It is often said that people are sent to prison as punishment, not to be punished.
But the rising incidence of injury and illness within prisons across Australia has renewed concerns about how our prisons are being administered.
This week, human rights advocates once again reported that serious assaults and chronic illnesses are being ignored within Australian prisons, and that administrators are failing to take basic steps to protect against harm.
It was recently reported that a teenaged Islamic State supporter attacked a former Australian soldier in the pair’s cell at Kempsey prison.
It is alleged that the accused carved the IS mantra “E4E” into his cellmate’s head and poured boiling water over his face during a lockdown. The 40-year old victim was rushed to hospital.
In response, NSW Corrective Services Commissioner Peter Severin has called for an investigation into the management of radicalised inmates.
Severin acknowledged that the accused had been recognised as a potential extremist, and admitted that better measures should have been taken to prevent the attack.
The Manager of Kempsey prison has been stood down pending an investigation into the incident, and the teenager will appear in Kempsey Local Court next month.
Despite the Commissioner’s admissions and response, the incident has raised questions about why the two were paired in the first place, and sparked broader concerns about the administration of our prisons.
Marc Newhouse from the Deaths In Custody Watch Committee says that inmates requiring medical attention as a result of injury, illness or disability are routinely being ignored behind prison walls.
“With overcrowding you’re inevitably going to see increases in cases of self-harm, near misses, as well as people not getting appropriate medical attention when they need it,” he told the ABC.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) (General Comment No 21) provides that inmates are entitled to benefit from all of the articles within the treaty, subject to ‘restrictions that are unavoidable in a closed environment.’ The Covenant was ratified by Australia on 13 November 1980.
Article 7 states that no one shall be subjected to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of punishment. The Covenant places a duty upon the state to provide those under its authority with adequate food, medical treatment and a safe environment.
In Victoria, inmates’ rights are further protected by section 47 of the Corrections Act 1986 (Vic).
The legislation guarantees every Victorian inmate the right to:
- one hour in the open air each day;
- adequate food to maintain heath and well-being;
- special dietary or vegetarian food;
- suitable clothing;
- his or her own clothing, if the inmate is not serving a sentence;
- reasonable medical care and treatment to preserve health;
- any special care and treatment considered necessary or desirable if the inmate has an intellectual disability or mental illness;
- dental treatment; and
- free religious practice.
There is no equivalent in New South Wales.
The Standard Guidelines for Corrections in Australia apply to all Australian prisons. They contain general declarations about the care and wellbeing of inmates relating to clothing, food, accommodation, religion, health services and other needs. But they are guidelines only, and not strictly enforced.
The recent pairing of the IS sympathiser and former soldier is just one example of how prison administrators are failing to protect inmates against dangerous situations and conditions. With prisons becoming increasingly overcrowded across Australia, there is little doubt further incidents will occur in the future.