TALS gives evidence at prison inquiry

Wednesday 05 July, 2023

By Charmaine Manuel (The Examiner)

A man bitten by another inmate in prison had to wait three days before being tested for hepatitis B and getting treatment, a lawyer from the Tasmanian Aboriginal Legal Service has told a parliamentary inquiry into imprisonment and youth detention.

Hannah Phillips, acting state manager at the Tasmanian Aboriginal Legal Service (TALS), told committee members that if they saw what was happening on "a day-to-day basis" in prisons, they would be "alarmed".

"Imagine sitting in a cell not knowing whether you've been given hepatitis and not getting the appropriate health care and not being able to do anything about it."

The evidence followed TALS' submission for the Legislative Council's Inquiry into Tasmanian Adult Imprisonment and Youth Detention Matters.

The inquiry seeks to report on Tasmanian corrective services and the justice system related to adult imprisonment and youth detention.

Among other issues, it seeks to understand factors that increase prison populations, recidivism, services provided to people in prison, as well as innovations and improvements to corrective services that could be applied in Tasmania.

Other issues that TALS had encountered include not having toilet paper, not being fed properly or getting access to health services quickly.

TALS Community Engagement and Program Manager Lea-Anne Carter told the inquiry that a lack of Medicare was another issue her clients faced.

"Anytime a person enters into custody and is in prison, they are not eligible for Medicare at all, and that leads them to the health system within the prison, which isn't always available to prisoners as well."

TALS also called for attention to the lack of Aboriginal staff in the Tasmanian prison system, saying that there was only one Aboriginal staff member at Risdon prison.

While there haven't been many Aboriginal deaths in custody in Tasmania, Ms Carter said it was not a matter of "if" but "when."

"I don't want to see the state covering its butt after the event because of a lack of cultural support," she said.

The submission also highlighted the impact of the justice system on young people.

Ms Phillips told the committee that a young client could not get to school because police had put a bail condition preventing them from entering the CBD.

"They catch the bus from the CBD, so they cannot go to school," she said.

She also cited an example of a 12-year-old "in clothes that go below his knee" in the same facility as adults at a prison in Hobart who had been "asking for his mother."

"That's disgraceful because there's nowhere to keep a youth in Hobart."

Ms Phillips told The Examiner that significant funding was needed to create options other than prison "because it is not going to fix people".

There needs to be support for children and their families as well as those who have "complex needs" as those are the young people who are ending up at the Ashley Youth Detention Centre, she said.

Children who have committed low-level offending shouldn't be locked up in the first place, Ms Carter said.

"No child should be in custody. Prison should be a last resort for any young person or any adult."

TALS is calling for raising the age of criminal responsibility to 14, stopping the imprisonment of children, fixing the prison system and creating more rehabilitation, early intervention and treatment options, Ms Carter said.

She also called for a "human rights-centred approach" to custody issues rather than a "justice approach."

Ms Phillips said she hoped that the short-term outcomes of the inquiry would be TALS's recommendations being accepted and a "genuine commitment" to funding Aboriginal community organisations and providing alternative options for young people who end up at the Ashley Youth Detention Centre.

"Take the money from the end of the system and put it in at the beginning," she said.

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