Incidents of mental illness in our prison system are disproportionately high -- particularly among female inmates. In part one of a special report into the NSW female prison population, Inga Ting examines how they find themselves behind bars and why they are disadvantaged while they are there.
Jennifer (not her real name), a mother and university graduate, says she would not have considered herself at risk of suicide or self harm when she entered the prison system earlier this year. Before February, when she was arrested for a crime committed more than 12 years ago, Jennifer was enjoying a successful academic career, leading a vibrant social life and flourishing in a stable, long-term relationship.
But after just six weeks in Silverwater Women’s Correctional Centre -- a maximum security facility where remand detainees are housed alongside the state’s most dangerous women offenders -- her self-confidence, her outlook and her life are in tatters.
"They claim the system isn’t punitive, they claim it’s supposed to help you rehabilitate," Jennifer says. "I feel like I’ve lost ... my ability to interact with the world. I was a very confident and strong woman before all this started and I have trouble conceiving of ever getting back to that stage again ... [T]he prison system has pretty much destroyed any semblance of mental health that I had."
Jennifer was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, anxiety and depression in her early 20s but after eight years of psychiatric treatment learnt to successfully manage these problems. Her psychiatrist, Dr Young, says her last major depressive episode before prison was more than five years ago. On the day she set foot on prison grounds, she was virtually diagnosis- and medication-free, he says.
During her health screening at reception, Jennifer admitted to a suicide attempt in 2002. She was put on an "observation cell" order, the standard response to inmates deemed to be a risk to themselves or others.
"A really large proportion of girls told me I was absolutely stupid for admitting to -- and officers told me I was stupid for admitting to -- a self-harm incident. Most of (the women) seem to have some kind of mental health issue but they didn’t tell the officers or the welfare or the nurses because of ... their treatment of (mentally ill) people. People are terrified of going into those safe cells and after having been in them, I’m terrified of going into them," she says.
According to a Corrective Services NSW spokesperson, an observation cell is "designed to minimise the opportunities of self harm, so therefore it’s got no hanging points, they’ve got special blankets, it has camera observation and nothing sharp or unscrewable". The time an inmate is consigned to an observation cell "varies, but it’s usually a short time, like a day".
Jennifer spent four days in an observation cell due to a two-day security lockdown in which inmates were forbidden to leave their cells. "It was horrific," she says.
"The lights are kept on 24 hours a day and the officers are absolutely horrible to you while you’re in there. The air-conditioning is switched to freezing then switched off at four o’clock in the morning so you go to sleep in your tracksuit and wake up drenched in sweat thinking you’re sick. I was refused medical treatment while I was in there. I was refused access to a telephone. I wanted to call the Ombudsman. After I said I wanted to call the Ombudsman, they specifically refused to let me out of the cell."
She describes how confusion, anger and sleep deprivation gave way to hysteria and paranoia. By the fourth day, she says, she was lying on the floor "unable to eat, shaking constantly, crying almost continuously and unable to sleep".
Catriona McComish, a former senior assistant commissioner at Corrective Services NSW, says observation cells illustrate precisely why the prison system is incapable of rehabilitating the mentally ill.
"If someone is regarded as significantly distressed and is either self harming or is psychotic or is assessed as at risk of suicide in a hospital setting or a clinical setting, then you ensure that they stay with people; they’re calmed ... with medication and talk and company and assistance and support," says McComish, who served for 13 years in several senior roles at Corrective Services, including five years as director of Psychological Services. "Whereas in prison the kind of assessment would err, because of the inquiries that have been and because of the fear of the ramifications of death in custody ... on the side of just containing the risk, which means containing the person.
"It is certainly not good for the longer-term outcome. If you put someone who’s got a mental illness, who is actually at risk of suicide ... in (an observation cell, it) is going to make them much, much worse. They’re a symbol of all that’s wrong, that people like that end up in prison."
The number of women being jailed in NSW has risen more than 60% in the past decade, compared to a 25% increase in the rate of imprisonment of men.