Last week, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation highlighted the circumstances of Western Australia resident Rosie Anne Fulton, who has been incarcerated without being convicted of a crime or having had a trial. The justification for this is that, while she was charged with driving offences, she is unable to stand trial due to having foetal alcohol syndrome.
Writing in The Guardian, Graeme Innes, Australia’s Disability Discrimination Commissioner, and Mick Gooda, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, say that Ms Fulton is joined in this untenable situation by about thirty others. Most of them, like Ms Fulton herself, number among Australia’s Indigenous population, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. How does this happen?
To be frank, I’d be surprised if anyone in Australia is surprised. There’s a long history of disproportionate incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – who number two per cent of the general population versus a quarter of the prison population – and appalling treatment within the prison system. There have been so many Aboriginal deaths in custody that 1991 saw a royal commission, most of the recommendations from which have not been put in place. As such, deaths have been on the rise in recent years, such as that of Mr Ward, an Aboriginal elder who died from being transported in an extremely hot prison van by Western Australia’s Department of Corrective Services in 2008.
For those who survive, there’s precious little support. Here’s one illustrative example: Sisters Inside, an excellent organisation providing support and counselling to female inmates in the state of Queensland, lost a vital chunk of its government funding in 2012. At the time, Sisters Inside CEO Debbie Kilroy emphasised to the Courier-Mail newspaper that eighty per cent of the prisoners were, you guessed it, Aboriginal women, many of whom were incarcerated ‘because they have defended themselves in a violent relationship and in that context committed an offence themselves’.
Here’s one more layer. Just last month, Mr Innes released a report entitled “Equal before the law,” which concerns the problems people with disabilities encounter when navigating Australia’s justice system, including a perception that they are unreliable witnesses and a lack of access to accommodations, appropriate communication measures, and other support measures. You can consult El Gibbs’ summary for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation if you want to know more, but for our purposes, here is an excerpt: ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are also more likely to have disability, particularly children. People with disabilities are more likely to be victims of violence, with 90% of women with intellectual disability reporting sexual abuse in one study, most before they turned 18.’ If women experiencing violence are more likely to end up in the prison system, as per Kilroy, and Indigenous women are more likely to end up in the prison system, and those with intellectual disabilities in particular are highly likely to lack respect, violence and appropriate supports within the prison system – well. All signs point to eventualities like Ms Fulton’s situation.
In a climate in which vulnerable women, people with intellectual disabilities, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are disproportionately represented in the prison system, there’s no wonder that there’s been stagnation in the push to get Ms Fulton out of prison and into one of the more appropriate settings available. Lives like hers are all too readily undervalued, and prison has long been the place where such undervalued lives are shoved. It’s all too evident how an Aboriginal woman with an intellectual disability might end up incarcerated without even a trial.