People with intellectual disabilities are over-represented amongst people in custody. It is estimated that between 15 and 30 per cent of people in custody have an intellectual or cognitive impairment. This compares to approximately two to three per cent in the general population.

Intellectual disabilities are particularly prevalent in the youth custodial estate. A study of young people in Banksia Hill Detention Centre found 89 per cent had at least one domain of severe neurodevelopmental impairment, and 36 per cent were diagnosed with FASD.

Considering these numbers, it is important to recognise the challenges people with intellectual disabilities may face while in custody. For instance, they may struggle to understand the instructions of custodial staff. This may then be interpreted as deliberate non-compliance and result in disciplinary actions. Some intellectual disabilities, such as FASD, impact executive functioning and impulse control. This can manifest in violent or non-conforming behaviour, placing themselves or others at risk.

People with intellectual disability may also be at greater risk of exploitation and abuse while in prison or detention.

Early identification of people in custody with an intellectual disability helps ensure they are provided with appropriate supports and services.

This review will examine the identification, management and supports available to people with intellectual disabilities in Western Australian custodial facilities, guided by the following terms of reference:

  1. Does the Department adequately identify people in custody with intellectual disabilities?
  2. Does the Department adequately manage people in custody with intellectual disabilities?
  3. Do people in custody with intellectual disabilities have access to appropriate supports and services?

For the purpose of this review, the term intellectual disabilities include cognitive disabilities (including low IQ), Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder (FASD) and those with Acquired Brain Injuries (ABI).

All people in custody should be provided the opportunity to practice the religion, cultural or spiritual expression of their choice safely (CSAC, 2018). This includes having the ability to practice any religious beliefs and access worship and faith-based groups and activities. Prison management should facilitate access to multi-faith services, and any artefacts, publications, clothing or foods necessary to allow individuals to maintain adherence to their religious lifestyle requirements.

Additionally, chaplains provide an important role connecting people in custody with faith services. They facilitate multi-faith religious and spiritual services and work with spiritual leaders to meet the needs of people in custody. They also provide pastoral care – offering emotional support to people in need regardless of faith. This often includes prisoners who are grieving or being monitored under the at-risk management system. As such, chaplains are an important element of the prisoner support system. They are also active participants in the prison or detention centre community, building strong relationships and assisting people in custody along their rehabilitation journey.

Consistent with other jurisdictions, the Department of Justice has outsourced the provision of religious and spiritual services, including chaplains. In Western Australia the Council of Churches of Western Australia Inc. (CCWA) provides these services under a five-year contract. As a Christian-based organisation, the CCWA are expected to work with leaders of other faiths as required to meet the needs of all people in custody.

As found in community, people in custody in Western Australia have a diverse mix of religious and spiritual beliefs. As of July 2023, prisoners were associated with over 140 different religions. Using the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ classification system, ‘secular and other spiritual beliefs and those with no religious affiliation’ were the largest grouping of religions recorded at 59.5 per cent. Christianity (30.3%), Islam (3.4%), Buddhism (1.2%), other religions (0.7%), Judaism (0.1%) and Hinduism (0.03%) followed. No religion was specified or recorded against the remaining 4.8 per cent of the population.

This review will examine the delivery of chaplaincy and faith services for people in custody in Western Australia to assess for equity and effectiveness. It will be guided by the following terms of reference:

  1. Does the Department of Justice provide equitable access to faith services and resources for all religious groups?
  2. Are custodial chaplaincy services adequately resourced to cater to the needs of people in custody?
  3. How does the Department of Justice monitor contracted chaplaincy services for efficiency and effectiveness?

Reviews undertaken as part of the Office of the Inspector of Custodial Services’ Snapshot Series are designed to provide a brief summary of an issue or trend in or effecting the Western Australian custodial environment.

In recent years, we have reported concerns about the mental health crisis within adult and youth custodial facilities. This crisis has been driven by the demand for mental health services by those in custody, and the inadequate resources available to service their needs. On average, there are nearly 700 people in custody on any given day with a known mental health condition; ranging from those with chronic but stable conditions, to those assessed as having a serious psychiatric condition requiring immediate care. Managing the needs of these people is critical to preventing self-inflicted harm and unnatural deaths in custody.

As part of our monitoring of the custodial estate in Western Australia we regularly review trends across a range of indicators, including self-harm incidents. Recently we identified a discrepancy in data managed by the Department of Justice (the Department) relating to the classification of self-harm and attempted suicide incidents. The maintenance of accurate records provides the Department clarity in its oversight, and an evidence-base to confidently guide the allocation of mental health resources to mitigate the risk of people in custody self-harming.

This review will examine the accuracy of recording and reporting for self-harm and attempted suicide incidents within adult and youth custodial facilities.

Reviews undertaken as part of the Office of the Inspector of Custodial Services’ Snapshot Series are designed to provide a brief summary of an issue or trend in or effecting the Western Australian custodial environment.

People in custody experiencing acute distress should have access to appropriate crisis care. Mental health disorders affect a significant proportion of the Australian community. It is estimated that approximately 44 per cent of Australians have experienced some form of mental illness within their lifetime (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2022). Consequently, this trend translates into custodial populations with people in custody experiencing high levels of psychological distress and mental illness. The high rate of mental illness can lead persons in custody to be at an increased risk of self-harm or suicide which requires intervention in the form of crisis care.

Many of the larger metropolitan facilities in Western Australia have dedicated crisis care units. These spaces are often in addition to ‘safe cells’ or ‘observational cells’ for those experiencing an immediate threat to self or others. However, smaller facilities including minimum-security and regional facilities may be less equipped to support of the needs and requirements of people in custody experiencing crises. A range of accommodation is needed to support the overall health and wellbeing of this cohort. This includes general accommodation units, step-up and step-down subacute units and more intensive supervision settings with access to appropriate support services.

Previous OICS inspection reports have found the existing physical infrastructure to be anti-therapeutic in design and functionality. This is critical as the physical environment can impact an individual’s social and emotional wellbeing and behaviour (Lopez & Maiello-Reidy, 2017).

Crisis care accommodation should be designed to facilitate recovery and rehabilitation. Environments which incorporate elements of nature and ample natural lighting have been shown to positively enhance psychological wellbeing (Nanda et al., 2013). Wide open spaces with clear sightlines allow for predictability and can reduce psychological stress. Similarly, soft furnishings and the use of specific colours can have a calming effect (Lopez & Maiello-Reidy, 2017).

In recent years, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has recorded an increasing number of self-harm related incidents in adult prisons and youth detention. These include attempted suicides, serious self-harms, and minor self-harms. Between 2018-2023, there was a 113 per cent increase in self-harm incidents. Consequently, this highlights the need for appropriate crisis care support and accommodation.

This review will examine the availability and design of crisis care accommodation in custody and the experiences of people using these facilities. It will be guided by the following terms of reference:

  1. What is the experience of people in custody who access crisis care accommodation?
  2. Does crisis care accommodation adhere to therapeutic design principles?
  3. Is there sufficient crisis care accommodation to meet demand?

A report on this review is anticipated to be available to the public in August 2024

Page last updated: 15 Jan 2024

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