Vic Ombudsman calls out ‘oppressive’ isolation practices in youth justice centres

By Shannon Jenkins

Thursday September 5, 2019

Source: Unsplash

The solitary confinement of young Victorians in prisons and youth justice systems is “distressing” and “simply wrong”, according to the Victorian Ombudsman.

Ombudsman Deborah Glass tabled her report on inspections into Port Phillip prison, Malmsbury Youth Justice Precinct and Secure Welfare Services in the Victorian Parliament on Thursday.

Glass found there was “an alarming number of instances of prolonged solitary confinement” at Port Phillip prison, where there were 170 detainees aged 18-24 at the time of the inspection.

She said the justification for separation seemed “questionable and punitive” in many cases.

“Young people were often separated for weeks in circumstances where there appeared to be little or no ongoing risk of harm to others; victims were separated for the same time as perpetrators; sometimes for months; and good behaviour did not appear to result in less separation,” she told parliament.

At Malmsbury, the Ombudsman found roughly 13,000 cases where a person was isolated for security purposes over 12 months, with 40% of these attributed to staff shortages.

Glass highlighted the disproportionate use of isolation on Aboriginal young people.

“The experience of Aboriginal youth is particularly distressing, not only the over-representation of these young people within the system, but against the backdrop of particularly challenging life circumstances including high rates of exposure to child protection,” her report stated.

Glass found only the out-of-home care provided by Secure Welfare Services appeared to use seclusion as a last resort. She noted the evidence that solitary confinement poses a serious long-term risk to young people is compelling.

“The evidence in this report, from detainees, staff and the facilities themselves, is both overwhelming and distressing. While legitimate reasons will always exist to isolate or separate, the rate and duration of separation at Port Phillip and the rate of isolation at Malmsbury are too high,” she said.

“Comparing the three facilities, we found a direct correlation between the use and length of isolation practices, and the extent to which a facility recognised the harm caused by them.

“The direct impact is that many of the practices in both our youth justice and prison systems are likely to be contrary to law, incompatible with Victoria’s human rights legislation, oppressive, discriminatory or simply wrong.” 

Glass made 27 recommendations to the state government, including that it legislatively prohibit solitary confinement, review how young people are managed in the corrections system and maintain a detailed register of separations.

To the Department of Justice and Community Safety, Glass suggested that corrective staff be trained on cultural awareness and the impacts of isolation on mental health. She also recommended that the department recognise that Aboriginal prisoners committed to solitary confinement often suffer “extreme anxiety”, as found in the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

She also made recommendations to the Department of Health and Human Services. They accepted them either in full or in principle, as did DJCS.

DJCS Secretary Rebecca Falkingham said the Ombudsman’s report would form the basis for important reform work.

“Among a range of other initiatives, Corrections Victoria has also commenced discussions with Correctional Service Canada to provide advice on strategies undertaken in that jurisdiction to reduce the incidence of administrative segregation and the average length of stay in such separation,” she wrote in her response.

“While I acknowledge the work that is already underway across Corrections and Youth Justice, I also acknowledge that we have further work ahead of us to ensure our most restrictive interventions such as restraint and isolation are used strictly in accordance with legislation and policy, used as a last resort, and used in such a way to limit the potential negative impact on the young people in our care.”

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