The Laws of the Australian Government recognise that a person's capacity to access health services is not compromised by reason of imprisonment and that all people have a basic right to health. This recognition is evidenced in Australia's international treaty obligations.
There is little doubt that prisoners are amongst the unhealthiest people in Australia. The New South Wales Corrections Health Service (CHS) estimates that about 80% of prisoners have been imprisoned for offences related to legal or illegal drug use or committed whilst under their influence. 14% of prisoners are indigenous, who although only despite constitute less than 2% of Australia's population are internationally recognised as living in Third World conditions. 18% of prisoners are of non-English speaking background.
Justice Action views as vital the right of all prisoners to have their health needs met in the most culturally specific and accessible manner possible. To that end, Justice Action negotiates with and lobbies government and health service providers to prisoners.
Justice Action also meets regularly with the CHS that has primary responsibility for meeting the health needs of NSW prisoners. Justice Action passes on complaints about the quality of health care and health services to the CHS and other investigative bodies.
- Blood Borne Communicable Diseases
- Safe Cells
- Mental Health
- Women's Health
- Policies, Publications and Resources
Blood borne communicable diseases
A 1997 study of New South Wales prison entrants reveals nearly 40% enter with Hepatitis C. HIV rates have consistently been higher in the prison system than the general community, with current rates at about 10 times higher. This despite a 1996 study of 14 recently released HIV positive prisoners revealing seven contracted HIV in the prison system, with 5 of these seroconversions genetically sourced to one prisoner. However, the prison system refuses to implement needle exchange programs, despite their successful operation in Switzerland and Germany, and introduce other schemes such as allowing prisoners access to Narcotics Anonymous and expand methadone program access, particularly to short sentenced prisoners.
Through successful lobbying, condoms will be distributed through the NSW prison system, following the lead of 19 overseas jurisdictions and the Australian Capital Territory, through 1997.
Justice Action provided support to Richard Lynott, who died of AIDS related illnesses, in his suing of the NSW Government for breach of duty of care in 1996. Justice Action ran a high profile national media campaign on these issues, with all mainstream media carrying stories. Justice Action is currently seeking to obtain equal access to HIV positive prisoners to trials of new HIV treatments.
Safe cells are used for prisoners at risk of self harm or suicide. A CHS nurse described these as unfit for dogs. Justice Action has successfully lobbied for a review of these cells and has been involved in ongoing discussion with CHS about their use.
The Burdekin inquiry into mental health in 1994 concluded that mental health has been criminalised in Australia. The prison system has become the inappropriate de facto treatment centre for many mentally ill people. A 1997 investigation into the CHS mental health services recognises that the law must be changed as Òthe present arrangements restrict the opportunity to provide appropriate medical care and rehabilitation to those offenders suffering from mental disorder and any contemplated changes to improve services for mentally disordered offenders may be facilitated by changes in the law to the benefit of society and individuals. (The Blueglass report) That report also notes the appallingly low level of psychiatric staff and occupational therapists.
The First National Conference of Community Based Justice Activists (1996) resolved that the health care system should be used for the mentally ill, not the criminal justice system. Justice Action is one of the national coordinators for tackling the issue of criminalising mental health and is involved in negotiations at a national level on spotlighting this issue.
Justice Action's program of volunteers assisting women prisoners with their cases and custodial complaints at Mulawa prison has ensured that the particular needs of women prisoners are reflected in our policy positions. Justice Action is represented on the Women's Advisory Committee in CHS to ensure that women's health needs are properly addressed.
Justice Action raises concerns about improper medication and treatments when these arise.
Justice Action also supports calls for the use of non-custodial methods of punishment for drug users and the decriminalisation of drugs. In conjunction with the Victorian based Peoples' Justice Alliance, Justice Action successfully had the International Conference on Penal Abolition (1997) resolve that illegal drugs should be decriminalised.
Further, the national conference made similar resolutions. In Justice Action's submissions to the Royal Commission into the New South Wales Police Service, it was argued that drug law reform would remove the incentive to the endemic police corruption that exists and should be recommended. Further, Justice Action endorsed submissions on this issue by other organisations to the Royal Commission.
'The Case for Needle and Syringe Exchange in the Prisons', George Selvanera for HIV/AIDS Legal Link, Vol. 7, No 4.