Solitary confinement is harming children – our submission to the Victorian Ombudsman

Solitary confinement is harming children – our submission to the Victorian Ombudsman

Friday, 7 June 2019

‘Leo told his lawyer that he spends most of his time locked in. Being locked in makes Leo feel angry. He says that when he is feeling this way there is nobody to talk to.

Leo has also observed the impact of lockdowns and rotations on other young people living at Malmsbury. He says they are “always angry or expressing suicidal thoughts” when they come out of lockdown and rotations'.

The story of our client Leo is one of several in a new submission to the Victorian Ombudsman’s investigation into solitary confinement and young people in Victoria.

Our submission to the Victorian Ombudsman’s investigation into solitary confinement and young people in Victoria (docx, 194.89 KB) looks at the experience of young people in prisons, child protection settings, mental health units, immigration detention and police cells.

Executive Director Criminal Law Dan Nicholson said different forms of isolation are harming young Victorians.

‘Our staff visit closed environments such as prisons and mental health units every day.  We are concerned that lock-ins and solitary confinement are being used as a tool to manage the mental health conditions and disabilities of our clients, to deal with staff shortages and for purposes other than a last resort’, said Dan.

‘Putting a child in isolation, away from sunlight and unable to access school or other activities has severe consequences. It can cause particular harm for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are also overrepresented in the criminal justice system.  We have concerns that the reliance on this practice over extended periods of time will damage these young people and impact their transition back to the community’, said Dan.

The experience of children living in Victoria’s two secure welfare services are highlighted in the report. Children in these facilities are among the most disadvantaged in Victoria. We support the Ombudsman’s inclusion of these facilities in inspections, to provide some independent oversight of these facilities. The submission notes we have concerns that some children may simply be lost in the system without increased oversight of Department of Health and Human Services decisions to place children in these facilities.

‘This investigation from the Victorian Ombudsman is an opportunity to map and expose the pathways and drivers that result in young people going into prison or other secure facilities in the first place’, said Executive Director of Civil Justice Access and Equity Rowan McRae. 

‘We see many examples where unstable housing and homelessness and lack of access to the right mental health and disability supports in the community, including through the NDIS, contribute to a young person’s journey into these environments. These experiences can result in the use of more restrictive practices, such as solitary confinement and seclusion, causing long-term damage to young people and their futures’. said Rowan.

Dan said improving access to services that treated the causes of offending would lessen reliance on solitary confinement.  ‘In our view, improving access to diversionary, therapeutic and community-based supports is the best approach to reducing the harm caused by imprisonment, especially the experience of solitary confinement’ he said.

Our clients' stories

Leo’s story

Leo (not his real name) is an aspiring musician. Leo is currently living at Malmsbury. Leo told his lawyer that they seem to spend every second day on rotations. Leo has been in custody before and says that things are 'the worst they have ever been.'

'I come out feeling angry.'

Leo told his lawyer that he spends most of his time locked in. Being locked in makes Leo feel angry. He says that when he is feeling this way there is nobody to talk to.

Leo has also observed the impact of lockdowns and rotations on other young people living at Malmsbury. He says they are “always angry or expressing suicidal thoughts” when they come out of lockdown and rotations.

Leo knows he should ask for help when he needs extra support. But the support doesn’t come very quickly. When Leo requested to see a psychologist he had to see the doctor first to get a referral. It was six weeks before he actually got to speak with a psychologist. Leo has only seen a psychologist twice in the three months he has been living at Malmsbury despite entering Malmsbury with a diagnosed need for mental health support.

There have been times when Leo hasn’t asked for help because he is afraid of the consequences. He says that they often get locked back in when they are feeling angry or have expressed thoughts of self-harm. He was told this is to protect his safety and the safety of the staff.

'I just want someone to talk to.'

Leo often feels lonely and just wants someone to talk to. His family can’t come to see him very often due to the distance between their home and Malmsbury. If they can manage it, staff will come and have a chat but he has noticed that this doesn’t happen much as there are not enough staff at Malmsbury. Often he just relies on the other boys in his unit for emotional support. When they are stuck in their cells this can’t happen. He doesn’t feel like he has enough support at Malmsbury. Sometimes he hasn’t even been able to speak with his lawyer as there have not been enough staff to accommodate the video conference.

Philipa's story

Philipa (not her real name) is a young Indigenous woman who first came into contact with mental health services at the age of 17, when she was completing her VCE and experiencing some difficulties with her peers.

Now 25, Philipa has been treated on compulsory mental health orders since her late teens. Philipa remembers missing school due to hospitalisation and feeling a strong sense of anger toward her school principal and treating clinicians who initiated her admission. She recalls times when this anger has translated to threatening or attempting to harm clinicians. Philipa believes that the mental health services are frightened by her previous aggressive behaviour and continue to keep her controlled and medicated not to treat a mental health issue but to manage the potential of further violent behaviour, given that there have been no incidents of violence in the past year.

Her current diagnosis is delusional disorder, and her psychiatrist continues to express the view that her mental illness requires treatment via anti-psychotic medications. Philipa has frequently been held in ‘open seclusion’ for weeks at a time, where her door was left open, but a nurse was stationed there to prevent her leaving. She has experienced extended periods of isolation from other patients while being held in High Dependency Units. Philipa often feels upset about a particular seclusion incident that involved a nurse removing Philipa’s bra without seeking her consent and recounts several occasions of being held down and forcibly injected.

More information

Read our submission to the Victorian Ombudsman’s investigation into solitary confinement and young people in Victoria (docx, 194.89 KB)

We welcome the input of the private profession to this advocacy. If you have a client case study to contribute, please contact Strategic Policy Manager, Criminal Law, Josephine Parkinson by emailing Josephine.parkinson@vla.vic.gov.au.

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