Shining a light on hidden places

By Nicole Shackleton

Professor Patrick Keyzer, Dr Emma Henderson, Stephanie Falconer, Patrick McGee and I are very excited that our work on the United Nations Communication for Mr M. has come to the public’s attention. The Communication was a team effort, and involved numerous hours of research, interviewing and writing over the period of a year to complete.

One of the significant issues raised in the Communication is the use of restraint chairs against Mr M. Similarly to the use of restraint chairs against juveniles in the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre, restraint chairs are often used on other vulnerable prisoners such as those with cognitive and mental impairments. Mr M., who suffers from a severe cognitive impairment, is frequently physically restrained by staff, strapped into a restraint chair sometimes for several hours, and medicated with sedatives until he is unconscious. In the Communication we argue that this treatment, particularly considering Mr M.’s vulnerabilities, constitutes cruel and inhuman treatment or punishment. In addition, the issue of restraint chairs in order to control Mr M.’s behaviour creates a vicious cycle: the use of a restraint chair agitates him, making him more likely to exhibit concerning behaviour, and in turn more likely to be placed in a restraint chair again.

In addition to the use of restraint chairs, the Communication also alleged a number of other human rights violations in Mr M.’s case. Mr M. has been subjected to extended periods of isolation in his cell, sometimes up to 23 hours a day. We argued that Mr M.’s detention in a maximum-security prison, despite the fact that he has not been convicted of any crime, is discriminatory, inappropriate and indefinite, and therefore constitutes arbitrary detention. We also argued that the Mr M.’s Indigenous Australian minority rights to family, Community and Culture have also been violated by his incarceration at the Alice Springs Correctional Centre.

In the Communication, we argue that Mr M. should be placed in supported community care where he can receive the care and treatment that he needs for his cognitive and physical disabilities. Within the punitive environment of maximum-security prison, Mr M. cannot receive appropriate rehabilitative treatment and it is therefore highly unlikely that he will ever be released, despite never having been convicted.

We hope that the Communication will also prevent Mr M. from being transferred to Darwin Correctional Centre, which is over 1500 kilometers away from his traditional country, Community and family.

We hope that the Communication will provide a remedy to Mr M. for the human rights violations he has endured. We also hope that this Communication, and the publicity surrounding Mr M.’s treatment, will lead to a ban on the use of restraint chairs in any situation. Restraint chairs are unnecessary, degrading and cruel, and their use against prisoners, particularly those with disabilities, violates Australia’s human rights obligations.

Additionally, we hope that this Communication will lead to a finding by the United Nations Human Rights Committee that the incarceration of persons with cognitive and mental impairments, who have not been found guilty of a crime, in maximum-security prison violates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Maximum-security prison should not be used lock-up vulnerable people with an ‘out-of sight, out-of-mind’ mentality.

Our team is very eager to continue important advocacy in this area, and we look forward to the UN Human Rights Committee decision on this matter.

Nicole Shackleton graduated from La Trobe Law School with a first class honours degree in Law in 2015, and has since been working at the School as a researcher and tutor. In September, Nicole will be travelling to Cambodia to complete a three-month internship with the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC).

La Trobe