Across Australia, we have seen too many examples where people have been abused by the very people supposed to watch over them. A new report by the Australian OPCAT Network, of which Jesuit Social Services is a member, outlines concerns about the potential for people to be mistreated while in detention. It highlights that findings from an impending investigation by the the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture must be made public, writes Jesuit Social Services’ Advocacy Manager VANESSA WILLIAMS.
The abuse of people in detention almost always happens in secret. It can come in the form of physical abuse, but it can be psychological and emotional, too, and no less cruel because of that.
It’s hard for the Australian public to see how people deprived of their liberty are being treated. That includes prisoners, children in youth justice centres, and people in immigration centres, police cells, psychiatric hospitals, and aged care and disability homes. By definition, these places are not easily accessible.
We might like to think that degradation and mistreatment of detained people could never happen in Australia. Or that if it does, it is an isolated incident: One person’s bad behavior, not a weak system or a poor work culture.
But, unfortunately, we’ve seen too many examples where people have been abused by the very people that are supposed to watch over them. These include children in NT detention centres, as described by the Royal Commission into the Detention and Protection of Children in the Northern Territory. In South Australia, two boys were locked up in solitary confinement for 22 hours a day for days and days on end at a youth justice centre. The Victorian Ombudsman has also reported on the misuse of solitary confinement in Victorian prisons and youth justice centres. More recently, a guard in a Victorian prison was suspended pending investigations he withheld food from a prisoner.
That is why Jesuit Social Services actively contributed to a new report published ahead of a visit next month by investigators from the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture aimed at ending the torture and abuse of people who have been deprived of their liberty.
The new report is by a group of organisations, called the Australian OPCAT Network, and it outlines our concerns about the potential for people to be mistreated while in detention.
The UN Subcommittee oversees a global inspection system that works to prevent torture of people in detention. Australia is – finally – one of 90 countries to have ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture (We did this in 2017 – ten years after New Zealand and 14 years after the UK).
This means Australia will now be part of a system of regular independent visits by UN officials to make sure our detention systems are treating people humanely. Inspectors can visit any place, at any time and without notice, and then work with governments to fix any breaches.
The inspectors are visiting in March – their first since ratification. That’s why the OPCAT Network report is so important. It tells the inspectors where we think they should look.
When announcing Australia’s intention to ratify OPCAT, the former Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop described ratification as a significant human rights achievement for the Australian government.
We agree. But we’ll also be calling on the Government to make the UN’s findings public – so we can all make sure that the treatment of people in detention is in our sights and in our minds.