The chasm between disability services and prisons
Asking one simple question has opened a Pandora’s box, and a criminologist’s eyes, to the gaping shortfall of support services for prisoners with disability.
“Can services supported under the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) be accessed during incarceration?” wondered Shannon Dodd, a lecturer in criminology at ACU.
The question’s scope seemed simple enough. But the deeper Dr Dodd and her research colleagues dug, the more grey areas they unearthed in a cycle of disadvantage inside and outside prisons for a cohort that is often invisible to the justice system.
Dr Dodd, and UNSW’s Dr Caroline Doyle, Professor Helen Dickinson, Dr Fiona Buick and Dr Sophie Yates, interviewed 28 individuals working at the intersection of disability and the criminal justice system in Victoria, New South Wales, and the Australian Capital Territory.
Their report, There’s not just a gap, there’s a chasm: The boundaries between Australian disability services and prisons, contained startling findings.
At the heart of it was the justice system’s failure to identify a disadvantaged sub-population that is overrepresented in prisons, being people with disability.
While definitions vary, the prevalence of intellectual disability in prisons is estimated to be as high as 30 per cent. That figure is about three per cent in the general population.
Many are slipping into prisons unnoticed.
A government disability advisor interviewed for the report referred to a scenario where eight out of 10 prisoners in a room had NDIS packages. Prison staff were aware of only one.
“What we heard from those we interviewed was that prisons don’t have systems in place to identify people with disability. Upon a person’s reception to prison, they are generally not assessed for disability, or asked if they have an NDIS package or require any daily living supports,” Dr Dodd said.
“If you’re in custody you can become invisible. People with disability are everywhere in prison but simultaneously nowhere.”
The problem often begins before people land in court.
“If you have a disability, the way that manifests can bring you to the attention of police,” Dr Dodd said. “Often that’s not recognised or taken into account, which means people with disability are criminalised as a direct result of their disability.
“There is insufficient support in the community for people with disability and they often end up dumped in the justice system. And prisons don’t yet know how to deal with this prisoner cohort.”
Disability support in prison
Assistance with reading, showering or filling out forms are examples of the daily routines for which people with disability may need support in prison. They may also need help to complete the rehabilitative programs that are often required for parole.
Corrective services are responsible for those day-to-day needs, and the NDIS funds the reasonable and necessary supports that are not justice’s responsibility. This service interface is, however, fraught with difficulties and can mean that a person’s needs are not met by either party.
In the absence of services, people with disability may lean on their prison peers, an ad hoc practice that carries its own risks.
Ideally, people with disability who are sentenced to imprisonment would be housed in disability-specific prison units with staff who have an appropriate level of training or qualifications.
However, these units are not available at all prisons and people with disability are often housed in mainstream prison units. The study also found that some prisoners were reluctant to identify as having a disability, and those who did faced inconsistency in the level of services they could access.
As for the question of what happens to a person’s NDIS plan while they are incarcerated: “The common response interviewees gave us is that a person’s NDIS plan pauses when they’re in custody and restarts when they get out,” Dr Dodd said.
Dr Dodd argued the lack of identification and support for people with disability represents a type of institutional thoughtlessness. She called for a re-framing of the way we think about prisons.
“Prisons are essentially designed for young, able-bodied men,” she said. “However, we know that a large cohort of people in prison do not meet this profile and indeed large numbers are intellectually disabled or borderline intellectually disabled. We also have an aging prisoner population.
“Rather than beginning at a standpoint that everyone has full intellectual capacity, what would happen if we assumed that everyone requires some level of assistance?”
The report called for significant attention to ensure people in prisons get consistent and fair access to NDIS entitlements – well before their release date.
Specialist support coordinators and funding for advocacy services were also part of the call to action.
“This research has opened my eyes,” Dr Dodd said. “Understanding the service gaps for people in prison with disability previously wasn’t something on my mind, but now I can’t stop thinking about this issue and what we could do better.”
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