Queensland’s prison population has exploded by 81% in the past decade, contributing in part to unprecedented delays in parole hearings, Prisoners’ Legal Service (PLS), says.
PLS Director Karen Blaber said the biggest challenge facing her community legal centre and its clients over the past year was undoubtedly extraordinary and ever increase delays in parole decision making.
Ms Blaber, in PLS’s just published 2021-22 Annual Report, said: “These delays have resulted in many people who do not pose a risk to the community spending months longer in prison than expected because they were waiting for their release application to be considered.
“The human cost of these delays is incalculable and we have heard stories of people losing their houses, jobs and relationships as well as missing key life events such as childbirth and funerals.
“There is of course also a significant financial cost of keeping people in prison who would be released if their cases were considered faster.”
PLS Chair Matt Woods said that, during the past financial year, the number of people held in Queensland correctional centres had grown significantly, reaching an all-time high of 9998 by June 2021.
“(That’s) a staggering increase of 81% over the last 10 years,” he said.
In an attempt to highlight the human cost parole hearing delays were having on people, PLS released anonymised case studies of some of their clients.
‘JESS’ is a First Nations woman from North Queensland.
She has several children and a chronic health condition. Jess was on court-ordered parole for an offence involving violence that was a domestic violence offence. While on parole, Jess failed to attend a support service for intervention to address her substance abuse, provided a positive breath test for alcohol and presented as intoxicated to authorities.
Parole Board Queensland suspended her parole order because Jess had failed to comply with the condition of her parole order to abstain from alcohol use. The board considered she posed an unacceptable risk of committing an offence because alcohol use is linked to her offending behaviour.
Jess was returned to prison due to her parole suspension. Jess received a notice containing the reasons for the Parole Board’s decision which invited her to make submissions in response and submit information about her proposed address in the community. Jess promptly made submissions and lodged an address for consideration.
Six months after her arrest, an in-prison support agency referred Jess to PLS for help with her parole because she had not received a response to her submissions from the Parole Board. PLS made submissions to the Parole Board on behalf of Jess providing context around her failing to engage with authorities and drinking alcohol.
Jess was in fact a victim of severe domestic violence had not contacted authorities to ask for help because of lack of trust in authority figures. PLS also provided the Parole Board with details of community-based supports that had been arranged for Jess, which reduced the likelihood of her being at risk of domestic violence, drinking alcohol or breaching her parole conditions. The Parole Board lifted Jess’ parole suspension and she was released back onto parole with additional conditions.
‘MATTHEW’ is a young First Nations man from North Queensland with Country connections in Central Queensland.
Matthew was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer while he was serving a prison sentence. His doctor advised that Matthew should have urgent surgery to prevent the cancer from spreading.
While from a Western perspective surgery can be undertaken while in prison, Matthew was unable to consent to the surgery while he remained in prison due to a range of complex cultural factors. These factors included Men’s business, Matthew’s spirituality as an Aboriginal man and a complex family history of trauma relating to colonisation and incarceration. Matthew was due to be released from prison shortly.
However, if he remained in prison until his release date without receiving surgery, his prognosis would have significantly worsened. Matthew lodged an application for exceptional circumstances parole. The Parole Board considered his application and made a preliminary decision to refuse his application. The Parole Board wrote to Matthew advising that he did not meet the threshold for exceptional circumstances and encouraged him to receive the surgery in prison. Matthew was invited to respond to the preliminary parole refusal.
PLS acted on behalf of Matthew by preparing submissions to the Parole Board on his behalf in response to the preliminary parole refusal. PLS worked closely with key partners and First Nations people to help identify the cultural factors impacting Matthew’s inability to consent to the surgery. PLS advocated for Matthew to be released on exceptional circumstances parole as soon as possible to allow him to consent to undertake the life-saving surgery.
PLS also identified the relevance of Matthew’s cultural rights protected under the Human Rights Act 2019 (Qld) to the Parole Board’s decision. PLS’ submissions were successful in securing Matthew’s release as the Parole Board reversed its preliminary decision to refuse his application. As a result, Matthew was immediately released and able to undergo the surgery he required.
‘MELISSA’ is a young, single mother of two young daughters.
Melissa came to the attention of PLS when her mother reached out for assistance. Melissa’s baby was living with her in prison, and her other daughter was living with Melissa’s mother in the community. Melissa’s mother had taken leave from work to care for the child and would shortly have to return to work due to the financial impact of her extended leave.
Melissa had applied for parole. Owing to systemic delays with the parole system, she did not receive a decision from the Parole Board within the statutory timeframe, and she was still in prison several months after becoming eligible for parole. PLS made submissions to the Parole Board, advocating for expedited consideration of Melissa’s application owing to the expiration of the statutory timeframe and her continued separation from her daughter in the community.
PLS contended the delayed parole decision infringed Melissa and her children’s family rights protected under the Human Rights Act 2019 (Qld). The Parole Board initially refused to expedite consideration of Melissa’s application and deferred its decision citing an outstanding charge that was scheduled to be heard in the future. The charge did not preclude Melissa from obtaining parole and was being contested.
PLS prepared to file a judicial review application to compel the board to make a decision, and sourced a pro bono criminal lawyer to help Melissa try to expedite resolution of the outstanding charge. PLS advised the Parole Board of the intention to file judicial review proceedings.
Before the court application was filed and before her criminal charge was resolved, the board advised it had reconsidered the matter and decided to grant Melissa’s parole application. Melissa now cares for both of her daughters in the community