Before I came to VALID, I worked for a long time in organisations where I visited many of Victoria’s prisons regularly. I regularly saw the abuse and neglect of people with disability in the prison system. Sometimes the abuse happened because staff did not understand people’s disabilities and punished them for their behaviour. This included people being locked in solitary confinement for long periods of time. Sometimes the neglect I saw was because people with disability could not get proper medical care, disability equipment and mental health treatment.
One man I worked with who had a disability had a stroke when he was in prison. He was left in his cell for two days and no one helped him. He eventually went to hospital and nearly died. He had a brain injury from the stroke and had an abscess on his brain.
A few years later I met a researcher from a university when I was at a prison one day. She asked me about my experiences working with people with disability in prisons. I told her that I had seen violence, abuse, neglect, bullying, discrimination and harassment. I also told her about the man who had a stroke. A prison officer overheard me talking and reported me. I had to go to the manager’s office where the manager of the prison and a senior staff member asked me to sit down. One of the staff members stood above me and shouted at me. They asked me to tell them the details of what I had been saying to the researcher. I refused to tell them.
After shouting at me I was made to leave the prison and told I could not return. My manager had to write a letter saying that it was really important that I be allowed into the prison so I could see my clients. I was asked to apologise for what I had done. I refused to apologise because I don’t think anyone should be punished for speaking out about violence, abuse and neglect.
Having the people in charge shout at me that day was a good thing in a way. It lit a fire in me and made me care even more about the rights of people with disability in prisons. My experience of hearing the stories of people with disability in prison has made me believe very deeply in the need for well funded non legal disability advocacy for people with cognitive disability involved in the criminal justice system. Even though many of those people have done something wrong, I don’t think it’s right for us to leave them behind. They are human. There is no such thing as giving up your human rights, no matter who you are.
This article talks about how people in prison don’t have access to proper healthcare.
Written by Emily Piggott, Advocacy Coordinator