Prisoners held in solitary confinement, denied access to lawyers in Covid-19 response

16 September 2020

 

                                                    

 

People on remand and serving custodial sentences in Queensland are being held in solitary confinement and denied access to lawyers and adequate medical care, in an array of human rights breaches prompted by Queensland’s Covid-19 Declaration of Emergency.

Staff at Caxton Legal Centre and Prisoners Legal Service have identified that solitary confinement is being used as a method of isolating vulnerable people, in some cases for 24 hours a day.

In some instances, human rights breaches have occurred in direct contravention of Queensland Corrective Services policy.

Cybele Koning, CEO of Caxton Legal Centre, said recent communication from one correctional centre stated that it was ‘not operationally viable’ to facilitate prisoner teleconferences with lawyers due to staffing limitations.

“Access to lawyers for people in prison is one of the minimum guarantees provided to Queenslanders under the Human Rights Act.  This guarantee is often considered to be the most important and fundamental right to safeguard the fairness of criminal proceedings.

“Whilst we recognise the additional pressure that Covid-19 has placed on corrective services, our lawyers have experienced restrictions in communicating with clients in prison since March.

“When we have technology at our disposal, it is inconceivable that this persistent breach of rights has not been addressed at a systemic level. This needs to be fixed urgently.”

Helen Blaber, Director of Prisoners Legal Service, said that Prisoners Legal Service have also received reports of people in prison not being provided with timely access to medical or mental health care.

“I am concerned that prisoners are not being provided with prescribed medication in the doses or at the times required. For example, we have been told that at one correctional centre medication is only being delivered once per day, or not at all, instead of in the required doses which might be twice per day.

“Prisoners have a human right to health services, including the provision of medication, which is being restricted without justification.”

Caxton Legal Centre and Prisoners Legal Service are aware of situations where persons who meet the ‘vulnerable prisoner’ criteria have been held in solitary confinement, for at least 22 hours each day with limited outdoor time and restricted calls to family, for periods upwards of four months. In addition, Queensland Corrective Services policy requires that people newly admitted into prison are held in solitary confinement for 24 hours a day, without access to any outdoor time for 14 day periods.

“It is unacceptable to use solitary confinement as a response to the pandemic instead of humane medical isolation.  We know that solitary confinement is a dangerous practice as there’s a high likelihood that people who experience it will suffer psychological damage which can be permanent,” said Helen Blaber.

A report, Legal perspectives on solitary confinement in Queensland, released earlier this year detailed the severe psychological harm caused by solitary confinement.

The community legal services have also been told by people in prison that contact with family has been drastically reduced because of limited prisoner access to phone calls, and following a suspension of all personal visits to South East Queensland correctional centres on 29 July 2020.

“Ongoing restrictive regulation of family contact is also a breach of human rights.  The Human Rights Act is being sorely tested in all these situations.  These issues need to be rectified immediately.

“Covid-19 will be with us for the foreseeable future and correctional centres need to be operating in a manner which protects people who are currently in prison from the virus and at the same time upholds basic human rights,” said Cybele Koning.

 

Media contacts:

Cybele Koning, CEO, Caxton Legal Centre Inc. (07) 3214 6333

Helen Blaber, Director, Prisoners Legal Service, (07) 3846 5074   

Background: Legal perspectives on solitary confinement in Queensland, A comprehensive report by the University of Queensland and Prisoners Legal Service, May 2020


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