Phil Lynch | The Drum | 30 November 2011
Conditions of detention in Australia have been in the news for all the wrong reasons recently.
In April, an independent report tabled in Western Australia's parliament described prison conditions in that state as "degrading, intolerable and inhumane".
Recent reports from Victoria's Ombudsman have been similarly critical, variously describing conditions in youth detention facilities, police cells and the Melbourne Custody Centre as "appalling", "disgraceful" and incompatible with basic human rights.
Inhumane conditions of detention are not confined to correctional facilities. Nor are they confined to the mandatory immigration detention facilities so infamously described by Australian of the Year Professor Patrick McGorry as "factories for mental illness" and by the Australian Medical Association as "a form of child abuse".
Inhumane conditions also persist in many mental health and disability services. Indeed, investigations reported in The Age newspaper over the last two months have revealed the deaths of at least 36 people in Victorian psychiatric wards in the last three years, together with widespread allegations of physical and sexual abuse of patients.
This is just a snapshot of the developments that make Australia's implementation of the UN's Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Ill-Treatment so imperative, and the two-year delay in ratifying that treaty since Australia signed it in 2009 so galling.
The Optional Protocol is an international treaty which aims to prevent ill treatment and promote humane conditions by establishing systems for independent monitoring and inspection of all places of detention.
It is not only in the interests of persons deprived of liberty, but also the broader community, that all places of detention – whether prisons, psychiatric hospitals, police cells or disability facilities – promote rehabilitation and reintegration and that all detainees are treated with basic dignity and respect. Independent inspections and oversight are critical in this regard.
At the national level, the Optional Protocol requires that countries establish what is known as a "national preventative mechanism", or NPM. An NPM is an independent body with a mandate to conduct both announced and unannounced visits to places of detention, to make recommendations to prevent ill treatment and improve conditions, and to report publicly on its findings and views.
At the international level, the Optional Protocol establishes an independent committee of experts – comprising doctors, lawyers, social workers and academics – with a mandate to carry out country missions to monitor deprivations of liberty. The UN Sub-Committee on the Prevention of Torture, as it is called, is also tasked to work cooperatively with states and NPMs to provide advice and training on the prevention of ill-treatment in places of detention.
The whole system is premised on the evidence and experience that external scrutiny of places of detention can deter and, where necessary, help to redress torture and other forms of ill treatment. By making places of detention more open, transparent and accountable, it helps to ensure that persons deprived of liberty – whether people with psychiatric illness, prisoners, people with disability or asylum seekers – are treated with basic dignity and respect.
Existing systems for transparency and accountability of places of detention are manifestly inadequate in Australia. In Victoria, for example, the Office of Correctional Services Review is an internal business unit within the Department of Justice. It reports to the Secretary of the Department – the very secretary with responsibility for correctional management – and does not make its reports public. The problem of lack of independence is not confined to corrections. The 36 deaths in psychiatric facilities are being investigated by the Office of the Chief Psychiatrist, an office which, according to its own website "has responsibility under the Mental Health Act for the medical care and welfare of persons receiving treatment or care for a mental illness".
Australia signed the Optional Protocol in May 2009. Since that time, progress on ratification and implementation has been slow, with wrangling between the states and the Commonwealth about who is to foot the modest bill for detention monitoring and oversight. This is despite international evidence as to the very high social and economic costs of failing to prevent and redress ill-treatment. On any estimate, the costs of independent monitoring and oversight are absolutely dwarfed by the $23 million paid by the Commonwealth for the unlawful detention and ill-treatment of immigration detainees over the last decade, costs which could have been largely avoided with a functioning and effective NPM.
Despite its name, there should be nothing optional about Australia's ratification and implementation of the Optional Protocol. The prevention of torture and ill treatment is certainly not regarded as optional or negotiable by like-minded countries. The United Kingdom, for example, ratified the treaty almost eight years ago, while New Zealand has no less than five independent, publicly accountable bodies mandated to visit and report on places of detention.
The Commonwealth, state and territory governments should all prioritise and expedite ratification and implementation of the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture. Any further delay in the prevention of ill-treatment has intolerable social and economic costs and is simply not an option.
Phil Lynch is Executive Director of the Human Rights Law Centre. You can follow the HRLC on Twitter @rightsagenda.