HON ALISON XAMON (North Metropolitan) [10.00 pm]: I rise tonight to make some comments about solitary confinement in relation to some events that occurred today. I have to say that judging by the debate we have just had, there is a fair bit of pertinence in what I will say.
Solitary isolation, which is officially known in the Western Australian prison system as separate confinement, or punishment by confinement, occurs when an individual finds themselves locked in a cell for up to 23 hours a day without social interaction. We know that the use of solitary confinement is really serious. It is also potentially incredibly harmful. It can cause irreversible psychological effects. Research has demonstrated that individuals who are held in solitary confinement experience a range of mental health problems, including anxiety, stress, panic, insomnia, paranoia, aggression and depression. Prolonged solitary confinement can cause brain changes, which in turn impacts on the person’s chances of living a successful life following their release from prison.
United Nations standards classify solitary confinement in excess of 15 consecutive days as “torture”. In 2011, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment called for a ban on the use of prolonged solitary confinement except in very exceptional circumstances and for as short a time as possible. It also called for an absolute prohibition in the case of children, and people with mental disabilities. We know, as I have said, that solitary confinement is damaging for any prisoner. However, for prisoners with an underlying mental health condition or cognitive disability, and for children, it can be absolutely devastating.
The most recent “The Health of Australia’s Prisoners” report in 2018 found that 40 per cent of Australian prisoners reported having a diagnosed mental health condition, and that two in three women in our prison system have a history of a mental health condition. We also know that people with cognitive or intellectual disabilities are over-represented in our prisons. I once again quote the oft used report from the Telethon Kids Institute that nine out of 10 children and young people in Banksia Hill Detention Centre were found to have at least one form of severe neurodevelopmental impairment. The permitted use of solitary isolation in Western Australian prisons and Banksia Hill Detention Centre is set out clearly in our state legislation. Under section 43 of the Prisons Act, separate confinement without charge cannot be for a period greater than 30 days, and must be reported to the Minister for Corrective Services. Shorter periods of confinement are permitted under section 82.
According to answers to questions on notice that I got back last week, in the last financial year, separate confinement was used 1 989 times in Western Australia prisons. We are talking about a whopping one-third increase on the previous year. I want to at least acknowledge, on a positive note, that the answers to those questions also revealed that in 2018–19, separate confinement was used 19 times at Banksia Hill—in other words, children and young people were kept in solitary confinement on 19 occasions—but, this financial year, separate confinement was not used at all at Banksia Hill. I hope that trend continues.
Given its potential serious impacts, any use of solitary confinement should be considered very carefully. However, this does not appear to have been the case in our adult prisons over the last 12 months. In September last year, the Inspector of Custodial Services inspected Casuarina Prison. The report of that inspection was released in May this year. The report raised concerns about the Department of Justice’s use of separate confinement under the disruptive behaviour management policy, which came into effect in July last year. Under that policy, disruptive prisoners can be placed on level 1, 2 or 3 management regimes. Levels 2 and 3 are separate confinement regimes. Under level 3, the individual is not only held in solitary isolation but also transferred to a different prison every 28 days. The level 3 regime is not reviewed until after 60 days and is not required to be reported to the minister. I remind members that under section 43 of the Prisons Act, separate confinement without charge cannot be for a period greater than 30 days and must be reported to the minister. At the time of the 19 August inspection by the Inspector of Custodial Services at Casuarina Prison, five prisoners were on level 2 and one was on level 3. There were also two other individuals on level 3 at different prisons.
This use of solitary confinement is very concerning. I want to quote the Inspector of Custodial Services, who said —
The provisions of Section 43 are restrictive because separate confinement is a serious regime to impose on a prisoner. It is not appropriate (and arguably not lawful) for the Department to create a regime equivalent to separate confinement that does not comply with the legislation. Ignoring legislative requirements creates a risk of prisoner mistreatment, and exposes the Department to a potential legal challenge.
I understand that this policy is now under review, and just as well. However, it is appalling that the minister and the department have had such flagrant disregard for our laws and the rights of people in our prison system, and that they thought it was appropriate to devise such a, frankly, inhumane regime in the first place. We know that prisoners in our prisons are dying from mental health issues. We have had three suspected suicides in our prisons this year. That is absolutely terrible. Why we would be making widespread use of a policy that we know has an incredibly detrimental impact on a person’s mental health and brain function is completely beyond me. I note the Minister for Corrective Services’ media release today regarding a task force review of the management of at-risk prisoners in light of these suicides. We know that access to mental health services in our prisons is below par and has been for a very long time. The task force will need to look into more than simply the poor delivery of mental health services in our prisons. It will also need to look into the way in which the department is using confinement. Setting up people in our prisons to fail is not in anyone’s interests. It is not in the interests of the community. It is certainly not in the interests of the people who find themselves in prison. We know that Western Australia’s solitary confinement prison practices are counterproductive, and they need to be reviewed urgently. I am very concerned about the number of suspected suicides within our prisons this year. We should all be concerned about that. I am really worried and want to ensure that everything that is potentially contributing to this devastating toll will be looked at.