which aims to allow people that have committed less serious crimes with a disability to be re-directed into community and disability support.
The program which will operate out of Penrith and Gosford Local Courts provides resources for disability evaluations that can be submitted to magistrates and will assist individuals to connect to the NDIS.
According to CIDP case-manager Benjamin Garcia-Lee the “real breakthrough part of this project is having neuropsychologists able to do full neuro-psych assessment,” a procedure that is too expensive for many people from low socio-economic backgrounds.
Initial results of the program have proven beneficial to clients diagnosed with a disability, which have provided magistrates with enough information about defendants that ten of the program’s twelve clients that faced trial have been issued with diversionary orders.
“In terms of the social outcomes it’s amazing, in terms of enormous savings to government at all levels, community safety, but most importantly for us, to the people involved,” said Garcia-Lee
However, while there is initial optimism about this diversion program the problem of matching resources with individuals at risk remains a serious challenge, with many in the community sector fearful of the consequences of the axing of all disability advocacy programs expected in the next state budget.
“There are more people in the prisons with intellectual disability than ever before because the disability system that has supported them before has fallen away. That’s already happened. There are more homeless people with intellectual disability because the disability services of last resort have fallen away,” said Professor Dowse.
Dr Mindy Sotiri Program Director of the Community Restoration Centre suggested while it is positive that the NSW government is investing a further $63 million dollars to reduce re-offending, this money was allocated without any consultation with the community sector.
“From the state government we have an obsession with 12 week programs, anybody who has spent five minutes with someone out of prison knows it takes a great deal longer to shift behaviour,” said Dr Sotiri
In particular Dr Sotiri points to the impact the shortfall in accommodation services is having on people with disability or mental illness following their release from prison
“We have conservatively estimated there are four thousand people released from prison a year, and across NSW at last count there were 58 beds for people leaving prison,” said Dr Sotiri.
According to the appraisal of the Criminal Justice Support Network (CJSN), which provides legal assistance for people with a disability, intervention programs have the ability to save the government significant money by diverting individuals away from the expenses of prisons and courts.
The economic evaluation, launched by NSW attorney-general Mark Speakman found that every dollar the CJSN received mitigated $2.50 in cost savings otherwise spent on the justice system
“Prevention in the community is the goal to go for. We know that works, but we’re not putting resources into that,” said Professor Eileen Baldry