The dignity of people behind bars should never be negotiable

The dignity of people behind bars should never be negotiable

This article first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald.

"No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones." So said Nelson Mandela after spending close to three decades of his life imprisoned.

December 17 marks two years since the United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopted the Nelson Mandela Rules, the minimum standards for how we should treat people behind bars. And so it is fitting that today we judge our nation through Mandela's eyes – how we choose to treat the men, women and children who are locked away in prisons across Australia.

Australia is cramming people into prisons at increasing and record rates. Around 40,000 adults and 1000 children are behind bars today.

The backdrop to Australia's prisons is one characterised by social betrayal and prejudice: people who have been sexually abused as children, domestic violence survivors, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and people with disability are all unfairly over-represented in every prison in every state and territory.

By and large, Australian prisons are dehumanising places. A horizon of grey concrete; a sky punctuated by barbed wire; rationed food; a punitive, authoritative culture; limited training and education opportunities; sub-standard health services; far away from the family and community support that people need to get their lives back on track.

While some might argue that this is as it should be, the fundamental challenge Mandela and the rules named after him pose is to break with our callous tendency to harm people who do harm. We should commit to upholding the dignity of every single person – whether free or behind bars. We should remember that all people have an intrinsic worth that we should never, ever tread upon.

It is in this vein that, among other protections, the Mandela Rules expressly prohibit the use of solitary confinement on children, and prolonged solitary confinement on adults – solitary in excess of 15 days.

Unsurprisingly, evidence shows that this practice can severely and irreversibly damage a person: insomnia, confusion, trauma, hallucinations and psychosis are just a few of the risks.

Despite the known harm and explicit contravention of the Mandela rules, solitary confinement is a mainstay of prison management across Australia. The Victorian Ombudsman recently scrutinised the principal Victorian women's prison and found that a number of women had been held in solitary confinement for over 12 months.

The Ombudsman also found that all women were being regularly, routinely and needlessly strip searched – on admission, before and after contact visits with family and friends, whenever leaving the prison to see a doctor, to do community work, go to court or access support.

Degrading, routine strip searches are ubiquitous in almost all Australian prisons. This is despite their being more modern, less intrusive ways to check for contraband and despite the Mandela Rules being clear: strip searches should only be conducted if absolutely necessary. That is, wherever and whenever possible, people should be spared this trauma.

Like solitary confinement, being forced to remove every single piece of clothing in front of two strangers, again and again, erodes dignity and therefore undermines hope – the very things that give our lives meaning.

Ultimately, how we treat people in prison matters not just because most will be released back into the community, but because we are all diminished the moment we start picking and choosing who is deserving of dignity.

Last week Australia ratified the United Nation's optional protocol to the torture convention – a protocol specifically designed to prevent cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in places of detention by shining a light through independent oversight. 

This is welcome. Abuse thrives in darkness. For too long we have maintained a culture of "out of sight, out of mind" when it comes to suffering in prisons.

The trouble is scrutiny and transparency is one thing, but change is another. This requires the political will to do things better – to spend capital on the unpopular because it is the right thing to do. Because the dignity of people behind bars should never be negotiable, even though their liberty might be.

If our ideal for Australia is a country that cares for the inherent worth of all people, then we should take Mandela's rules and his measure of a nation seriously. For now, we fair poorly on both.

Ruth Barson is a Director of Legal Advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre.