"Saddest case": 18-month imprisonment of a Victorian woman found unfit to stand trial

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Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass has described the 18-month imprisonment of a 39-year-old woman with a significant developmental disorder as “the saddest case I have investigated in my time as Ombudsman”.

Tabling her Investigation into the imprisonment of a woman found unfit to stand trial in the Victorian Parliament today, Ms Glass found the woman’s treatment breached Victoria’s human rights laws and international standards on the rights of people with disabilities. Ms Glass said: “we need to ask ourselves how a humane society can justify such treatment”.

She said the woman, who was in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours a day, would scream with distress and lost almost half her body weight while imprisoned in the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre for 18 months over 2016 and 2017.

The woman – given the pseudonym Rebecca to protect her and her family’s privacy – was remanded in prison after being charged with breaching an intervention order taken out by her family, and resisting police. She was subsequently found unfit to stand trial and not guilty because of mental impairment. Under Victorian law, such people must not be detained in prison unless ‘there is no practicable alternative in the circumstances’.

“Rebecca remained in prison simply because there was nowhere for her to go. The judge in her case said she might have been sentenced to a month in prison had she pleaded guilty and been sentenced,” Ms Glass said.

Victoria has no secure therapeutic facilities for women with Rebecca’s disability. Authorities were concerned about releasing her into the community because she had no housing or services.

Ms Glass said Rebecca had a lifelong history of behavioural difficulties but fell into a ‘service gap’ in mental health and disability services. “Professionals agreed she needed support, but no one could agree on who was responsible … Although efforts are now being made to integrate her into the community, both she and society are still paying a high price.”

Ms Glass said Rebecca’s case was not isolated.

“We heard many more stories, some as sad as Rebecca’s, of people with significant disabilities who had spent long periods in prison. These stories highlight both the trauma of incarceration on acutely vulnerable people, and the threat to community safety in failing to provide a safe and therapeutic alternative to prison.

“The State must do more to invest in secure therapeutic facilities; in the words of a forensic psychiatrist we spoke to, Victoria needs a community facility that is both clinical and lockable.

“Whoever forms government in November, fixing this must be a priority.”

Ms Glass made a formal recommendation that the state government invest in secure therapeutic alternatives to prison, for people found unfit to stand trial and/or not guilty due to mental impairment.

In addition, Ms Glass made seven recommendations to the Department of Justice and Regulation and the Department of Health and Human Services, all of which were accepted. They agreed to

  • Consider options for specialist units and services for women with an intellectual disability or cognitive impairment in Victorian prisons.
  • Request the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission to review the application of practices such as solitary confinement, strip-searching, use of restraint and personal care support to prisoners with mental impairment at the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre.
  • Designate a senior person to coordinate and oversee service responses by the Department of Health and Human Services to people who have been found unfit to stand trial due to mental impairment.

Ms Glass thanked organisations and individuals who provided information and assistance to her investigation, including the Office of the Public Advocate, Victoria Legal Aid, the Supreme Court, Law Institute of Victoria, Mental Health Legal Centre, Australian Community Support Organisation, Liberty Victoria and Jesuit Social Services.

Read the report: Investigation into the imprisonment of a woman found unfit to stand trial

Please note: There is a County Court suppression order prohibiting publication of any information that would enable Rebecca’s real name or whereabouts to be identified.

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