The Special Handling Unit (SHU) is a unit at Casuarina Prison for prisoners from across the custodial estate who are assessed as posing a major threat to the prison system. Prisoners placed in the SHU are not in separate confinement or being punished. Rather, the SHU is intended to act as a prison within a prison to separate high-risk prisoners from the mainstream population, in accordance with r.54C of the Prison Regulations 1982. Separating prisoners in this way assists the Department of Justice to reduce the risk of major threats posed by such prisoners if they were to be held in the mainstream population.

Historically there has been some confusion with the SHU’s role. A departmental review reiterated that the SHU should not be used as a punishment unit or be used as a ‘last resort’ option for difficult prisoners, resulting in lengthy stays with no pathway back to mainstream. It stressed that the intention of the SHU should be to reduce risk through intervention and develop management strategies to enable prisoners to transfer back into the mainstream population. Despite this, over the years there have been several prisoners who have been held in the SHU for long periods. Between 2018 and 2021 there have been 14 prisoners who have resided in the SHU for greater than one year. This includes one prisoner who has been held in the SHU since 2005. The Department’s current policy states prisoners will remain in the SHU for as long as they are considered to be a major threat.

Many of the prisoners placed in the SHU are also acutely unwell with mental health conditions. With a lack of bed space in the state’s secure mental health facility, the Frankland Centre, the SHU is often assessed as the safest place for high-risk unwell prisoners.

Further, the west wing of the SHU may also be utilised for prisoners subject to a s.43 separate confinement order or those subject to punishment by confinement. There are also provisions to allow the WA Police Force or the Australian Federal Police to hold certain persons in the SHU under specific Commonwealth legislation.

This review will examine the role of the SHU as a specialist unit for high-risk prisoners and the management of prisoners placed there, guided by the following terms of reference:

  1. Are prisoners placed in the SHU in accordance with relevant legislation and departmental policies?
  2. Is the SHU’s purpose clear with appropriate operating policies and procedures?
  3. Is the Department effectively managing prisoners placed in the SHU, including developing arrangements to transition them back into the mainstream population?
  4. Are staffing arrangements, resources and training adequate to effectively manage the needs of prisoners placed in the SHU?

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).

One in six Australians suffer from some degree of hearing loss. By 2050, this is forecast to grow to one in four. For First Nations people, the rate of hearing loss and ear disease is estimated to be up to ten times the rate of non-Indigenous Australians. In particular, the rate of middle ear infection (otitis media) among First Nations children far exceeds the rate for non-Indigenous children, and often results in long-term hearing loss.

Hearing impairment can lead to a range of difficulties for people in custody. Research has found hearing impaired prisoners may have challenges:

  • accessing programs, education, and skills training
  • accessing recreation, including basic entertainment such as TV and radio
  • communicating with people outside the prison by telephone
  • hearing important announcements, including changes to the daily schedule or instructions during an emergency
  • hearing instructions from staff, and the consequences of not complying with instructions that have not been heard
  • connecting with others, resulting in increased risk of social isolation or abuse from others (Schneider, 2004).

Identifying hearing impaired people in custody can assist custodial staff in providing the right supports and services. Recently, the Department of Justice introduced the Functional Impairment Screening Tool (FIST) to identify those who may need assistance. As of October 2022, 28 per cent of people in custody had been screened.

The Department’s COPP 4.8 – Prisoners with Disability ­recognises hearing impairment as a sensory disability that may be disruptive to a person’s daily life in custody. Access to interpreters is also available for conducting interviews with hearing impaired prisoners. However, it is unclear how often these services are used.

This review will examine how people with hearing impairments are identified and managed in Western Australian custodial facilities. The term ‘hearing impairment’ will refer to partial or total inability to hear speech and sounds. This may range from people who have difficulty following speech without a hearing aid, to people who need to rely on lip-reading, sign language, or an implant to communicate.

This review forms part of the Office of the Inspector of Custodial Services’ Snapshot Series, which are designed to provide a brief summary of an issue or trend in or effecting the Western Australian custodial environment.

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.

Page last updated: 12 Sep 2023

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