Cheerful banter with the on-duty nurse of the Dee Why Ward at the Forensic Hospital provided a stark contrast to what life behind the twenty-foot high concrete walls must be like. For many forensic patients, including Saeed Dezfouli, there is no indication of when they will be released, having had an indefinite sentence imposed. For Saeed and all the forensic patients, this isolation and disjunct from the outside world is a day-to-day living reality.
On 12 September 2014, we (Damian, Danielle, and Melissa), as workers from Justice Action, visited Saeed at the Forensic Hospital. Visitations as friends of the patient was previously not permitted. As a forensic patient, being able to have visits from friends is a fundamental right and is also important for their overall wellbeing. Despite this, it was not seen as a right until 2011, when Justice Action was finally granted access for the first time to visit Saeed as friends, after extensive campaigning for almost two and a half years. This is an example of the heavy-handed institutionalisation of forensic patients.
Our visit to see Saeed at the Hospital proved to be quite a challenging task, filled with a myriad of stringent security checks and having to enter through a series of locked metal-detector doors. From the moment of arrival, our impression of the Hospital was that it was clean, sparse, and extremely clinical. Our first point of contact was the security staff, who was seated in an enclosed office with a glass-panelled window. For the first half hour of our arrival, we were denied access to see Saeed, as apparently we were not ‘on the list’ according to the computer database. This was despite the fact that our visit had already been arranged with the Hospital the day before. Ultimately, due to a misunderstanding on their part, we were finally granted access to see Saeed.
However, this marked only the beginning of a series of rigorous security checks, including biometric scanning, that we had to undergo. The first step was to inspect our identification. After being ID’d, we were given keys to a locker space, whereby all our paraphernalia had to be kept inside. Scarves were also not permitted. The second step involved scanning our fingerprints and taking retina scans. This was done several times. Even after being permitted access to the check-in room where we passed through the metal detectors, we were again asked to scan our fingerprints. Next, we passed through a second solid steel door, after it was electronically unlocked, and we sat for a few minutes in an almost empty room waiting for someone to escort us to the Dee Why Ward. Eventually, two nurses arrived and guided us to the complex where Saeed currently resides.
During our short walk to the complex, we saw that there were ovals and open spaces for exercising. However, we soon found out that patients are not allowed use these spaces for exercising, jogging, or playing any sporting activities. Along our walk, we also saw 20-feet high security walls, mauesoleums, and concrete buildings. All of these added to a feeling of being institutionalised.
Once inside the complex, we were struck by how bureaucratic and clinical everything was. There were forensic patients who passed by us. They seemed somewhat subdued, which is the effect of being heavily medicated. The nurses were garbed in blue and were guiding the patients along. We later learned that there is actually minimal interaction between patients and nurses. Finally, we were led to a room where we were to meet Saeed and talk with him for an hour.
Saeed proved to be different from what is expected of a patient living under maximum security who has been diagnosed with “paranoid schizophrenia”. He had an open and warm demeanour during the meeting. He was polite, poised, and articulate in sharing his views. He was very well informed of the current law and offered helpful critique of hospital life. Saeed discussed his belief that there is a lack of responsive programs in the hospital that would have long term benefits for patients. In the discussion, he detailed his daily life, saying that for each day, there is only one group activity offered. This group activity comprised of listening to other patients share a news article. He feels that such a program is highly ineffective as people don’t actively interact with each other, and that labelling it as a ‘program’ is purely a “game of deception”.
As part of such a “game of deception”, Saeed has developed a distrust of the nurses and the system as a whole. According to Saeed, although the hospital is relatively safer than prisons, the difficulty he has in convincing those outside of the need for improvements leave patients at risk of having their dignity compromised. He feels that by openly speaking out about this, he may receive backlash. However, this does not detract from the need to reform the system to reflect the current societal standards of rights.
A way to reform the system is to provide access to computers for forensic patients. On one level, it would allow patients, including Saeed, to use their time productively, instead of sitting idly. On another level, patients will feel less isolated from the real world. With these computers, they’re able to access their rights and stay informed of current affairs. Being able to maximise their time in such a way through computer access will mean forensic patients feel less detached from reality. When we raised this up with Saeed, we could see that it is something that he is looking forward to.
It is evident from our visit to Saeed the kinds of institutionalisation methods which are being employed. These include heavy-handed security checks for visitors, lack of access to computers for patients, poorly-implemented social treatment programs, and inefficient use of resources (such as the ovals) that would improve their physical and mental wellbeing. From the visit, we, as part of Justice Action, have seen how crucial it is that there be reform to help and support forensic patients, and more effective use of resources that would cater for the needs of different patients.