Rotting in jail is not the right treatment for the mentally ill
This is a glimpse into the life of an intellectually disabled man who didn’t receive appropriate care and support when he was young. The result of this was the fatal stabbing of his Uncle.
He was never convicted of the offence because of his serious disabilities, but is looked after in Alice Springs prison because there is nowhere else to accommodate him.
With no likely alternative care arrangement or release date in sight, a campaign to free him and similar offenders is underway. This action is set to culminate in a battle between human rights lawyers and governments in the High Court.
Born at a remote community, Tom (not his real name) was diagnosed with epilepsy at the age of one. His mother had an acquired brain injury and was unable to care for him, so he lived with his grandmother at the community.
At the age of seven, his grandma died so he went to live with his Uncle at a different community. As a young boy he suffered several life threatening seizures and tests showed he had a deformity in his right temporal lobe.
During the next couple of years, he began to travel to a school for children with disabilities in Alice Springs. Eventually he attended the school full time and lived in town in respite care provided by a family. But his seizures continued and his behaviour became more erratic so the family were unable to continue to look after him.
He returned to community to again live with his Uncle. Little is known about the man’s father, except that he died in 2001.
One night his Uncle returned home drunk which made him angry because he had been waiting to be taken to visit family in another community. In a rage, the then 16-year-old attacked his Uncle, his only remaining carer, stabbing him five times and killing him.
Transcripts from the court case of the incident reveal competing diagnosis of Tom’s condition. The Judge concluded Tom had serious epilepsy, was brain damaged and diabetic, and because of his potentially dangerous and explosive behaviour ordered he be looked after in a secure environment.
At the time, medical experts said Tom’s behaviour could improve if he received appropriate support. A neuropsychologist concluded “there is still an opportunity for him to learn basic self-help skills and socialisation through intensive programming in an appropriate care environment.”
In prison, Tom’s difficult behaviour has continued and extreme measures have been used to restrain him. He has been strapped into a chair and sedated, most recently in February, after behaving dangerously toward himself and others.
Alice Springs prison staff do an excellent job, but the facility is generally close to capacity if not full. An extension of the low security area is about to begin.
The point is, the prison does not provide a good opportunity for disabled people to engage in “intensive programming.”
Tom is one of around nine mentally impaired people being held indefinitely in Northern Territory prisons. Most of the offenders are indigenous, but lawyers say non-indigenous people are also being detained. A similar problem exists in other Australian jurisdictions, particularly in West Australia.
Legal action to free the incarcerated is being planned by lawyers working with the Aboriginal Disability Justice Campaign, led by Patrick McGee, who is also the joint guardian for the disabled man referenced above.
The group will argue governments are acting unconstitutionally by holding mentally impaired people in jail when they have not been convicted of a crime.
Authorities are working to address the needs of mentally impaired offenders through construction of a 16-bed secure care facility in Alice Springs. Half of those places are for young people, the other half for adults. The facility is due to be complete anytime now.
However, it is unclear which offenders will be transferred to the facility, particularly those already in jail. The youth section of the accommodation is also a cause of concern, and youth advocates are working hard to attempt to clarify issues around how the centre is used.
The indefinite detention of mentally impaired people in the Northern Territory has been an issue in the Territory for nearly 30 years. But there still remains a vast gap between how the NT should look after its most vulnerable citizens and the stark reality of how it does. Hopefully the legal action will uphold what is right and fair and bring about change in a defunct system.
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