There have not been recent studies into self-harm and suicide within prisons in Australia. As a result, policies and practices are often based on overseas research.
The suicide rate in Australian prisons is about three times higher than the national suicide rate. The suicide rate in prisons is 3.9 per 10,000 (2012) compared to the national rate of 1.2 per 10,000 (2012).
Of the 49 deaths in prison between 2012–13, 32 were due to natural causes, 13 deaths were recorded as being self-inflicted with the remainder being due to accident or homicide. The rate of deaths in custody was estimated at 1.1 per 1,000 prisoners.
Tracy Brannigan died in prison on Monday 25 February 2013, due to a suspected drug overdose. Prior to her death, Brannigan had been frustrated that she could not access education. Her security conditions had also left her lacking family support. Justice Action, a human rights movement for Australian prisoners, believe Brannigan’s death could have been avoided if she had been provided drug rehabilitation, social intervention, or a cell where she could be appropriately monitored for self-harm.
Ill-treatment and violence
8% of discharged prisoners reported being physically assaulted or attacked by a prisoner during their imprisonment according to a 2015 report on the Health of Australia’s Prisoners 2015.
On April 7th 2015, a 40-year-old prisoner named Michael O’Keefe who was serving time at Mid North Coast Correctional Centre in Kempsey, fell into a coma after being assaulted by another prisoner. Once unconscious, a group of young prisoners carved ‘EFE’ (eye for an eye) into Mr O’Keefe’s head and poured boiling water over him.
There have been reports of prison guards exposing prisoners to rival gangs and leaving them vulnerable to violence as a form of punishment.
Prisoners are not always allowed to move away from those they deem to be a threat without going directly into solitary confinement. The negative psychological impact of solitary confinement means that other options are required.
Michael Quinn, a prisoner at Silverwater prison in NSW was allegedly assaulted by prison guards after complaining about his treatment in 2015. The court hearing is currently underway.
Ill-treatment and violence between prisoners and committed by prison guards is believed to be under-reported.
Arbitrary or secret detention
The UN human rights committee has condemned Australia’s use of arbitrary detention many times over recent years. Australia has detained thousands of asylum seekers and in more recent years, many recognized refugees.
In total, the UN has found violations in 51 cases of refugees incarcerated by Australia, more than any other country. Most recently, the UN human rights committee (UNHRC) found that five refugees illegally detained between 2009 and 2015 had suffered arbitrary and indefinite detention in inadequate conditions. It is thought that there are 6-10 prisoners who continue to be held in arbitrary detention.
People with mental health issues can be involuntarily detained if they appear to suffer from a mental illness, if their health or safety is at risk, if they pose a risk to others or if there is no alternative way to treat them. UN principles recommend that initial involuntary admission should be for a ‘short period’ pending external review. Most Australian jurisdictions fail to comply with these principles. This involuntary detention has been shown to increase the level of psychological illness within detainees.