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Lawyers look at colonial influence on justice system

Lawyers look at colonial influence on justice system

An all-day conference on Post Colonialism, Mental Illness and Prisons is being held today (May 15) as part of Law Week in Victoria.

An all-day conference on Post Colonialism, Mental Illness and Prisons is being held today (May 15) as part of Law Week in Victoria.

Dr Joan Clarke, chair of the Institute for Post-Colonial Studies, who organised the conference, said that law encroaches hugely on people with mental illness.

“I understand people want to be hard on crime but that has not been good for people with mental illness and it has increased the numbers of people in prison who really, because of their mental state, shouldn’t be [there],” said Clarke.

Dr Danny Sullivan, assistant clinical director of Forensicare and one of the speakers at the forum, estimates that that nearly 90 per cent of people in prison have some sort of mental disorder, whether that be an acquired brain injury, a severe mental illness or an intellectual disability.

“It’s like [prisons] have become the new institution in today’s world,” said Clarke.

Her paper on life in the Aradale Lunatic Asylum in Victoria from 1867 provides a backdrop for the event, which explores how colonial stereotypes and traditional approaches to mental illness persist today.

Clarke examined a series of leather-bound books containing records of those held inside Aradale from 1867 to it close in 1998.

The asylum largely resembled a prison in the 19th and 20th centuries: patients were called inmates, 90 per cent of them were brought in by police and many were tied up in solitary confinement with reasons listed as ‘trying to escape’, ‘rude’ or ‘delusional’.

“One woman’s [file note] said: ‘Has been quiet and well behaved for five years’, and she was discharged about six months later,” said Clarke, adding that ‘inmates’ had to pass various tests to get back into society.

The leather-bound books also noted ‘inmates’’ composure and whether they were ‘dressed neatly’, she said.

With the advent of psychotropic drug treatment and welfare cost-cutting, most large 'asylums' were closed down in the 1980s.

When that happened, patients weren’t offered enough community support, said Clarke, and housing and accommodation remains a real problem.

Lack of services

Forensicare offers a 116-bed secure hospital for patients from the criminal justice system in need of psychiatric assessment and/or care, but the organisation cannot support all those who need its services.

“They have five acres at Fairfield; there just aren’t enough beds so the lucky people get in there and they get really good rehabilitation techniques, and for those who miss out, they go to prison,” said Clarke

Along with the psychological stress from being imprisoned, those who are jailed often do not have immediate access to a doctor or to their usual medication, said Clarke.

“A sad thing recently was the reduction of suspended sentences … it used to work quite well,” said Clarke, who saw firsthand, in her role as CEO of Prahran Mission from 1989 to 2005, the benefits of good behavior bonds and community service orders rather than straight jail sentences.

Lawyers attending the forum today will gain a longer view of how Australian society was set up and the strong influences white-settler colonial society still has on the criminal justice system today, said Clarke.

Other speakers include: Dr Sally Wilkins, psychiatrist and former Acting Chief Psychiatrist Victoria; Dr Harry Minus, psychiatrist and director of international mental health at the University of Melbourne; Bridget Organ, manager (mental health), St Vincent’s Hospital; Jenny Hayes, coordinator of chaplains, Port Phillip Prison with special interest in women’s mental health; David Hall, commissioner of the Burdekin Inquiry.

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