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Election Promises in New South Wales: Forgetting Disabled Inmates

The Australian state of New South Wales is facing an election on 26 March. The result, as anyone in NSW will tell you, is a foregone conclusion, with even Australian Labor Party state secretary Sam Dastyari admitting the election to be a lost cause for his party. Premier Kristina Keneally’s nominally left wing ALP has faced disaster after scandal after ministerial resignation, leaving Opposition Leader Barry O’Farrell’s right wing Coalition a shoo-in.

As such, it’s interesting to see what policies and pledges Keneally and company are announcing to shore up any last goodwill from their public. From the Sydney Morning Herald, Keneally’s promise of ‘$30 million to help people with disabilities and their carers cope with cost of living pressures’ particularly sticks out. Disability services has turned into something of a political football in Australia in recent times, following on from a July 2010 blip during the federal election campaign in which Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott made disability services support their message of the week.

The ALP know perfectly well that their government won’t be re-elected and that what otherwise would have been a worthy pledge won’t come to pass. But what if the NSW and Australian governments were invested in disability services as much as they claim during election campaigns? That would mean confronting the situation for some of the most vulnerable disabled Australians – even the politically unpopular ones, like disabled inmates.

It’s common knowledge that disabled people are overrepresented in criminal justice systems, with inadequate support services, communication barriers, difficulties in navigating the legal system, and many other cracks in the system contributing to this state of affairs. It’s difficult to determine the precise situation or impact, simply because consistent statistics for disabled prison populations are not maintained in Australia. A 1996 Law Reform Commission NSW report cites an estimate of 12-13% of the prison population having intellectual disabilities: quadruple that of the general public. If disabled prisoners are not noted, their needs cannot be addressed. As such, on top of those disadvantages in negotiating the legal system, there are also barriers to receiving adequate care and treatment once inside. Furthermore, there’s the question of disabilities – mental health issues in particular – developed or exacerbated as a result of incarceration.

There’s a reason I’m not supplying you with pre-1990s statistics, which is that there is not a lot to go on. For decades, disabled prisoners have been slipping through the cracks of the NSW criminal justice system, not being acknowledged, never mind having their needs met. Partly, it’s a matter of disabled people being largely invisibilised in public discourse, except when the opportunity for a feel-good story of inspiration comes along. Adding in the widely prevalent “let them rot” attitude towards prison populations means that there is little attention paid to disabled prisoners, many of whom lack the support, skills, or experience of non-institutional living to keep from ending back on the inside.

A lot of the invisibility is doubtless due to the conflation of disability and criminality. Every other shooting or arson is commented upon with ‘only a crazy person would do that’. Otherwise, disabled people are frequently treated as sinister, incomprehensible and scary people to be avoided. This assigning of criminality to disabled people means an increased likelihood of their being consigned to the criminal justice system. And there is a societal relief that those scary disabled people, those offenders, can be kept away from us, out of sight, out of mind. It’s not that disabled people are inherently criminal, but that it’s more convenient for everyone else to allow this criminalizing cycle to continue than it is to ensure adequate services.

It’s particularly important to look at this in the light of the treatment of Australia’s Indigenous population in the criminal justice system. From the Australian Human Rights Commission 2008 statistical overview of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australia: ‘Between 1997 and 2001, a total of 25,000 Indigenous peoples appeared in a NSW Court charged with a criminal offence. This constitutes 28.6% of the total NSW Indigenous population.’ Given that ‘the disability rate among Indigenous respondents was [found to be] 1.4 times higher than among the non-Indigenous population,’ it’s apparent that racism is playing a substantial role here. Australia has a fraught history of Indigenous deaths in custody, and with police interactions with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders more generally, as most notably investigated in the 1987-1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. This state of affairs, in combination with the high rates of disability issues among Indigenous Australians resulting from colonialist history, means that this is a population particularly at risk in the criminal justice system. And it’s certainly one to which mainstream Australia would rather not pay attention.

The 2009 NSW Inmate Health Survey (PDF) found that 47% of respondents reported an illness or disability. It’s very troubling indeed that this population is so invisible, and raises questions about which kinds of disabled people both state and federal Australian governments find worthy of attention. As the ABC recently reported, NSW prisons are becoming ever more overstretched and overpopulated. It’s doubtful that we’ll be seeing much progress for disabled inmates, no matter who wins  the election, as there has been nary a peep from either the Coalition or the ALP.

Australia may have ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2010, but it is a country nowhere near addressing disability rights in a coherent way. While it is happily looking as though we are getting closer to a radical overhaul of the federal disability support scheme – and that’s a good start – disability is still being very much treated as a compartmentalised issue. Until disability can be taken seriously as affecting those in all walks of life, not just an issue to be addressed at election time, disabled inmates are going to be facing a invisible uphill battle.