The federal government has announced it will ratify and implement the OPCAT treaty . Few people will have heard of OPCAT (Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture). It creates no new legal rights. Yet it could be the single most positive step this decade in improving conditions in all Australian places of detention.
OPCAT will enhance how independent bodies inspect places of detention in Australia. The idea is to identify and address problems before they escalate into serious mistreatment and worse.
But there’s a big caveat. OPCAT will have a positive impact only if Australian governments honestly recognise where detention problems exist and are then open to change.
We should be under no illusions. Countless reports say we need to improve conditions of detention. Horrifying images, such as those broadcast last year from the Don Dale youth detention centre, show we must act now.
Terrible things can happen in detention. Yet, in Australia, mistreatment is almost never the result of a deliberate policy to do harm. Problems tend to be caused by something subtle but insidious: policies and practices that haven’t been properly thought through or reviewed.
One of the most haunting cases from my previous life as a lawyer concerned Mark Holcroft. Mr Holcroft was a knock-about Aussie bloke: loved by his family and friends, and a bit rough around the edges.
Mr Holcroft was sentenced to seven months’ prison for drink driving. After a few days of processing, he was transferred from Bathurst prison to a minimum-security facility to serve out the bulk of his sentence. The journey takes a few hours by prison van.
Not long into the journey, Mr Holcroft was sick. Soon he was screaming in agony and frothing at the mouth. He and the other prisoners in the van pleaded for the officers to get medical help. Rigidly applying policy, the officers refused and the van drove on.
When they reached the destination, Mr Holcroft had died of a heart attack. The inquest revealed the denial of medical care was a critical failure.
No one deliberately wanted to harm Mr Holcroft, but system-wide problems needlessly put him at risk. For example, prisoners couldn’t easily communicate with corrections officers transporting them and prisoners often weren’t given the basic things – like regular food and water – that can keep people safe and well on long journeys.
Mr Holcroft's case led to change. But it received attention for the most tragic reason – because it was an inquest. OPCAT can help identify and address such problems before tragedy strikes.
When a person is detained – in prison; a mental health facility; anywhere – they remain human. Protecting their basic dignity is just as important as it was before they were detained. We should do it because it’s right.
But protecting a detainee’s basic rights is also in all our interests. If a person is brutalised in detention, they will be more dangerous on their release. By contrast, treating detainees humanely presents an opportunity for education, reform and healing.
And so OPCAT is also about shining a light on best practices. Western Australia has the nation’s most developed system for inspections, through its inspector of custodial services.
For instance, last year, the WA inspector identified an innovative program at Acacia prison to attract and retain Aboriginal prisoners as workers. These sorts of programs can be instrumental in building useful skills, turning lives around and reducing re-offending rates.
Where such programs work, Opcat presents an opportunity to roll them out more broadly.
Dostoevsky said that a community’s degree of civilisation can be judged by entering its prisons. And this is true.
But it’s not enough just to go inside. We need to get our hands dirty; to work within the system to make sure we live up to the standards we have set for ourselves. Ratifying OPCAT presents an opportunity to make sure that people who are detained in Australia have their basic rights respected.
But this opportunity will amount to nothing unless it’s grasped by government and civil society. That means looking honestly at detention conditions, and making changes that will protect people and, most importantly, avoid tragic deaths like Mark Holcroft.