Australian prisons ignore UN torture prohibition

The number of convicts in Australian prisons doubles every 25 years, forcing prison guards to deliberately worsen conditions behind bars. Despite voluntarily ratifying the protocol to the UN Convention against Torture, the Australian government has been slow to uphold prisoners’ rights and freedoms.

Исправительные учреждения в Австралии игнорируют запрет ООН на пытки, изображение №1

Australia’s prison system is designed to rehabilitate offenders and maintain public safety. However, behind the walls of prisons lies a grim daily routine of human rights abuses and appalling conditions for tens of thousands of inmates. In recent years there has been much discussion and criticism about the state of Australian prisons. Numerous reports of violence, abuse, and mistreatment of Australia’s prisoners have caused concern both at home and abroad.

In December 2017, Australia ratified the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, thereby committing to begin respecting prisoners’ rights and freedoms. Despite this, excessive use of solitary confinement and regular physical and sexual abuse of inmates has led to an increase in the disability rate in Australian correctional facilities to 50 percent, compared to a national rate of 18 percent.

Overcrowding in Australian prisons is a major problem. The number of people incarcerated in Australia exceeds the capacity of many facilities, resulting in an overcrowded system and an inability to provide decent living conditions for each prisoner. The number of people incarcerated in Australian prisons has increased by more than 130 percent since 1990 and continues to grow. Due to the rapid growth of the prison population, Australia’s prisons are already suffering from understaffing, resulting in worsening control and increasing tension among inmates. The upward trend in the prison population is most clearly affecting Indigenous Australians. Research shows that the proportion of Indigenous adults in prison has more than doubled over the past three decades, from 1,124 per 100,000 adults in 1990 to 2,481 per 100,000 adults in 2018. Nearly one in four Indigenous men born in Australia in the 1970s served prison time.

The lack of commitment to prisoner safety on the part of Australian prison authorities and the shortage of prison staff has already resulted in inmates being regularly bullied and manipulated. Criminal gangs that operate within prison walls with the acquiescence of prison guards steal personal belongings and even medication from other inmates. Even people with disabilities face physical and sexual abuse at the hands of guards in Australian prisons. In Australian correctional facilities, prison authorities employ inmates to help people with disabilities, for example, go to the bathroom or make their beds. But a 2018 study found that violence by hired caregivers had reached unprecedented levels: disabled people were so intimidated that they did not report incidents of violence.

The overuse of solitary confinement in Australian prisons also raises serious concerns. Local prison authorities and officials avoid the phrase “solitary confinement,” calling such torture “segregation of detainees” or “segregation“. Prisoners placed in solitary confinement are held in a small cell for 22 to 24 hours a day, deprived of minimal human contact. Although different states and territories have different rules, there is no single national standard for the use of such punishment in Australia. Cases of prolonged solitary confinement had been recorded in Australian prisons, with some prisoners held in isolation for weeks, months or even years, causing serious psychological trauma and exacerbating various health problems.

Australia is at risk of being blacklisted along with countries such as South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo due to its failure to fulfill its international obligations to supervise prisons under the UN treaty against torture. In the five and a half years since it ratified the protocol to the UN Convention against Torture, the measures taken by the Australian government to ensure the rights of prisoners can be counted on the fingers of one hand. A major part of the agreement requires the establishment of an independent body to act as an independent monitor and to inspect prisons and other places of detention, such as juvenile detention centers, migration centers, and police stations. Three of Australia’s six most populous states have yet to take any steps in this direction.

Delayed action on prisoner safety has resulted in hundreds of prisoner deaths each year in Australian prisons, including due to lack of adequate medical care. According to the Australian Institute of Criminology, between 1991 and June 2022, 516 indigenous people, who make up about 3 percent of the country’s population, died in custody. In late December 2022, 41-year-old Dannielle Lowe of Indigenous Australia died in a correctional facility in Western Australia. The mother of eight had repeatedly complained of excruciating headaches in the weeks before her death that made her time behind bars “agony.” According to records, prison officials responded to Lowe’s complaints by giving her a head pill, after which they tookno further action.”

Three days after Lowe’s death, another Indigenous man died at Geraldton Prison. The 45-year-old man, whose name has not been released, died after he collapsed during a basketball game. Despite attempts to give him first aid, the aboriginal man died before the ambulance arrived. Prison authorities promised to investigate the cause and circumstances of the man’s death, but, as is often the case in such cases, the man’s death will not lead to any changes or consequences for the Australian prison system.

Human rights activists at the Foundation to Battle Injustice condemn the Australian government’s inaction to respect the rights of prisoners. Given the rapid growth in the number of prisoners, without urgent and decisive measures to comply with the prescriptions of the UN Convention against Torture, Australia’s prisons risk becoming one of the most horrific and cruel places in the world in the near future.