‘Damaging rather than rehabilitative’ – excessive isolation harms young people in prison

‘Damaging rather than rehabilitative’ – excessive isolation harms young people in prison

Monday, 16 September 2019

A new Victorian Ombudsman’s report poses serious questions about the use of solitary confinement on young people in the justice system.

The report was the second into the practical realities of the United Nations treaty the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT). Through the lens of OPCAT, Ombudsman Deborah Glass looked at the use of solitary confinement of children and young people in three closed facilities: a secure welfare facility in Melbourne, Malmsbury youth justice centre and Port Philip Prison (where young people account for 18 per cent of the prison population).

‘We hope this report prompts urgent change to reduce the damage associated with solitary confinement’, said Dan Nicholson, Executive Director of Criminal Law.

‘In particular we support a system-wide review of separation and isolation practices and changes to the current legal and regulatory framework to reduce the frequency of these practices’, said Dan.

‘A report like demonstrates the tangible benefit of OPCAT – we support its full implementation’.

In our submission to the inspections, we raised the concerns that lock-ins and solitary confinement are used as tools to manage the mental health and disabilities of our clients, to deal with staff shortages and for purposes other than a last resort. The ombudsman’s report made similar findings. Through evidence and the reflections of young people and staff at the facilities, the report shows how these practices damage young peoples’ wellbeing and disrupt their opportunity for rehabilitation.

‘The stories and reflections shared by young people throughout the report are compelling. Too often they reveal confusion, despair and resignation associated with their experience of solitary confinement. The long-term use of these practices is counter to the aims of rehabilitation and reintegration into society when these young people leave the system’, said Dan.

‘Jake’s traumatic childhood, from which he felt unloved and unlovable, left him with a legacy of challenging behaviour. Within three years Jake was in Secure Welfare, then in Malmsbury, finally in Port Phillip Prison. Incidents of him attacking property and shouting in the first two facilities resulted in his isolation for two and five hours respectively. At Port Phillip an allegation of assault on another prisoner resulted in his isolation for 432 hours, much of that time after he had been cleared of the assault.’  

From ‘OPCAT in Victoria: A thematic investigation of practices related to solitary confinement of children and young people’

We are particularly alarmed by findings about the experience of Aboriginal young people. Ms Glass found a disproportionate use of isolation on Aboriginal young people and noted the inappropriateness of this, given it had been known for decades that Aboriginal prisoners subjected to solitary confinement suffer 'extreme anxiety’.

‘Almost 30 years after the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody we must do better to reduce the harmful impact of imprisonment on Aboriginal people’ said Dan.

More information

Read the Victorian Ombudsman's report into the solitary confinement and isolation of young people in Victorian prison and youth justice centres.

Read our submission to the ombudsman's investigation.

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