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UN watchdog urges Australia to reduce prisoners on remand

Dechlan Brennan -

The United Nations' anti-torture watchdog has urged Australia to stop the excessively high number of people being held in jails whilst on remand or awaiting sentencing, as well as a ban on spit hoods.

A report released this week by the UN subcommittee on the prevention of torture (SPT) also advocated for an ending to strip searches that have become routine, especially in the cases of children.

The report comes after a visit in October 2022, was terminated due to the committee being prevented from entering facilities in NSW and Queensland. The subcommittee said the reception they received in some Australian facilities was "discourteous, and in some cases hostile, reception from a number of government authorities and officials in places of deprivation of liberty".

They argued this only raised concerns about how people who are deprived of their liberty are treated in such facilities.

Managing Lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre, Monique Hurley, labelled the hindrance by state governments to allow the subcommittee to visit was a "stain" on Australia's human rights record.

"The United Nations has shone the spotlight on the callous disregard that governments across Australia have for the rights of people behind bars," she said.

The report highlighted an "extraordinary number of persons deprived of their liberty on remand…constituting up to 70 per cent of prison populations in some locations visited".

Shockingly, almost one per cent of the entire Northern Territory population is currently on remand, according to the report.

The subcommittee said this was "due in part to the reversal of the presumption of bail for certain offences".

National Indigenous Times has reported skyrocketing numbers of youth prisoners - many of whom are being held in adult facilities - due to the introduction of breach of bail laws for youths.

Ms Hurley labelled Australia's mass imprisonment a "crisis," and noted "human rights abuses are allowed to thrive in the darkness behind closed doors".

"Right now, people are being pipelined into prisons at alarming rates, children as young as 10 years old are caged in prison cells and people continue to be put at risk of being tortured in solitary confinement, spit hooded and routinely stripped of their dignity," she said.

Places visited by the subcommittee included Victoria's Dame Phyllis Frost Centre and Port Phillip prison, as well as youth justice facilities in Tasmania, the Northern Territory and Western Australia.

Of Banksia Hill, the youth detention facility in Western Australia that has been slated for closure, the subcommittee observed: "Cells with mattresses on the floor, and no running water, working showers or televisions".

"Children were left alone in their cells for up to 23 hours per day, amounting to de facto solitary confinement, with lighting in cells controlled from outside."

In both Banksia Hill and Don Dale, the subcommittee observed "extremely small cells, lack of ventilation…and putrid odours".

The report highlighted many of these laws disproportionately impacted Indigenous people and urged jurisdictions to enact legislation to render people being held on remand as a permanent last resort.

Furthermore, the subcommittee stated they "received information on high rates of recidivism, along with information regarding labelling, profiling and over policing of Indigenous and minority groups".

"When people enter the criminal justice system, they begin a cycle whereby over securitized detention leads to degradations in mental health, which in turn leads to adverse behavioural manifestations, punishment for those manifestations, and further psychological deterioration with adverse behavioural effects," the report said.

"As a result of this cycle, persons deprived of their liberty may leave detention as, or more, likely to commit offences as when they entered, or may resort to self-harm to remove themselves from high-security or high-observation detention regimes."

42.7 per cent of prisoners nationwide return to prison within two years of their sentence ending. The 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody argued Indigenous people should only be incarcerated as a last resort.

A recent report showed children were being kept in adult facilities and denied bail due to circumstances out of their control, further exacerbating the likelihood of trauma at a young age. The last year saw the highest number of Indigenous people dying in incarceration since records began.

Gunggari person and National Director at Change the Record, Maggie Munn, said the human rights abuses against people being held in detention in Australia was "outrageous".

"That the opportunity for the United Nations Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture to closely examine these issues was thwarted by state governments playing politics is shameful," they said.

"We have been calling on governments for decades to take the deaths, mistreatment and abuse of our people in custody seriously."

They called on Australia to implement all aspects of the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture (OPCAT), noting governments have routinely ignored calls to take the death, injury and abuse of Aboriginal people in custody seriously.

"Implementing OPCAT to ensure there is true independent oversight and accountability of police and prisons is a critical step towards ending the discriminatory laws, policies and practices that cause our people to die behind bars," Munn said.

Australia signed the UN treaty under the Turnbull government in 2017 in the wake of a royal commission into juvenile detention in NT, which was sparked abuses towards inmates at the Don Dale detention centre.

The use of spit hoods, which have been labelled torture, were also criticised in the report, which outlined its concern at the arbitrary usage of the device.

"(I)n many cases, the use of restraints was largely unregulated and insufficiently documented in registers and through the use of body cameras."

It called for the use of restraints to be limited for "absolutely necessary" occasions and be heavily regulated.

The Australian government, in response to the report, pointed to legislation in some jurisdictions that limit the usage of spit hoods and restraints on children, and programs some have implemented to move people away from remand.

Ms Hurley said the Victorian, NSW and Queensland governments had failed to "implement bare minimum safeguards pursuant to OPCAT to ensure that people in places of detention are not tortured".

"We must expose human rights abuses wherever they occur and end the use of brutal and barbaric practices – like solitary confinement and strip searching – once and for all," she said.

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