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UN body scathing of Australian prisons

The United Nations’ (UN) torture prevention body has released a scathing report on Australia’s prison system.

The Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (SPT) report followed its terminated visit to Australia in October 2022, when it was blocked from accessing detention facilities in New South Wales and Queensland.

The independent body of UN experts, which is charged with carrying out inspections to ensure compliance with the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture (OPCAT), said the visit uncovered an “extraordinary number of persons deprived of their liberty on remand”.

It said this was partly due to the reversal of the presumption of bail for certain offences, which disproportionately affected groups such as indigenous people. It recommended all Australian governments made remand a last resort.

Other key recommendations included to:

  • raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility from 10 to at least 14;
  • ban cruel and degrading prison practices, including the use of solitary confinement for children, routine strip searching, and spit hoods;
  • consider the recommendations of the Australian Law Reform Commission’s Pathways to Justice report, and of the Don Dale Royal Commission in the Northern Territory (which sparked the signing of OPCAT in 2017), and to implement schemes to reverse the over-incarceration of indigenous people; and
  • review the Migration Act 1958 (Cth) to amend provisions for mandatory immigration detention in favour of non-custodial options.

The SPT also described how it was given incorrect or incomplete information by authorities before the visit, then throughout its visit, it “observed a fundamental lack of understanding, among both federal and state authorities, of the Optional Protocol, the State party’s obligations and the mandate and powers of the Subcommittee”.

It said “it experienced a discourteous, and in some cases hostile, reception from a number of government authorities and officials in places of deprivation of liberty, not in keeping with the collaborative and assistance-based nature of its visit… Such behaviour also raises concerns (as it is assumed to be reflective) of how persons deprived of liberty are treated”.

It also experienced “persistent negative media coverage, including pernicious remarks from government officials in certain regions, amounting to what the Subcommittee would qualify as a smear campaign. Such remarks and media reports no doubt contributed in some cases to the hostility faced by the Subcommittee, as evidenced by the repetition of disparaging quotes from government officials by the administrators of some of the places of deprivation of liberty that it visited.”

The Australia visit ran for 11 days before it was suspended by the subcommittee because of a lack of co-operation. It was eventually terminated four months later.

In its response to the report, the Federal Government said it was “regrettable” the subcommittee had been unable to access some detention centres, and that it had “worked cooperatively with all states and territories to address the challenges that led to the termination”.

It said it was working toward full implementation of the OPCAT via a network model of National Preventive Mechanisms (NPMs) established through legislation, with six of nine jurisdictions having nominated an NPM.

Read the report and the Federal Government’s response here.

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