Public hearing 27 - Conditions in detention in the criminal justice system, Perth - Day 2
CHAIR: Good morning, everybody. Welcome to this, which is the second day of our 27th Public hearing, and we are examining conditions in detention in the criminal justice system. For anyone who may be following today but wasn't following yesterday, Commissioners Mason and McEwin are in the Perth hearing room, and I am participating in the hearing remotely from the Sydney hearing room. I invite Commissioner Mason to make the Acknowledgement of Country.
COMMISSIONER MASON: Thank you, Chair. We acknowledge the Whadjuk Noongar People as the original inhabitants of the lands which we gathered today on Whadjuk, which is where the city of Perth is situated. We acknowledge their ongoing spiritual and cultural connection to Whadjuk Boodja, and we acknowledge the Gadigal People of the Eora Nation, where the city of Sydney is now located. We acknowledge and pay our deep respects to Elders past and present. We extend that with respect to all First Nations people and acknowledge their continuing enduring connection to land, sky, seas and waterways. Finally, we pay our deep respect to First Nations people here today and who are following the Public hearing online, on the mainland and on islands including in the Torres Strait, and especially Elders, parents, young people and others with disability. Thank you, Chair.
CHAIR: Thank you very much, Commissioner Mason. Yes, Ms McMahon.
MS McMAHON: Thank you, Chair. Good morning, Chair, and good morning, Commissioners. Our first witnesses this morning are Tina Powney and Trevor Barker from Gallawah. Gallawah is a support coordination service based in Shepparton in Victoria. They have prepared a joint statement that you can find at Tender bundle B, tab 1. You will note, Commissioners, that both Tina and Trevor have very strong social work backgrounds. But before I commence with their evidence, for those in the hearing room and those listening more widely throughout Australia, this evidence may bring about different responses, including feelings, for people.
It will include accounts of violence again and abuse, neglect and exploitation of First Nations people with disability. It may also include references to First Nations people who are deceased or passed away. If this evidence raises concerns for you please contact the numbers shortly being displayed or now being displayed on the screen.
CHAIR: Thank you, Ms McMahon. I understand – please correct me if I am wrong – that you prefer to be referred to as Tina and Trevor respectively. Is that right?
MR BARKER: Thank you, Chair.
CHAIR: Thank you both very much for the joint statement that you have prepared which, of course, each of the Commissioners has and we have read in advance of today's hearing, and thank you for coming to the Royal Commission to give evidence. We very much appreciate your assistance. If you would be good enough to follow the instructions of Commissioner Mason's associate, she will administer the oath to you. Thank you very much.
ASSOCIATE: I will read you the oath. At the end could you please both say "yes" or "I do." Do you swear by almighty God that the evidence which you shall give will be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?
MR BARKER: I do.
MS POWNEY: I do.
<TREVOR BARKER, SWORN
<TINA POWNEY, SWORN
CHAIR: Thank you very much, Tina and Trevor. I will now ask Ms McMahon to ask you some questions.
<EXAMINATION BY MS McMAHON
MS McMAHON: Thank you, Chair. Tina and Trevor, you have prepared a joint statement dated 8 September 2022. Are the contents of that statement true and correct?
MR BARKER: They are.
MS POWNEY: They are.
MS McMAHON: Thank you. Tina, you are the Founder and Director of Gallawah. Would you like to introduce yourself and give a brief overview of Gallawah's work?
MS POWNEY: My name is Tina Powney. I just want to give you an overview of Gallawah. Gallawah started when my son, Aboriginal man, Barapa Barapa Yorta Yorta boy was 18 and went to prison with a disability. And we just wanted to make a difference, and we have, and so I was working and one day just woke up and said I just want to stop my community from going to prison. So, I developed a holistic wrap around service in the prison and outside the prison for families who have a loved one in prison with a disability. So, yes, started and within three months, we were in an office and had about eight to 10 staff and, yes, two years later we have about 68 staff.
MS McMAHON: Tina, can you just explain, please, in terms of the funding, I understand, for the most part, funding is through NDIS support coordination, but you also have a foundation. Can you just explain the services that are offered under those two forms of funding?
MS POWNEY: With the NDIS, PTSD and some other disabilities that aren't under the DSM 5 didn't fit a category for NDIS, so we have a foundation. So we fund the foundation through the NDIS funding that we have made and we go out and support people that are at risk of entering the justice system or in the justice system without funding.
MS McMAHON: Now, I will come to the justice outreach shortly and I will ask Trevor about that, but it's the case, isn't it, that your service also provides outreach services to people in the community, including people who are homeless.
MS POWNEY: Yes, that's right. Yes, we go bush. We go walking through the bush and catch up with community with disabilities that are homeless. Yes.
MS McMAHON: And is part of the purpose of that work to provide support to people with disability before they enter the justice system?
MS POWNEY: We hope so, yes. Yes.
MS McMAHON: Okay.
MS POWNEY: That's the plan.
MS McMAHON: And in doing so, you connect them to the NDIS where they are eligible. Is that right?
MS POWNEY: Yes, that's correct.
MS McMAHON: And then follow through supporting them through your support coordination service?
MS POWNEY: That's correct.
MS McMAHON: Alright. Now, Trevor you are the Aboriginal Coordinator of Supports and work in the justice outreach program. Could you please just tell the Commissioners a bit more about the work that that outreach program does?
MR BARKER: Sure. So, it's about trying to understand people's situation and being – listening to their story, understanding their disability and understanding their goals, what do they want to achieve in life, and doing our utmost to get the supports that will help them to really achieve their goals. Yes.
MS McMAHON: And in doing so, do you conduct or arrange for assessments to be conducted for people in prison?
MR BARKER: We do. One of the challenges for people in prison is that they may or may not have the assessments that they need to really get the sort of plan that's going to help them have the life that they need to have when they transition out of custody, and the ideal time to be doing a lot of those assessments is when they are in prison and can have access to clinicians and get those assessments done and get the plans in place that help people.
MS McMAHON: When they transition out.
MR BARKER: Yes.
MS McMAHON: And is it the case that, to the extent you can, whilst people are in prison before they get out, you're trying to connect them to the allied health and other support services that they will ultimately be supported by when they are released?
MR BARKER: It is. And one of the most important things is developing relationships with people. And if we can get an occupational therapist to start their assessments while they are in a very highly supported environment in terms of the routine that's around them, and understand their support needs and then see them when they transition out to provide a clearer assessment and training for support workers. That's a continual service, yes.
MS McMAHON: So, you assist them to develop the plans, you connect them to the services while they are in prison, but then as part of their transition out, you assist them with that transition, including in the community afterwards. Is that correct?
MR BARKER: That's right. So, it's really connecting them back to their family and their community and Country.
MS McMAHON: And just in terms of the support that you also offer people in prison, and I understand you do have some young people that you support as well in detention centres, is it the case that part of your outreach includes speaking to family members, either on their behalf or to keep them connected to what's happening to their loved ones?
MR BARKER: Very much so. Because the experience of being in custody is isolating. It's isolating from family and community, and we want to reconnect them and work with family, make sure that when they come back, the home that they are going to is going to be supportive. And when we understand what home is like, we can be better targeted in the supports that we provide or plan for.
MS McMAHON: Thank you, Trevor. And, Tina, if I could just bring you in, having heard the services – which you are well aware of – is it the case that your approach is individualised for each person?
MS POWNEY: Yes. And we work with the participant that's in custody to make sure that, you know, parents know where they are, where they are transferred, if there is any decline in their health or is there any needs that they might need when they are released. So, we work with them every step of the way.
MS McMAHON: And it's the case, isn't it, that you, in the justice outreach, are assisting people in prison but also who are on Community Corrections Orders or similar orders. Is that right?
MS POWNEY: That's correct.
MS McMAHON: Okay. Now, I understand – and I will direct this at you again, Trevor, that many of the clients that you support through the justice outreach have complex conditions. Is that right?
MR BARKER: They do. It's normally a number of conditions. It could be an intellectual disability. It could be fetal alcohol syndrome, drug and alcohol issues, mental health issues. And very often high levels of post traumatic stress, intergenerational abuse, so there's a lot of complexity around a person's situation. It's very unusual that we're just dealing with one issue.
MS McMAHON: And are you finding or seeing people that you are supporting who are undiagnosed who are in the prison system? Tina, you're nodding?
MS POWNEY: Yes, yes. Yes. A lot of families often will ring us and say their loved one is in prison with a disability but has never been diagnosed.
MS McMAHON: I see.
MS POWNEY: So then we have to navigate that system. It's a whole new system because we don't have consent to contact them, so we have to work through the family and navigate that for them to get their assessments while they are in custody.
MS McMAHON: And you do that in the context of the NDIS assessment; is that right?
MS POWNEY: Yes.
MS McMAHON: Okay. Now, in terms of delivery of services, Trevor, how do you deliver services to people with disability in prison? What methods do you use?
MR BARKER: It looks like me going and visiting people, but also video conferencing. COVID has been quite restrictive, so being able to have certainty around our visits is off the table now. So, our preference is to visit people, sit with them, yarn and, if we can't do that, video conference.
MS McMAHON: And is there a preference, I imagine, for face to face contact?
MR BARKER: Indeed. There is a big difference between doing a video call or a box visit or face to face. And in a face to face situation, you can get a good read on how people are travelling and what's going on for them. And they can get a good read on me and build that trust and a rapport that's needed and the respect that's needed to help navigate any challenges that, you know, lay ahead in terms of transition planning and getting supports in place.
MS McMAHON: And, Tina, just on that point, you are a First Nations woman. Can you just, from a cultural perspective, talk about the importance of face to face contact when you are supporting people with disability, particularly in prison settings?
MS POWNEY: Yes. Very, very important. It's very, very important. We give the handshake and connective and spiritual connection, and you miss that when you are on Zoom, and when you are face to face, you can actually see how they are walking in the room, you know, all the different disabilities they may have undiagnosed. So, it's very important and it might be the only visit they get too. So, it's really important that we are able to do that.
MS McMAHON: Thank you. We spoke about undiagnosed conditions a moment ago. Could you just tell the Commissioners from your observations of people you support, what are the consequences for the – for those people that you have been supporting who have no diagnosis or it hasn't been picked up when they have entered the prison system?
MS POWNEY: Well, the issue is, if they are released with a correctional order and they are unable to navigate that due to their cognitive impairment, they are more likely to end up back in the justice system within days or weeks. So, we have the diagnosis while they are in custody, we are able to see their ability to understand their plan and understand their corrections order and to be able to walk with them very, very slowly and do a mantra of supports so they are able to understand, you know, they have got to be home at 9 o'clock at night. We are able to put supports in place, so they are able to be home at 9 o'clock at night and they are not going back in the justice system. So, it's really vital that we get the diagnosis and their capacity and what does it look like.
MS McMAHON: I suppose that compliance issue might also apply to bail conditions if someone you're supporting is released. Would you agree with that?
MS POWNEY: Yes.
MS McMAHON: Alright. Now, just on screening, Tina, you have said some of the clients in regional areas that you have supported have said they are having screening conducted from time to time by phone.
MS POWNEY: Yes.
MS McMAHON: Is that a problem?
MS POWNEY: Yes, it is. Yes.
MS McMAHON: Why is that a problem?
MS POWNEY: Because it is over the phone, so the assessor is not able to see them and they are not able to see, you know, how they are able to stand up, sit down. You know, what is their ability. You know, do they make eye contact and all the sensory and all the cultural safe practices that should be in place aren't there. So, they are just doing an assessment on somebody's voice which –
MS McMAHON: Trevor, did you want to add to that?
MR BARKER: You can't see injuries that the person might have or skin conditions, etcetera, yes.
MS McMAHON: Is this a particular concern for clients who have intellectual disability or cognitive impairment, this style of assessment over the phone?
MS POWNEY: Yes. Yes.
MS McMAHON: Now, in terms of assessment, you are often able to access forensic reports that may have been commissioned for the purpose of sentencing that often would have a diagnosis, including disability diagnosis. Have you been able to rely upon these sentencing reports or other court ordered reports to apply for the NDIS?
MS POWNEY: No. It's – under the legislation, they won't accept a forensic report for an application for NDIS because it's a behavioural and it's not a disability. So, we have never successfully used a forensic report for somebody to access the NDIS.
MS McMAHON: What about circumstances where it might be, say, a neuropsychologist who does indeed diagnose a disability that would otherwise be eligible for the NDIS?
MS POWNEY: No. They won't accept it. At all.
MS McMAHON: Would it be helpful if those reports that are available when you often first come into contact with your participants, if they could be used as the basis of assessments for NDIS?
MS POWNEY: Yes. Yes, it would be great because we would be able to make contact with our community member, have a yarn, put the application in. There won't have to be a lot of reassessments and stuff like that to be able to action it pretty well straightaway.
MS McMAHON: Trevor?
MR BARKER: Yes, it's all time related. So, if there is an assessment on the table that could be used and you can get access to NDIS, then it is time critical because you need that plan in place prior to release to get the optimal outcome.
MS McMAHON: And other –
CHAIR: I'm sorry, can I ask this question. In your joint statement at paragraph 36, you say that almost all of your clients come to you with an NDIS plan already in place through the justice liaison officers in Victoria. Do you actually assist people to apply or get approval for – approval for an NDIS plan?
MR BARKER: Yes, yes, we do, Chair. So, if we – we can work with the Justice Liaison Officers and say to them, "Look, do you mind going and speaking to so and so", and how that comes about is someone we are working with says, "Look, Joe next door in my cell, can you have a yarn to him." And so, we become aware, and we will work with the JLOs where we can.
CHAIR: I see. But is it the case that the JLOs are the ones that have primary responsibility for seeking approval for a plan?
MR BARKER: It's a partnership. They do the application but they need the evidence, and if there is state based programs that we can lean on to get those assessments, we can help that. Or we can say to them look –
CHAIR: You work in cooperation or collaboration with the JLO?
MR BARKER: Yes. Yes.
CHAIR: I understand. Thank you. Yes, Ms McMahon.
MS McMAHON: Thank you, Chair. What are those relationships like, if you could let us know, with the JLOs? Are you finding that they are cooperative relationships that work or something else?
MR BARKER: Yes, they are cooperative and they are located in the prisons, so they have got direct responsibility within the prisons they service, and they often come to us for assistance as well. So, it's a two way relationship.
MS McMAHON: Thank you, Trevor. Now, I would like to ask you some questions about your interactions with Corrective Services staff. Trevor, you have stated that you have had some strong relationships with Corrective staff, but the cooperation with Gallawah is from time to time inconsistent. Is that right?
MR BARKER: It is. So, we have – it's two ends of the spectrum. We can have a really good close working relationship with people in Corrections, and they pave the way for us to be able to go and see people and do our work. At the other end of the scale, there is staff that want to run interference, so to speak, and slow down our access. You know, I've had to wait up to eight to 10 weeks to get to see someone and I've then had to go to high up – higher up people to make that happen, and it would be much better if it would just happen. Yes.
MS McMAHON: And, Tina, did you want to add to that? I understand that sometimes you might have some relationships to try and fast track access when necessary. Is that right?
MS POWNEY: Yes, that's right.
MS McMAHON: Would you like to speak to that?
MS POWNEY: So we – I, as a director of Gallawah, try to build great relationships with Corrections and their executive team to navigate the system that sometimes blocks us to achieve the work that we want to achieve.
MS McMAHON: What would it mean to Gallawah if you had flexible cooperative access to see your clients when you needed to see them? If that just wasn't an issue, the inconsistency or obstructions?
MR BARKER: It would mean a whole lot because we could actually have some confidence about starting our engagement with somebody and following it through. If it gets interrupted and they get moved to another facility and we have to find out where they are, then our support is not consistent and it's not building that respectful relationship, which is at the heart of what we really want to do with people.
MS McMAHON: And what about for people experiencing trauma? Is it the case, from time to time, that there's an urgent requirement that you support your participants, your clients?
MR BARKER: Yes, yes. Very much so. And that timely support really makes a big difference.
MS McMAHON: Would you agree with that, Tina?
MS POWNEY: Yes, yes.
MS McMAHON: Okay. Now, I want to now ask you some questions about accessibility. You have provided some examples in your statement about systemic issues relating to accessibility, but I just want to focus on two in evidence today. Tina, one of the examples is the forms that prisoners have to fill out in order to communicate with family and others. Can you just explain the difficulties that poses for some people with disability, and I understand you may have a personal example to add to that.
MS POWNEY: Yes. So, I had a loved one in prison with a disability, and when he was moved from one prison to the other, he had to complete a form. And on the form was to contact a family member to call or to have a visit, and because he was – wasn't able to read and write, he was unable to complete the forms. So, he actually couldn't contact his family or make contact. And because he was over the age of 18, even with a disability, we actually couldn't navigate where he was.
So, we couldn't actually ring the prison and pursue that, and I – myself have been refused to visit my family member because he hadn't completed the form with the exact spelling of my name. So, I drove three hours and was told to go back home and when he contacts me to help him do the form, but he didn't know how to do the form at all because he had never completed a form in his life. So, that was a gap.
MS McMAHON: How should that gap be filled, Tina? What should occur to allow family members to contact their loved one?
MS POWNEY: Somebody to sit with them and explain the forms and get them to sit down, and maybe when they are remanded, that there is a document completed, do they have a disability, what are their needs and what's their contact. So, there is one contact that can go in there and check on their loved one.
MS McMAHON: Is that the sort of or one of the many supports that your service would offer?
MS POWNEY: Yes.
MS McMAHON: Trevor, you have supported an inmate who is Deaf. Have you observed any accessibility issues for your Deaf – your client who is Deaf?
MR BARKER: I have. The biggest issue is access to Auslan interpreters, and I've had to wait eight to 10 weeks to plan a meeting in advance. And it has significantly delayed being able to put plans in place. Yes.
MS McMAHON: Has that client of yours talked to you about the impact of not being able to communicate with anyone for that period of time?
MR BARKER: Yes, that's right. You imagine how isolating it is for somebody with a hearing impairment to not be able to effectively communicate with outside support, let alone the supports that are in place in prison.
MS McMAHON: And to your observations, have you ever seen – or if you are aware, if you can say, whether or not there is any visual alarms in the prisons that you – where you support people?
MR BARKER: Any visual, sorry?
MS McMAHON: Alarm, so emergency alarms.
MR BARKER: That's a good question. I haven't seen them. There is certainly, you know, loud announcements that go over prisons from time to time, but I haven't seen any visual alarms.
MS McMAHON: And what about the client that you spoke to? Are you aware as to whether or not they had any visual aids in order to help them understand what's going on around them?
MR BARKER: I'm unaware. I haven't been able to access this person's living quarters so I haven't been able to assess that.
MS McMAHON: Thank you. Now, in terms of access to programs and education – I will move to that topic now. Tina, what are your observations of whether programs are modified to enable a person with disability to participate, and, again, you may want to draw on personal experience, if you are comfortable with that.
MS POWNEY: Yes. So my loved one that was in custody had a cognitive impairment, and there was no modifications of any courses. So he couldn't attend any courses, you know, any rehabilitation courses or anything because he actually couldn't understand the documentation. So, to my knowledge, and being a mum of my son being in and out of custody for four years, there was never, ever a modification ever for – and he was in five different institutions in Victoria.
MS McMAHON: What about you, Trevor? Are you seeing modifications for people with disabilities that need them to engage in anger management, drug and alcohol and other sorts of programs in custody?
MR BARKER: Well, I point to the Deaf person who was denied access to education and treatment programs because it would have required an Auslan interpreter to sit next to him. And Corrections or the disability treatment centre don't allow people to sit in. It's just for participants only. So, he – he spent 10 years in prison without any access to programs.
MS McMAHON: What does that mean, then, for a participant more broadly, in terms of impact, whether it be parole, bail, or other proceedings?
MR BARKER: You have hit the nail on the head there because you need to complete these courses to be able to move ahead and to demonstrate that you've taken on the learnings that the courses go through. And, in his case, the types of offences that he has certain programs he needs to do, and coming up to parole, he's not eligible for parole. That's not been offered to him. And what's being considered is a post sentence supervision order. So, he will remain in the correctional centre – centre or – the correctional area post sentence. He will have done his time, but he won't be able to go back to community.
MS McMAHON: Now, I'm going to move on.
CHAIR: I just want to be clear about this. Sorry, you are saying that the practice of Corrections generally or in a particular centre? And I would like, if you can, to explain that.
MR BARKER: Yes. So, the –
CHAIR: But the practice is to refuse Auslan interpreters to a Deaf prisoner with the consequence that the prisoner cannot participate in or complete courses that are a necessary precondition to eligibility for parole. I just want to make sure I have understood that.
MR BARKER: It's a very good point. So, in his case, the type of offence that he is convicted of, he needs to do certain programs.
MR BARKER: And he has not done those programs, and one of the reasons that hasn't been offered to him is that he needs an Auslan interpreter, and they are not allowed in the room when those programs are being delivered.
CHAIR: And is that a general policy of Corrections? It's not specific to one particular institution, I take it, from what you are saying?
MR BARKER: I don't know how generalised it is. My comment relates to the Disability Forensic Treatment Service in Victoria that run that program.
CHAIR: Right. Okay, thank you.
COMMISSIONER McEWIN: Can I ask a follow up question. Do you get provided reasons for why? You have said they are not allowed in the room but what kind of other reasons are you given for that refusal?
MR BARKER: The reason – my understanding is that it's a group program and they are a group of offenders, to use a name. And because of privacy reasons, they won't allow other people, apart from the person delivering the program and the participants to be in that room.
COMMISSIONER McEWIN: Right. So, just so that I understand that a bit better, so the prison is saying because of the privacy requirements for the other prisoners, the Deaf person cannot have an Auslan interpreter in the room.
MR BARKER: The treatment centre that delivers this program is saying that, in my understanding.
COMMISSIONER MASON: May I ask a question. The training that's provided, is it an in house training service or is it provided by an external provider?
MR BARKER: It's a Disability Forensic Treatment Service program. So it's part of the Victorian system.
COMMISSIONER MASON: Okay. Thank you.
COMMISSIONER McEWIN: Do you mind I have a few more follow ups. I just want to understand that better. So, you are being told by the prison and the treatment centre and the provider that is because of the privacy requirements of the other prisoners. Are there any other reasons given or have you tried to sort of have a good dialogue with the particular prison about the need for access?
MR BARKER: The challenge for us as external providers is to get a solid handle on what's really going on. So, when I sat down with this Deaf person for the first time with an interpreter, I had the room cleared so that we could have a private conversation and one of my first questions was, "What programs have you been able to do in the last 10 years?" And his reply was he hasn't been able to. And when I talked about specific programs that I knew he had to do to get out, he told me that he wasn't able to do them.
He had asked for them, but he wasn't allowed to do them because he required an interpreter. And the inflexibility of services, from an external provider perspective, it is very hard for us to crack that egg open and to move forward. Because we are just a small player in that sense. We advocate for what's right, but if it doesn't change, people are stuck, and this is the very disappointing thing for us.
COMMISSIONER McEWIN: Thank you.
MS McMAHON: Thank you, Commissioner. I want to turn now to cultural safety issues and I just want to read from paragraph 76 of your statement:
"When Aboriginal men and women are connected to Country, community and culture, they feel safe. All of that is taken away when a First Nations person goes into detention or prison. For those who have disability, the impacts are even greater."
Tina, you state at 28 of your statement that respect for First Nations culture is the foundation of how Gallawah operates. I want to ask you now about some practical examples of how cultural safety is expressed and provided to your participants. Tina, would you like to commence by giving some examples?
MS POWNEY: So I will give you an example being incarcerated. We have Elders and Aboriginal community employed to go into the prisons and work with our participants. And because some of them have cognitive impairments, it's quite a slow process. So, it's about safety, making them feel safe, and some of our participants have been incarcerated since they were quite young. So, they might be 32 now, never been connected to Country. So, once we start, you know, doing a genogram and doing a cultural plan and teaching them their Country, they start to heal, they start to blossom, they start to really connect back and they really want to make great changes. So, having cultural practices is so important in a prison.
MS McMAHON: Have you seen that sort of support and connection delivered to First Nations prisoners before your service?
MS POWNEY: No. No.
MS McMAHON: Had your son ever received that sort of support in his time whilst in custody?
MS POWNEY: Never.
MS McMAHON: Trevor, you also facilitate also visits with Elders. Can you just tell the Commissioners a bit about what you do and what impact that has?
MR BARKER: With the Elders?
MS McMAHON: Yes, yes.
MR BARKER: One of the beautiful things about Aboriginal culture is a deep respect for Elders and the wisdom that they bring around their journey that they have taken in life, and the example that they provide to younger people who look up to them is quite an important aspect. If we connect a participant to an Elder that they respect and they can start to share knowledge, then special things happen. And one of the conversations that can be had is a direct conversation about. “What are you doing with your life? Where are you headed? And if you are off track a little bit how about we get back here”. And this is what I see as unique to be doing and having that direct conversation.
It's more than encouragement. It's about connecting to the wisdom of Elders, and I do that by yarning sessions in prison and that's usually done online. Occasionally, we can sit around a yarning circle and have those conversations. I also do it post release. So, I've started yarning circles instead of care team meetings, and the way that works is that it's the participant's yarning circle. So an example, a young person came out. He said to me, "I'm never going back." So, I said to him, "Let's have the never going back yarning circle."
And everything, we sit around once a fortnight, and we would talk about how things are going. And if he's getting a bit off track, we can say to him, “Hey, you know, you want to do it this way. How about we get back on track.” And it's his yarning circle. He runs it. And he takes responsibility for his life. And it's completely different from a set of professionals sitting around a table telling someone what they must do.
MS McMAHON: So you are centring both his language as to what he wants to achieve and you're centring his needs in that support network.
MR BARKER: Yes, and giving him a voice for his own needs which he has never had before, because he has been told what he has to do and when has to do it. And now he has to think about, where am I going? How am I going to get there? And talk to his NDIS support coordinator about what supports he needs to help him with that, but, essentially, it's his journey that he needs to walk down, and he will have support from Elders and community to do that.
MS McMAHON: Post release?
MR BARKER: Yes.
MS McMAHON: Tina, I want to talk to you now about, from a cultural safety perspective, the importance of touch. And I invite you to perhaps share the example of when your son Ty first went into custody, if you are comfortable doing that.
MS POWNEY: Yes, sure.
MS McMAHON: And how – what happened and why touch is so important culturally.
MS POWNEY: Yes. Yes. Yes. So, I would travel about 600 Ks every three days and drive down to see my son. Did it for nine months the first time, and just giving him a hug and holding him and, you know, telling him it's going to be okay, and he had that connective with his mum and his family and with community to say everything is going to be okay. And the hope and keeping him within the family. So, sitting around, hugging him and just, you know, being part of the family and helping him through his journey. So, touch is very important. In our culture, you know, hugging is something we do to everybody. You know, even when we meet somebody. So, it's very important and you know, it gives hope and strength within our community.
MS McMAHON: And, Tina, I understand, though, the first time that you saw Ty in custody, the first visit, there was some problems with allowing you to touch your son?
MS POWNEY: Yes, that's right. So, when he was first taken down to the Remand Centre in Melbourne, and he came out with a canvas jump suit on with cable ties on his hands and ankles and around his neck. And when I went in, I had to have my eyes scanned and a whole heap of scanning, and then they opened this big door and let me walk into a room, and I wasn't allowed to touch him. And, yes, and it was just horrific. And I could hear a lot of screaming because people were getting their things taken off them and removed back into – into prison system and we were in the visitor's room.
And so, yes, he had like a thick canvas jumpsuit on that was really, really tight around his neck. So, he actually had to sit like that. And, you know, and an autistic boy having to sit like that, it was horrific. And I wasn't allowed to tell him – you know, give him a hug and say he was safe.
MS McMAHON: What would it have meant both, I suppose, personally and culturally to have been able to offer some touch, whether it be hands or something else at that moment?
MS POWNEY: It would have been amazing. Yes. And it would have gave him a safe place to know that, you know, mum's here and dad's here. We are going to hug you and you are going to be okay. That's something we weren't allowed to do.
MS McMAHON: Thank you, Tina. Now, Trevor, just finally on this area, I just want you to please explain to the Commissioners what a box visit is.
MR BARKER: A box visit is a non contact visit, and you are sitting in a room that's literally – just a bit wider than myself in a chair and in front of me is a Perspex screen and the prisoner is on the other side, and it's difficult to see them because the screen is very frosted from scratches. And it's difficult for me to hear them. And there is no contact at all.
MS McMAHON: I understand that you have some troubles with your own hearing from – is that right?
MR BARKER: Yes, just a slight hearing impairment, yes.
MS McMAHON: So how does that style of or – physical environment affect your ability to communicate and support your clients?
MR BARKER: It makes it very difficult, and it also gives you a physical separation. So you don't have that connection with someone when you are sitting down with them in that way.
MS McMAHON: What would it mean to you to have more flexibility in terms of where you – where and how you conduct the support that you give to your clients? Whether that be sitting outside or in a room where you can offer some touch or something else. What – what would that mean to you?
MR BARKER: It means a level of respect for who I am and what I do. It means a level of respect for the relationship that I have with the person that I'm supporting, and it helps us in – to do our very important work.
MS McMAHON: Are you of the opinion that it would enhance the support that you were able to provide to your participants?
MR BARKER: Not only of the opinion, I know that it has. I've had the contrast with the same people in different ways, and it makes a big difference.
MS McMAHON: Now, I want move on to talk about searches and experiences of isolation. Trevor, you have said that your clients are often subjected to strip searches before and after professional visits, which is what Gallawah visits are. What concerns you about that?
MR BARKER: What concerns me about that practice is that in order for a person with a disability to get disability support, if they are required to be subjected to a strip search prior to my visit – and I have already been searched; I've been checked over – and after is that the prison system is asking a person to be traumatised in order to get help. And I will not ever subject one of my participants to that regime. I'm prepared to walk away and say, “Fix it and I will come back another day.”
MS McMAHON: So is it the case that you conduct your communications in a different way in order to avoid your clients being strip searched?
MR BARKER: Yes, it is. So, the first time that I was exposed to this practice, I refused to have a contact visit. We had a box visit. It was very ineffective. And then I had to go back and put my hand up and say, “I think we have got a problem here.”
MS McMAHON: And what concerns, if any, do you have about participants and clients who have trauma background, including childhood sexual abuse?
MR BARKER: To be asked to go through an unnecessary examination, an intimate examination – unnecessary because I have already been checked over. I'm not bringing anything in. I'm a professional. My conduct is regulated. I cannot take anything out with me without being subject to heavy sanction, etcetera. It's unnecessary to go through that, and it's deeply traumatising and triggering, and that places my participant in a very unsafe place culturally and also within their own psyche and spirit. It's so wrong.
MS McMAHON: Tina, it's the case, isn't it, that some of your clients and participants have experienced isolation?
MS POWNEY: Yes.
MS McMAHON: In your conversations with them about their experiences, what have they said to you about being put in isolation and the impact it had on them?
MS POWNEY: Yes. I can give you a couple of examples, especially going back for Sorry Business. If a participant is sent for Sorry Business and they have got medication and they go into isolation for 14 days, when they return back to the prisons so they have got – they will go 14 days without any medication because the prison doesn't reactivate them. They go back into isolation and be assessed to be able to be back out with the other prisoners, and it's been more of an issue since COVID.
MS McMAHON: And, Tina, your son lives with autism spectrum disorder.
MS POWNEY: Yes.
MS McMAHON: Acquired brain injury and ADHD.
MS POWNEY: Yes.
MS McMAHON: He was put into isolation, wasn't he, when he first went into custody?
MS POWNEY: That's right.
MS McMAHON: Can you please tell the Commissioners about that experience for him?
MS POWNEY: Yes, so my son was in isolation in – and went 93 days, 92 days without medication for his asthma. He had acute asthma. I called the prison multiple times and went on deaf ears. I wrote 180 emails to different organisations, and this is when they told me that there was no service for people with disabilities in custody. That really – I saw the gap analysis, and that's one of the reasons why I drove Gallawah so hard. When my mum passed away about 12 weeks ago, my son came home for Sorry Business, and when he went back, he wasn't only sad and culturally unsafe, he also went two weeks without mental health treatment and medication. He was isolated and didn't see anybody for two weeks. So he not only was going through Sorry Business, but he also wasn't medicated.
COMMISSIONER MASON: Was he in solitary confinement?
MS POWNEY: For 14 days after the funeral because he hugged us.
MR BARKER: 23 hours a day.
MS POWNEY: 23 hours a day. Yes. Yes. No mental health treatment, nothing.
COMMISSIONER MASON: No professional treatment?
MS POWNEY: No. No counselling, nothing.
COMMISSIONER MASON: So that's the price you have to pay for cultural obligation.
MS POWNEY: Yes.
COMMISSIONER MASON: For his own spirit.
MS POWNEY: Yes.
COMMISSIONER MASON: He's got to suffer that.
MS POWNEY: Yes. And it was heartbreaking. I had lost my mum and then for 14 days, I walked around wondering whether my son was the next death in custody. And with his autism, he doesn't know how to express, you know, his mental health. So, when they asked him if he's okay, he goes, "Yep", but he wasn't okay.
COMMISSIONER MASON: How close was he to your mother?
MS POWNEY: Very close, yes. Very close. She helped – we were dairy farmers and she helped rear him. So, very close. Yes.
COMMISSIONER MASON: Thank you.
MS McMAHON: When participants of yours do get leave for Sorry Business, is that the general practice in terms of being placed into isolation or some other form of custody on their own?
MR BARKER: It's a general global policy or practice that they come back from Sorry Business and get put into isolation for 14 days, and it's COVID related. I've had one case where that was extended to 63 days.
MS McMAHON: After Sorry Business?
MR BARKER: After Sorry Business.
MS McMAHON: I'm going to – thank you, Trevor – move on now to another topic and talking about your son Ty, Tina, is that he is currently at Wulgunggo Ngalu Learning Centre in Yarram in Gippsland of country Victoria. I might ask for the slides to be played of Wulgunggo Ngalu. Can you just tell us briefly about the learning place, because we're going to hear from Ty shortly, and how the staff have supported Ty.
MS POWNEY: Yes. It has been sensational. So Wulgunggo Ngalu was developed for people on Corrections orders that were Indigenous. It was a healing place for them to come and heal and walk on their journey, and the great work that they do at Wulgungo Ngalu – and if they have got a disability, it's their journey, so they can stay there for six months to a year and be able to learn their culture, do painting, do dance. And we went down to visit about three or four weeks ago, and it was just beautiful to stand there and watch my son be 18, when he was taken into custody, all the healing and it was just beautiful. And it just – you know, it is just so amazing, and I just can't tell you how much. I'm very grateful for our son to be accepted into Wulgunggo Ngalu and heal and be our little Ty that he was when he was incarcerated.
MS McMAHON: And did you want to tell the Commissioners about the performance that was prepared and then performed for you and your family and indeed members of the Disability Royal Commission?
MS POWNEY: Yes. So, we all attended Yarram. So that's my husband and his sister and Ty, and to see his smile and to get him up dancing, it was very surreal for me. I always never thought that he would recover from the trauma that he was the subject of in custody, and to see this, it is – every day when I wake up and go to Gallawah, this is the reason why. Because they can heal through their culture. And once they are connected at Wulgunggo Ngalu.
MS McMAHON: Thank you, Tina. And as I said, we will hear from Ty at Wulgunggo Ngalu shortly. Before I ask you about proposals for change, I just want to ask you firstly and both, what will be the significance of services like yours, Gallawah, community based services being given access to prisons to support people with disability and assist them to transition out? That is, expanding your sort of service, more widely in Victoria and potentially further across Australia.
MR BARKER: Yes, I think it is vital because people with disability have individual needs, and the justice industry treats everybody the same. So, there's a big gap between those two places, and external services coming in and understanding support needs and providing an individual program to prepare people for transition is a vital thing that needs to happen.
MS McMAHON: Tina, did you want to add something?
MS POWNEY: Yes, I think it's – it's vital for community to have an adaptive service, an individual service. Especially for community that have got FASD and complex mental health, that they are able to walk with a service very slowly at their pace to achieve their goals and to stay out of custody. And we see it often. They are given a court document to say, “This is your order.” They can't read and write. They have got an ABI. They have got a disability. And they just take it home, put the piece of paper on the table and all of a sudden, they are back in custody because they didn't understand that they had to do these programs. So, we are able to walk with them, and services like Gallawah could help not only First Nations people but all the people with disabilities in custody.
MS McMAHON: Thank you, Tina. Now, in your statement from about page 21, Commissioners, Tina and Trevor have set out some detailed proposals for change. I just wish to ask each of you about one of those now. One each, that is. Tina, you have highlighted the need for disability units in prisons. Can you just speak to that, please, as to why you make that recommendation?
MS POWNEY: Disability units in prison would be amazing because when the assessments are done and we would be able to see their capacity, they will be able to get the skill set to be released so they are able to have a long term skill set. We know people with disabilities, you know they need that individual complex supports. So, we are able, it, to know, you know, can they cook a meal, can they clean, you know, are they able to shower themselves? All of those things would take into, you know, capacity building for them to be able to succeed outside prison.
MS McMAHON: Thank you, Tina. Trevor, something I understand you wish to emphasise is the use of technology, in particular, video links in inmate cells.
MR BARKER: Yes. So the practice in Victoria is if someone has COVID, then the whole unit is locked down and that can – you know, keep everybody in a particular unit locked down for 14 days and that can be a rolling situation. So, having access to iPads or video conferencing within each unit and expanding – expanding that beyond just legal visits, the professional disability visits is really important, that would be make a big difference.
MS McMAHON: Would that mean Gallawah could contact their clients more regularly?
MR BARKER: That's right, yes.
MS McMAHON: That they might get access to allied health more regularly?
MR BARKER: Yes, yes.
MS McMAHON: And potentially talk to their family more regularly?
MR BARKER: Talk to their family, talk to NDIS, you know, be able to have that access and build those relationships that work towards transition.
MS McMAHON: Thank you, both. Chair, that completes my questions for Tina and Trevor.
CHAIR: Thank you very much. If it's okay with you, I will ask my colleagues if they have any more questions for you. First, Commissioner McEwin?
COMMISSIONER McEWIN: Thank you, Chair. Thank you both for your very important evidence. Just a couple of points, and I will direct them to both of you. How would you describe, in your experience, the leadership of the prisons that you have acted with and just generally and in terms of an example. But just generally how would you describe the leadership? Are they proactive? Or are they resistant? How would you describe it?
MR BARKER: A very good question. Thank you. Generally, it's isolated from operations. So, from our perspective, we don't get to have that direct relationship with the governor of a prison. It's more the operational staff. And yet that leadership sets the culture of a prison, and where it's proactive, we are welcomed in to the point where, you know, I was allowed to go and visit a person in their unit and sit down with them as opposed to go to the visitor's centre. So, where it's proactive, it's very helpful. Where it's isolated, then it's very difficult to have that relationship which we rely on.
COMMISSIONER McEWIN: Thank you. My – did you want to add anything?
MS POWNEY: Yes. As a – I will just – as a professional, it's totally different to being a community member. As a professional, you go in and they welcome you to somewhat. But when you are a mum or a loved one, when you go in and you are saying who you are going to see they go, "Oh, no, not today, you will have to come back another day." So, it's really hard as a parent to navigate the system. As a professional, you sort of can email and stuff, but as a parent, you walk in the front door and you are actually – of the prison and you are actually told, no, not today, you will have to come back. So, you will have to travel home 300 Ks and come back the next day. So, there is two aspects of the visiting of the prison.
COMMISSIONER McEWIN: So sounds entirely different
MS POWNEY: Yes.
COMMISSIONER McEWIN: My final point, just reflecting on what you said earlier about the lack of access of Auslan interpreters, it sounds like that's more the question for the Victorian Government, is to ask them why are they not providing Auslan interpreters for the situation that you described, for example, in a group situation. So does that sound like it's a fair observation, that that would be a question this Royal Commission could ask of the Victorian Government?
MR BARKER: It certainly would be a good question.
CHAIR: I'm sure we can ask questions of the Victorian Government, yes. Thank you. Commissioner Mason?
COMMISSIONER MASON: Thank you very much for your evidence today and for working with the Commission in producing the statement. It seems to me that your organisation and the justice system are wanting the same outcome, and that is to increase the level of recidivism so, it's not a revolving door with First Nations people with disability through the prison system in Victoria, and you used an interesting word about being proactive. Some proactive and some are not proactive.
And it seems to be that your organisation in – in the future could do something like a cost benefit analysis of recidivism. Have you ever thought that that might be a possibility down the track, given what you have already provided to the Royal Commission?
MS POWNEY: Yes, that would be something that – I think data and outcomes and measurable outcomes are very important.
COMMISSIONER MASON: Thank you very much.
MS POWNEY: Thank you.
CHAIR: Just to follow up on Commissioner Mason's question, I was interested in whether there has been any evaluation of the success of the program that you're conducting. Obviously, reduction in recidivism will be one important criterion. No doubt there would be others. Has there been any evaluation or any proposal for an evaluation of the effectiveness of the program?
MR BARKER: Not as yet. We are that busy doing the work. It would be great to have a partnership with somebody to independently look at our data.
CHAIR: Yes, I wasn't suggesting, of course, that you should be responsible for the assessment. But there should be some external assessment for which funding, of course, would be necessary, and no doubt the Victorian Government would be a candidate to provide the funding.
MR BARKER: We would certainly be interested in partnering in that way and – because we have got ideas about service delivery that go beyond what we've talked about today, that you know, target the needs of transition to community in a safe way and, you know, we value being able to do that.
CHAIR: At paragraph 21 of your joint statement you refer, I think, to 10 or 11 facilities that you visit. I don't want a list of them, but where are those facilities located? Are they all in the Goulburn Valley area or are they scattered more widely?
MR BARKER: No, there's two facilities located close to Shepparton. Then we have got Ararat, a number of facilities in that area, Melbourne and then Gippsland.
CHAIR: So actually, this extends more or less over much of Victoria.
MR BARKER: It does, yes.
CHAIR: I see.
MS POWNEY: Yes, and we have staff right across Victoria. Not just – Shepparton is the home base but we have staff in Melbourne and in Gippsland, so we have got them on the ground to go into the prisons and support them coming home.
CHAIR: Both of you, as I understand it, are based in Shepparton?
MS POWNEY: That's correct.
MR BARKER: That's correct.
COMMISSIONER MASON: Chair, can I just ask a question as well when you are finished?
CHAIR: Sure. Please go ahead. No, no, go ahead.
COMMISSIONER MASON: Thank you. Because you are a registered provider under the NDIS, has there been conversations about other First Nations controlled organisations with the same vision in other jurisdictions and having national conversations around this model?
MR BARKER: There is work – VACCHOs are doing some work in space at the moment, and they invited us to be part of a working group to share our experience with them and so the –
COMMISSIONER MASON: VACCHOs as in Victorian Aboriginal Community Health Organisation.
MR BARKER: Health organisation. So they are looking at the potential for developing NDIS funded services and they are working up their own business case around that.
COMMISSIONER MASON: That's just Victoria, though.
MR BARKER: That's just Victoria.
COMMISSIONER MASON: But you have not had conversations further afield in other jurisdictions?
MR BARKER: Not yet.
MS POWNEY: Not yet. We are registered in every state of Australia. Yes. Yes.
COMMISSIONER MASON: Thank you.
COMMISSIONER McEWIN: Sorry, Chair, you have prompted me to ask a follow up question. How are people referred to you or how do people know about you? Just the Justice Liaison Officers or are there other ways that people come to you or do you have to actively go in and meet with people? How did that happen?
MR BARKER: Mostly word of mouth. Community talks and when you do your job, you get known for it. So, you know, there's lots of aunts and uncles and cousins and family members, and it just happens. We don't seek work. It comes to us.
MS POWNEY: Yes.
COMMISSIONER McEWIN: Thank you.
CHAIR: Arising out of one of Commissioner McEwin's question, this is really a comment directed to the attention of Ms McMahon and for the representatives of the State of Victoria. I take it we have Ms Bedford and/or Mr Chesterman from Victoria who are listening in to this. Is that right?
MS McMAHON: I believe so, Chair.
CHAIR: Yes. I'm not getting a response, but I assume they are.
MS BEDFORD: Yes, here. Yes. Yes, sir.
CHAIR: Alright. The question I have got arises out of this. We have heard the evidence about the provision of the educational programs by a Victorian Government agency, apparently, and we have been told that participation by a Deaf prisoner in that program does not occur because the program itself or those responsible for it do not permit an Auslan interpreter to be in the same room as the participants in the program.
Now, I'm not making any conclusion or finding about this. I – on the assumption that that is right, then there seems to be an issue about the application of the Disability Discrimination Act. The Disability Discrimination Act applies to the states. There is provision for the operation of state legislation, provided that it is, in essence, compatible with the Disability Discrimination Act. But on the face of it, it would seem that a Victorian Government program of the kind that has been described is one that would attract the provisions of the Disability Discrimination Act, including the obligation to provide reasonable adjustments.
Again, I'm not making any assumptions about whether the Disability Discrimination Act applies in the way that, on the face of it, it might, but as between Ms – sorry, as between the representatives from Victoria and the Counsel representing – Assisting the Royal Commission and in this case Ms McMahon, it would be helpful to have some further exploration of this. There may be an explanation for it, it may be that this has been examined and there is an issue relating to undue hardship that explains why the Disability Discrimination Act is thought not to apply in this situation.
But I do think the evidence does suggest need for further exploration of this issue in an appropriate way, and I express that I'm not purporting to make any finding or conclusions about this, and, of course, I'm not casting any doubt about the evidence that has been given. I appreciate there may be more inquiries that may need to be made but this does seem to be an issue that ought to be resolved either before the conclusion of this hearing, including the fifth date to be held later on, or before any Counsel Assisting's or submissions or submissions in reply are dealt with. If I can just foreshadow that. Thank you.
MS McMAHON: Thank you, Chair.
CHAIR: Now, I will ask Tina and Trevor whether any representatives do want to ask you any questions. Probably they won't, but I will just check that that is the – that is, in fact, the position. Is there any application to ask any questions of Tina or Trevor? If not, in that case, that concludes your evidence. Again, I thank you very much. I endorse the comments that have been made by Commissioners Mason and McEwin about the value of your evidence.
We really do appreciate, first of all, what you have been doing, the programs that you were running, and the evidence that you have given to explain them to us, the reasons for that and your own personal experiences. We are very grateful to you for the evidence you have given. So, thank you very much.
MR BARKER: Thank you very much.
MS POWNEY: Thank you. Thank you.
CHAIR: Ms McMahon, what should we do now?
MS McMAHON: Chair, before we move on to the pre recording of Tyron Justin's evidence, I just wish to tender some documents.
CHAIR: Yes, please go ahead.
MS McMAHON: Could I please tender from Tender bundle A, the documents listed in tabs 10 through to 17.
CHAIR: You can. You have given, I think, a list of those documents in an email sent to my associate. So, if I can take that document which sets out the relevant documents at – given numbers 10 to 17, they are the ones you wish to tender. Am I right?
MS McMAHON: That's correct, Chair.
CHAIR: Alright. Well then what I will do is initial the document that I have in front of me that identifies each of the – that would be total of eight documents that are tendered, and I will admit them into evidence.
MS McMAHON: Thank you.
CHAIR: Do we move now directly to the pre-record or do you wish to have a short adjournment?
MS McMAHON: We can move directly to the pre record if you're content with that course?
CHAIR: That's fine. In that case, thank you again, Tina and Trevor, for coming to give evidence today. Thank you.
MR BARKER: Thank you, Chair.
MS McMAHON: I just would like to say to Tina and Trevor they are able to remain where they are now.
<THE WITNESSES WITHDREW
MS McMAHON: Commissioners and Chair, on 29 August, Counsel Assisting, Ms Tarrago, met with Tyron Justin, Tina's son, at Wulgunggo Ngalu Learning Place in Yarram, Victoria and pre recorded his evidence. I also attended on that visit, along with a representative from OSA and also members of our First Nations Engagement Team. And before we play the pre record I just wanted to extend our gratitude for the time and generosity of the staff at that learning centre, and to the participants for welcoming us so warmly. If that pre record could please be played.
MS TARRAGO: Thanks for yarning with us today. Ty, could you tell me a bit about yourself, like who your mob is, and where you come from.
MR JUSTIN: My full name is Tyron Adam Justin, and I was born in Kerang, but I consider Shepparton my home. I was – I'm a Yorta Yorta, Barapa Barapa man. We will start with that. I'm pretty strong to my culture now being here, but six months ago I didn't know who I was, really. But - yeah, I've lived in Shepparton for about eight - nine years, yes. And, yes, that's pretty much what I call home.
MS TARRAGO: That's where family is and
MR JUSTIN: Yeah, family. All my family is there. Mum, dad, sister.
MS TARRAGO: And you have got - your partner and a little one?
MR JUSTIN: Yeah, I have got a daughter. She's eight months old now. I've got a partner back in Shep.
MS TARRAGO: How does that feel, being a new dad?
MR JUSTIN: Yes, it’s different. Different. But, yeah, it's good. It gives me a bit more purpose. I think that was something I was missing a little bit.
MS TARRAGO: Yes. Why do you say that?
MR JUSTIN: Oh, well, I’ve been a bit lost most of my life. I'm 22 years old, and I've done four gaol sentences, and I think that's pretty shit. And I – I’ve learnt being here, that a lot of it is from being – not knowing who you are, where you come from. Culture is a big thing with that. And I was thinking, where was I going, what was I doing? But it is probably sad to say, but I felt comfortable in jail. I think that's a bit of institutionalised, but when I was out on the outside I didn't really know who I was or what to do.
In jail, I knew who I was. I was a prisoner. I was (REDACTED). That's who I am. But that's the only way I would know who I was. I was in jail. Everyone knew me. I have done heaps in jail. Everyone – that's where all my mates are. Well, probably not anymore – most of them are dead. But, yes, that was – yes, that's – that's me. Me in a nutshell.
MS TARRAGO: Yeah. And so things shifted for you when you came here?
MR JUSTIN: Yeah, dramatically.
MS TARRAGO: Can you tell me about where we are and what this place is?
MR JUSTIN: Well, it's – it’s not a rehab. A lot of fellas say it's rehab but I feel like they only say that because that’s – they’re just ticking that off the court list. "I'm going to a rehab. They can get out of a few charges”. But, no, it is a healing centre. It’s quite a magical place. When you live here, it's gorgeous. There's good people around. It's a safe place. It's – it's in Gippsland so it's in – I don't know what mountains but, yes, beautiful up here.
Yes, it's a very sacred place. Especially because it was – it was an old prison. This was the land of an old prison. Won Wron jail. And to turn a jail into such a beautiful healing place is fucking unreal. Am I allowed to swear? No. Bloody unreal. Just cut and chop that.
MS TARRAGO: And it's a cultural place?
MR JUSTIN: Yes, very strong cultural place, yes.
MS TARRAGO: Why is culture so important?
MR JUSTIN: Culture is important because it's who you are. It's – being strong to your culture is strong to your identity. That's – I think that's a no brainer. But culture is extremely important to know who you are and where you come from. Who your family is. Get more connected. Like, physically to the ground and spiritually to your people. Yes.
MS TARRAGO: And the men that come through this particular place, they feel the same way?
MR JUSTIN: 90 per cent of them, yes.
MS TARRAGO: 90 per cent of them.
MR JUSTIN: But at the end of the day, it's not – when you want to change and when you want to be here and do good things, it is magical. You have everything you could ever need to change and be a strong man, a strong Aboriginal man in that. But, yes, if you are definitely – if – like, even some fellas here, they have come here and said, "Oh, fuck – stuff this place. I don't like this place. This is shit. It's just another rehab."
But three or four days, they completely turn around. You see them change, and then they come here, they go – I’m really uncomfortable, Oh, I might go to Traralgon get on a bus and go back to Melbourne". You here – like because we're not – I'm not staff. I'm on their level. So they talk to me like that. They say, "fuck this joint, this is shit, I'm going." Three or four days later, once we do cultural stuff, they see how all the boys – we all done jail. We've all done everything you can think of. But we're all here doing – being sober, doing normal things, doing cultural things and we are loving it.
The other boys go, “fuck, hang on, that's a bit better. Don't worry about drug, don't worry about drink”. And they come here, and turn around straightaway. I’ve seen heaps of boys do it. I've only been here three months. I've done it myself. I come here, and just, "no, this isn't for me, not for me." I come here, and a week later it was NAIDOC Week and we were dancing. Everywhere dancing. It was 60, 70 people at the theatre and that, and then after that I said, I want to be here, I want to be a long time.
MS TARRAGO: And it is voluntary to be here. You choose to be here.
MR JUSTIN: Yes, I could go tomorrow and nothing would change. I won't get in trouble for it, it's not an order to be here. I can walk out the doors now. I wouldn't, though. Because that's just giving up such a good place. I have the chance to be here for a while and I'm gonna. I'm gonna take it.
MS TARRAGO: Yeah, and so you have a Community Corrections Order at the moment?
MR JUSTIN: Yes, two.
MS TARRAGO: Two. And so you have been here three months. How is it different from being in prison?
MR JUSTIN: It's even – it's even better than being outside with no support. You could be outside with your family, and this is better. As shit as it is to say – I've got a young daughter and a young family myself, but spiritually it's – you feel a lot safer here and it's not a jail, it's not a prison. No one screws here, that are here. They are not – they are just people. They’re on your level. Like, Sean, if you're having a bad day, he will sit down and go, "Hey bros, what's going on, have a coffee." And it's not – and he says, fair enough, if you want to go and don't want to make other change, don't ruin it for other people. He's not encouraging them to go, but if you want to go, he can't stop ya. No one can. It's not a low security gaol, it’s a place where you can come, the supports are offered there. If you want to walk in the door and do a good thing, be a good person, yes, you are welcome to as long as you want. But if you don't, you are welcome to go whenever you want.
MS TARRAGO: So you think everyone understands and respects one another?
MR JUSTIN: Yes, 100 per cent. I don't know about other years, because it’s been open for 14 years, but I don't know, I would take it – I believe that it would be pretty similar but there is always a good group of lads. Real respectful. Especially because even just instinct, black fellas when they say it's a cultural place, they already respect it straightaway. Just – doesn't matter who they are. They could be the biggest, baddest person you ever meet, but they will still respect culture. That's just how they – that's just what happens.
MS TARRAGO: It's just in your blood, hey?
MR JUSTIN: Yes, you can't, it's embedded in your DNA. You can't do nothing.
MS TARRAGO: Yeah.
MR JUSTIN: But, yeah.
MS TARRAGO: And so when you were inside, there was some times that you were in isolation.
MR JUSTIN: Most of the time, yeah.
MS TARRAGO: So what's the longest time you were in isolation for?
MR JUSTIN: In one time?
MS TARRAGO: Yeah, or any experience?
MR JUSTIN: I - we got locked down for 28 days, got out for seven hours and I went back in for 28 days again. That was at (REDACTED) Correctional Centre.
MS TARRAGO: And what does that do then to your mental health?
MR JUSTIN: When we don't – I had a cell mate and he – he went mental. He was talking to the wall, talking to the ants. I went crazy. Like I'm pretty – I got me head on, head screwed on a little bit, but this fella couldn't do it. He was going nuts. He was – and he told the screws, "Oh, shut up, you nuffy. You are just a nuffy anyway. Shut your mouth." It’s like, fucking hell! Like, yeah, fair enough, they see that every day. But there is so much like, they treat everyone like they are all just career criminals. Which, yeah, sure, if we are convicted of a criminal charge, yeah, of course, we are in jail but not all of us are that bad. And – yeah, all up, with a seven hour gap was, it was – would be 56 days.
MS TARRAGO: Yes. And do you have some health conditions that you might need medication for?
MR JUSTIN: Yeah, I’ve got depression and anxiety. And when you’ve – because they do separate units for medications in the mornings. So, I'm on anti depressants, and especially when I was coming off the drugs in jail, I usually rely on that. And quarantine is usually the start of the sentence. You quarantine in the cells, and you go to (REDACTED) and you do your 14 days quarantine there. But it's never 14 days. They say 14 days. It is usually triple that.
MS TARRAGO: Is that the standard thing?
MR JUSTIN: It is standard because they say – they say, “Oh, gaols are full, we’ve got to wait until we move you on”. They are not going to put you in the yard. That's just stupid. That's a waste of their resources. Why would they go and set you up in a yard for four days with other people just to send you to another gaol? They would just keep you in quarantine. But because there is so many people, like, coming in and out, intake and fucking discharge, they are just like, “Leave him there a few more days”.
You start banging up, “Hey, hey, hey, come on, let me out in here, let me out. Give me some for food”. You get fed stuff – like I lost 18 kilos in that 50 days. That's not healthy. Like, yeah, it would probably be good to lose the weight, but probably not that way. They starve you in there. Not starve. Yes, you get three meals a day but they are about that big.
MS TARRAGO: So about the size of a butter – bread and butter plate?
MR JUSTIN: Yes, that's about it. You know the Chinese containers?
MS TARRAGO: Yes.
MR JUSTIN: Just like them.
MS TARRAGO: Okay.
MR JUSTIN: A bit of stale old bread, that’s it. You get a couple of foam cups of water.
MS TARRAGO: And your medication, did you get that medication when were you in isolation?
MR JUSTIN: Depends what nurse is on, really, what screws are on. If you've banged up the night before and said, "Hey, hey, hey. I need some – you know, just someone to talk to. I'm going mad". They laugh at you and say, "You’re not getting meds tomorrow then, dickhead." Bang! Slam the trap. They say, "That's what you get. You're making my job hard, I will make your life hard. You are not getting the anti-depressants."
MS TARRAGO: So when you are on those types of medications, does it have to be consistent?
MR JUSTIN: Yes, if I come off my meds, I vomit. I withdraw because they are a strong potent dose. And, yes, I vomit. If I miss a day, I feel crook as. Headaches. And my mental health gets worse because I'm physically sick but, yeah, I had – my Nan passed, I think around 17th of May this year.
MS TARRAGO: This year. I'm sorry.
MR JUSTIN: That's alright. Thank you. And I fortunately got to go to her funeral in Kerang. And I got escorted there by (REDACTED) shackled. And I'm okay with that. Like, at the end of the day, I'm in gaol, that's fair. But when I come back, because when they discharge you, they actually discharge you from the jail system when you go on – they call it escort. And when you go on escort they discharge from you the system.
When I come back, I was in quarantine for 18 days and 14 of them days – my nan just passed. I'm heartbroken. She was my best friend, the little darling. And they didn't give me my anti depressants for 14 days. I was going mad. I was supposed to only do 10 days. Because I was – they said, “You’re too unsafe to go in the yard because you're angry”. I said, “I'm not angry, I'm upset. Give me my anti depressants. I need them” – I can't sleep or anything when I'm not on them, purely because I'm restless. A lot of anxiety and stuff.
You know, seeing mum cry at the funeral and that, like that's her mum. And for 14 days I had no medications. I was only supposed to be in there for 10 days though, but because I kept asking and kept pestering them – you have to be persistent in gaol. You get nothing. You don't get fed if you get persistent. And you get on with them – “Hey, can I speak to a mental health nurse, can I do –“click the button. “Hey, can I get some meds or something?” "You ring up again, “You're not getting shit." Fuck, alright.
So you be patient. Four days of being patient. Four days. Have you ever done something consistently for four days in a room? Like 5m by 5m room with a bed and TV with three channels. You do your own head in. Like, I'm pretty strong mentally, like I'm – I could do –only imagine what some who has serious mental health issues will be going through. And yeah, 14 days, I had no medication. I was only supposed to have been there 10 days, but because I was being persistent, they class that as annoying. "Oh, you’re doing my head in, fuck up". Bang!
They turn the intercom off or they don't answer. You don't get nothing. Too bad if something bad was to happen, if I have an asthma attack or something. I have no medication. I have nothing. I have to argue with (REDACTED) now. When I go somewhere, I have my asthma puffer on me. He said, "You're not allowed to do that”. I said, "It's not contraband dickhead, that's my –“ sorry about the language, but that's just me getting angry over it. That's my lungs, pretty much. I need that. And they go, “Nup, not allowed to have it". I said, “I don't care. You can slot me. I'm keeping my asthma puffer on me. Youse are too inconsistent”.
MS TARRAGO: Because there’s been times where you needed your asthma puffer and –
MR JUSTIN: Yeah.
MS TARRAGO: – you weren't allowed to have it and didn't have it.
MR JUSTIN: And when I said, “No, I'm not getting on the bus”, they said, “Well, we will put you in the slot”. I said, “You can put me in the slot, but my asthma puffer is still going to be on me”. And not me personally, but a few fellas have done that with their medication, and they have been done for trafficking medication inside a prison for keeping their asthma puffer on them when they go to the slot, and they get flogged by soggies as soon as they try to do that, because it's contraband. Something they're not allowed to have they class as contraband.
I haven't personally but I think because they – I don't know, they haven't done it to me. I don't go right on with it that much. I don't really – once they start to get angry, I’m like, “Yeah, leave me alone now”. Purely because it's just – one call and you’ve got eight six-foot-tall heavies, and you are like, “Yeah, no, I don't want to deal with that”. I'm not like that. And, yeah, and they crack it at me every time but I just – stick to me guns and say – like, you shouldn't have to do that. Like, yes, I know you’ve done a crime, you’re in prison, you are already in the wrong. But that's a human right, I'm pretty sure, to have your medication.
MS TARRAGO: Yeah and have access to health.
MR JUSTIN: Yeah, exactly right.
MS TARRAGO: And has there also been times when, you know, the court has said, “Oh, you need an assessment” and you might have to do something on Zoom and you’ve been growled at for wearing shorts?
MR JUSTIN: Yeah. Yeah, that happened.
MS TARRAGO: Can you tell me about that?
MR JUSTIN: I was doing my Corrections assessment and because the assessment is a phone call inside a visit centre, which is a building, the gaol’s policy is you have to wear pants, which is fair. If you go into a visit, you have to wear pants because it is easier to sneak in contraband in shorts. Because the pants, you know, they are all stringed up and that. You can't – like, because it's pretty gross, but that's how people do it. They boot stuff. Or they put it in their jocks. And it is easier to do it when you have shorts on, so they say you have to wear pants.
But there’s no visits on, visits haven't been on for three months because of COVID. I walk in the visit centre, and she's like, “You're not picking up the phone”. The prison officer there. I said, “Well, what for?” And she’s like, “You got shorts on”. I laughed said, “You’re funny, no, give me the phone now”. I thought she was joking. She was like, “No, get the fuck out until you've got pants on!” I said, “Give me my ID card back”. They said “No”. They kept my ID card so I can't get anywhere in the prison.
MS TARRAGO: So you need to access a particular place?
MR JUSTIN: Yes, you need to show it or they're not going to unlock anything.
MS TARRAGO: Right.
MR JUSTIN: You're not supposed to be out. When you leave your community – your yard, you have to have that ID card otherwise they think how did you get out? And she kept my ID card and she said, “Nup, you are not going nowhere”. I said, “How am I going to get short – pants?” I – she held my card until I heightened, and then I went back.
MS TARRAGO: So what happens if you heighten?
MR JUSTIN: Slot. 30-day slot. Which is LOPs, which means Loss of Privileges. So, no TV, no kettle. You get a blanket no sheets. Because they know that mattresses are scratchy as because they have been hammered over the years, so they say, "Alright, you don't get a sheet either, you smart arse". So, yeah. So, you just get a white doona and a pillow.
MS TARRAGO: Right.
MR JUSTIN: And an empty cell. You do that for 14 days. By the time you get out you're mental anyway, you’re are that – you overthink – like to the point where in the 50 days I done – or how many days – I done – 50 something days I done quarantine all up, I thought of – literally I overthought every single thing that's happened in my life in that time. I sat there and think 13 hours a day, 'fucking hell, think, think, think, think. It’s not healthy.
MS TARRAGO: And did you have access to mental health nurses or doctors, psychiatrists or counsellors?
MR JUSTIN: They – they walk around and see certain people that are flagged for – you know, like a psych hold or something. But you have to yell in the door, "Hey, hey get here!" You have to get their attention. You shouldn't have to do that. For someone that would have worse mental health issues than me, sitting in their bed crying all day or can't move or have really bad depression, they are not going to come and check on you. That's not their job. When something is in front of their face they deal with it. When it's not they don't give a fuck.
MS TARRAGO: Should it be their job though, to come and check on you and not have –
MR JUSTIN: You would think so.
MS TARRAGO: – you screaming?
MR JUSTIN: Yeah.
MS TARRAGO: Okay.
MR JUSTIN: Should be their job.
MS TARRAGO: Yeah.
MR JUSTIN: But they – but even the – the – I don't know if it is politically correct to call them screws, but that's just the slang. They are prison officers. So prison officers they – if you are being persistent or you are like pestering them for something, every now and again there is a good screw but there is only one to like five and that one gets casted out by the other screws. "No, don't help him, he's black. Fuck him, he's a nuffy. Let him go. Just let him burn out he will get slotted anyway". And this other screw goes like, “What?” Like all the new prison officers go, "That's not right". Even their own kind pull them up and say that's not right, you can't do that. We see it all the time. Especially disabled. Like there was one kid at (REDACTED) when I was there, he had really bad autism. He was a good little – he was a funny little fella. He had really bad autism and he like he is into his karate and that. And he was mucking around with a mop. And bang, just – tackled him slotted him. He was gone for two weeks. What happened there? He tried to hit someone with a mop. He is an autistic kid in the laundry playing around with a mop handle. Come on let's be real here.
MS TARRAGO: So people not assessing risk.
MR JUSTIN: They don't sit here and go "hey bud". They don't go and ask, "Hey, what's this fella, what's wrong with him? Why is he walking around like that?" Like you can clearly tell he has a disability but they don't take it as that. They think oh, he's trying to hurt someone, bang put him in the slot. This poor kid is going, "What the fuck am I in the slot for?" He can't get visits. You lose your visits for six months for your arguing. They are going to take your canteen, your phone calls they can take. At (REDACTED) privately owned gaols, (REDACTED) I have never had it done at (REDACTED), you be a smart arse, they say alright, limited spends. You can only buy shampoo and conditioner and toothpaste off the canteen. When you have got shit food you actually rely on the – your food and your money coming in. They say, “Alright you get limited spends, you are allowed to spend $13 a week” which isn't much, and you don't have phone calls. I said, “You can't do that”. You have to sit there and argue with the ALO to get a phone call to your mum.
MS TARRAGO: So Aboriginal Liaison Officer.
MR JUSTIN: Yeah, they are the only people that battle for you.
MS TARRAGO: Yeah. And how many are they – are there when you have been in –
MR JUSTIN: There’s only one and she's an old white woman. She can't – all the boys hate her because she's –
MS TARRAGO: Because –
MR JUSTIN: – not one of us.
MS TARRAGO: – she's not accepted.
MR JUSTIN: Yes. Which, yeah, she's fighting for us and that but nine times out of 10 black fellas aren't going to listen to a white woman.
MS TARRAGO: Yeah.
MR JUSTIN: Especially when she's acting like that. "I've got 300 of youse to deal with" "Us? What, our people?" "Yeah, youse are all fucked you just pester me". "Oh, shut up, fuck off, I don't need anything".
MS TARRAGO: So really –
MR JUSTIN: That was at (REDACTED).
MS TARRAGO: – needing that cultural safety inside.
MR JUSTIN: Yes, especially at (REDACTED). When you first come in, they got nothing. But once you get into your sentence and your rating drops and you go like to (REDACTED) centre, they are pretty – they have their own yard. A whole cottage. They are really culturally safe there, but even then, it's a constant battle between prison guards with ALOs and prisoners. If a prisoner goes to an ALO, “Can we do, this, this and this?”. The ALO goes “Yeah, yeah it is not against anything here”. The prison guard doesn't like ‘em. “No, you’re not getting that. You’re dreaming. You punched on six months ago”. Like –
MS TARRAGO: Yeah, right.
MR JUSTIN: Like –
MS TARRAGO: Yeah. And just touching on the phone calls, is it expensive to call at home? Like, if you wanted to call mum or your partner and find out how baby is going?
MR JUSTIN: 12 minutes is $8.90, and you only get $13 a week for food and calls. That's what the gaol pays you.
MS TARRAGO: So in a perfect situation when you are stuck in that situation, how much time do you think people should get to be able to call home if they can?
MR JUSTIN: You would think at least – like, because they have timers on the phones. A 12-minute call, you got to be rich for that. You – someone have a flash family that fill up your accounts to have a full-sized call. It is usually like, "How are you going? Yeah, love you, bye". That's it. That's all you can afford. That's $3 or something.
MS TARRAGO: Yeah.
MR JUSTIN: And you only get $13. People doing it hard and their families doing it hard or – there’s a lot of fellas in there that have – like, black fellas that have elderly parents.
And all this stuff is online. How do you send them money? They send them cash in the mail and they laugh at them. Send a money order. "No, we don't do that anymore, mate." Because it is all flash now. Nine times out of 10, all the people in gaol, they are old or they have no one. And when you have no one, 15 minute a week to ring your wife or your partner or kids – and all you have to do is speak out of school – “Yeah, of something happened here”, talk about something that's going on in the prison that they don't want getting out – bang, the number getting taken off your list and you can't ring that person ever again.
MS TARRAGO: Right. So you can't express concerns about how things are going inside?
MR JUSTIN: No. I said to mum, I'm really doing shit on my mental health”. Bang, the supervisor calls me up, "Do you want to go to protection?" I said, "Pardon? What for?" "You said something on the phone that makes our gaol look bad." Yeah, you are a fuckhead. Sorry about the language, but that's just ridiculous. I said, "I don't care what your gaol looks like. I'm worried about my mental health”. And just because my mum said, “Hey, you can get someone to check on him, you pull me in the office and give me a rip”.
MS TARRAGO: So mum is showing you concern and trying to get you access to –
MR JUSTIN: Yeah, I get targeted.
MS TARRAGO: – things you need.
MR JUSTIN: I get targeted in prison. That's the last thing you want. Mum only – I was like, I've done my first gaol sentence when I was 18. That's already a target.
MS TARRAGO: Yeah. So, is there anything else that you want to talk about that that's a burning issue for you or you think it's important for the big bosses at the at the Royal Commission or Corrective Services or the Justice Department that needs to change or that you want them to know?
MR JUSTIN: They – I don't have a very good memory, but there's a – there's a lot of prison guards that get joy out of provoking prisoners, just to watch them fail. Like, there will be a person going to the slot every day in a standard – a standard day in jail. It's not over fights or anything. Like, someone would walk in with – because there is no hairdressers in gaol, one of the young fellas probably tried to do his hair with clippers.
You can buy clippers in there, and he done his hair with the clippers, and it looks a bit weird. Because you are in gaol, you’re not at a hairdresser. He’s just trimmed up because he's too long. Saying, "What the fuck? You are going to " what was the – (REDACTED) which is the IDS unit, like, intellectual disability, and they call it the “nuffy unit”. "You go to the nuffy unit with that haircut." And this fellow goes, "What?" Real offended from the haircut.
"No, you can't say that." "Oh, who gives a fuck? You say something, you're going to the slot anyway, you black cunt." You go whoa. You say that to black fella that – you know, has strong morals and stuff and loves his culture, grown up in a black family, he's going to go off. And then he gets flogged by soggies and put in the slot. Now, what's the point in that?
MS TARRAGO: Yeah.
MR JUSTIN: And then he gets another charge and six months more on his sentence for arguing. Or even just – there was a fella he spat at a screw, not at his face, spat at a screw's foot in an argument. And he got six months extra on his sentence.
And if – and if soggies come in and, like, they don't just sit there and say, “Hey, mate, you’ve got to sit down” a normal screw can do that. The soggies come in and they are there to flog you. They smash you up like proper. And there is some fellas that come out and they cut their phone calls and say, "Good order of the prison." No visits. No contact. They even bar their letters from going out. If they have been smashed up they can't express that to their family. They will make the jail look bad.
What are they supposed to do? They can't contact anyone. The ALOs are told to shut up if they get all smashed up because the screws are doing it. Like, yeah, sure, we are criminals but I class myself as a criminal because I done the wrong thing. But we don't deserve to get smashed up and provoked. What's the point in that? There's one of us in a cell. There's like eight of them and they are big boys. They always get their heaviest ones to be the soggies.
MS TARRAGO: There was a term that you were just saying there, “nuffy”?
MR JUSTIN: Nuffy.
MS TARRAGO: Nuffy. So is that something that the prison officers use?
MR JUSTIN: That's their slang to say
MS TARRAGO: That you have a disability.
MR JUSTIN: Yes.
MS TARRAGO: Okay.
MR JUSTIN: Yeah. And they don’t – instead of saying IDS unit like (REDACTED), screws, they are really professional and they say, “Oh, are you from the IDS unit” (REDACTED) and other gaols, they go, "Are you nuffy?" You go “What?” That hurts, man. I have only – I think – like, I've only got an ABI from a car accident, and they call me a nuffy. I said, whoa, that hurt. You suck it up, but you’re not – you shouldn't have to. And you do something wrong, or drop something in the kitchen "Ah, you nuffy."
MS TARRAGO: So
MR JUSTIN: And that's not prison slang. There's a lot of prison slang but that's not prison slang. That's screw slang. You know, prisoners will pull you up for saying that because the screws made that. That's their slang.
MS TARRAGO: And so as a – as a black man that has an ABI, and has heard the language used, how does that make you feel?
MR JUSTIN: A little bit upset actually, now I think about it. But if someone has – like, an intellectual disability, or a processing problem, and someone says that to them and they instantly get angry, they are doing the wrong thing straightaway. It's never the prison guard getting pulled up. Like, yes, another prison guard will say, "Hey, don't do that, he's getting angry." And when they are getting computers and chairs thrown at them from people that obviously can't process what's going on and they react in that way, I know I have had to realise I have that problem.
That's – some – some of the reasons why I act out. Not the whole reason, but especially in a prison, there is a lot of emotions, a lot of chemicals going through your body. And then to be provoked like that, you are going to go off. Nine times out of 10, you're going to get a reaction. When they get a reaction they get more gaol time. They – like, it’s – just disgusting. And I have got to the point where I go out, I eat, I train to keep my fitness up so I don't get out 150kg and go back into my cell. That's my day in gaol.
And I sit there and you just sit out the front of the cell in the chair and you watch and you just see it's screws against prisoners. And because I always – because I'm a black man, I always go to – the Koori yards and the screws there, they're all racist. It's real bad. Especially if you have a disability which – I think most black fellas have intellectual disabilities because, like, parents and that being full bloods and not like, we all learn white man's language and stuff. Like, it's all different to them.
Especially older people. They go – they all talk in their lingo. When they are trying to talk to screws, they say, "What are you talking about? Are you a fucking retard or what? I can't hear you. I can't understand you." This bloke is a full blood. He doesn't know English. And he gets called a fucking dickhead, a retard. Or, "You don't even know how to talk English." He just doesn't understand what is going on, so he loses it. Then he gets flogged, more time on his sentence. Like, where is it going to end?
A screw has never hit me, but I don't let it get to that point. But it will probably be, like, at least one a week, one a week. A black man getting slotted for acting out because they are provoked. And when they are in the slot, ALOs can't go in there because it's too unsafe. No phone calls in and out. No letters. They bar your letters. So when you give them a letter, “Hey, kid, another letter” they rip it up and drop it back at the doors saying “Ah, not happening”. Or they read your letters.
Make sure your letters – which I understand that because of, like, violence inside a prison. Like, stuff – you know, I get that. They have to put precautions there. But when you have your letters, they read it and they look and they go, oh, yes, you see them at the front desk. You look under your door and you are looking, looking and some of them they just go – throw it in the bin. Like, at the assessment prison, my first sentence, this young fella, he was 18, same age as me, the cops bashed him that bad, his eye was bleeding. He was blown out like this.
Like, his ID, it wouldn't have even looked like him. And he's like, “Oh, I got to ring someone. Call the Ombudsman”. He come down from up the top in the assessment prison or some high up bloke, says, "It's your own fault. You're driving around stolen cars. You're going to get bashed, you dickhead." Shut the doors and locked him in. That's it.
MS TARRAGO: No medical care.
MR JUSTIN: No. This fella I was just in gaol with, he stole a car he was on the drink and that, drunk. He went and stayed at a family member's house, and then because it was a – like, he respects that family member and the police were there, he goes I'm going to go. He goes out the back door and he was walking across a paddock and the copper didn't stop and arrest him. He just drove straight at him. Bang! And broke his leg. A bone came out.
He said he still can't really walk that well. And his bone is hanging out his leg, and he was like that for eight days in the cells. He could have bled out and died. Like, he could have got some blood infection and died. It is so lucky he didn't. And because he's such a big boy, he's six foot three or something, he's a very, very big boy. They think, instantly “Oh, no, no don't touch him, he's going to hurt you”. He's not – he's got that good morals. He's not going to hurt a nurse. He is not going to hurt anyone. He stole a car because he was drunk and thought, "I'm going to go and joyride." That's his journey, that's his problem, what he does, but he shouldn't deserve to be neglected like that. That's not on.
MS TARRAGO: Well, thank you for sharing all of those – your experiences and the experience of other people that you have met.
MS McMAHON: Chair, that completes this morning's session.
CHAIR: Thank you. It's now 10.45 Perth time, 12.45 Sydney time. Shall we resume in one hour's time?
MS McMAHON: Chair, I think that the plan would be to recommence at 11 o'clock.
CHAIR: We are only going to have a short break. Yes, I'm confusing lunchtime in Sydney with morning tea time in Perth. Okay. We will resume – we will resume in quarter of an hour and will seek here whatever sustenance may be available.
<ADJOURNED 10:46 AM
<RESUMED 11:04 AM
CHAIR: Yes, Ms McMahon.
MS McMAHON: Thank you, Chair. Di Lyons is currently in the Brisbane hearing room and will be giving evidence next in this hearing. And Ms Lyons has already been sworn.
<DIANNE LYONS, CALLED
CHAIR: Thank you. Ms Lyons, thank you very much for the statement that you have provided to the Royal Commission which we each have and have read. Thank you also for agreeing to give evidence today. Just to explain where everybody is, because you are in Brisbane, we have two Commissioners in the Perth hearing room, Commissioner Mason and Commissioner McEwin, both of whom you should see on the screen.
MS LYONS: Okay.
CHAIR: Ms McMahon, whom I will ask to ask you some questions shortly, is also in the Brisbane hearing room, and just to make things more complicated, I am in the Sydney hearing room. So, we are operating from three different places. But with the wonders of technology, all should be well. So, thank you again, and I will now ask Ms McMahon to ask you some questions.
<EXAMINATION BY MS McMAHON
MS McMAHON: Thank you, Chair. Ms Lyons, you have provided a statement to the Royal Commission dated 13 September 2022. Is that correct?
MS LYONS: Yes. I have.
MS McMAHON: And I understand you wish to make a very small amendment to that statement. And that is at paragraph 65, you wish to delete the words "or bail" on the second sentence.
MS LYONS: Yes. Yes, please.
MS McMAHON: With that amendment now being made, is that statement true and correct?
MS LYONS: Yes.
MS McMAHON: Ms Lyons, you are currently living in the community in Queensland at the moment?
MS LYONS: Yes.
MS McMAHON: Yes. And you were released from custody in 2021, following four years of being in prison; that's right, isn't it?
MS LYONS: Yes. Yes, that's correct.
MS McMAHON: And it's the case that you use a wheelchair?
MS LYONS: Yes. I do.
MS McMAHON: But it's not always been the case that you have. Is that right?
MS LYONS: That's correct. The condition is progressive.
MS McMAHON: And –
MS LYONS: I was originally on a walking stick at the time, yes. And a chair when I needed it.
MS McMAHON: But for the period of time that you were in custody, you used a wheelchair, did you, for the entire time?
MS LYONS: Yes. Only the wheelchair.
MS McMAHON: Now, before we start talking about your experiences in custody, can you please explain to the Commissioners the sort of supports that you currently require in the community.
MS LYONS: I currently require support workers for approximately eight hours or more per day. They come in the morning. I get a shower. They help me get dressed and make coffees and organise meals and do cleaning. I can't do that anymore. And washing. And then we go out in the community. We might go shopping or to see the doctor or medical appointments. That type of thing. And, yes, they're pretty much with me all day.
MS McMAHON: And, Ms Lyons, what type of allied health services do you currently require to support you?
MS LYONS: Okay. I have podiatrist, a physiotherapist, a psychologist – I'm not sure if that's an allied health but I have a psychologist as well. Gosh, I'm trying to think of the others. They are the main ones. Yes.
MS McMAHON: Now, when you first went into custody, do you recall the assessment and screening process?
MS LYONS: Yes.
MS McMAHON: And what did that entail for you?
MS LYONS: I was taken to the prison and I saw a nurse, a male nurse, and he asked me if I was suicidal. They did have my medical documents. My doctor had sent through some of them, so they knew I had muscular dystrophy. So, that was pretty much the intake process.
MS McMAHON: Do you remember whether or not your particular needs to support you were discussed directly with you?
MS LYONS: No
MS McMAHON: Were they discussed at all?
MS LYONS: No. They didn't ask.
MS McMAHON: Now, I understand when you first went into custody, you were, in fact, transferred to a hospital?
MS LYONS: Yes, I was transferred to Princess Alexandra Hospital in Brisbane.
MS McMAHON: Why was that, as you understand it?
MS LYONS: They didn't know what to do with me because I was in a wheelchair.
MS McMAHON: Were you told why you were going to the hospital or –
MS LYONS: No.
MS McMAHON: And how long did you remain there?
MS LYONS: Just overnight. There was an argument, I believe, between the hospital and the prison. The hospital were trying to tell them that what I have is chronic, not acute. So, only acute cases go to hospital. I've got a chronic disability so I can't be cured. It is not acute.
MS McMAHON: So you were then transferred back the next day to the corrections centre.
MS LYONS: Yes.
MS McMAHON: Where were you placed first when you went back to the corrections centre?
MS LYONS: In – the actual name of the cell is MO2. It was a white room at the back of the medical centre, and I understand it was an observation cell. So, everything was white in there. It had suicide sheets on the bed. Or not sheets. It was just a doona. Doona cover, from memory. No pillow. And there was nothing in the room. So – and the door had just a very small opening. On the – facing into the medical centre.
MS McMAHON: So was there any natural light coming into that cell?
MS LYONS: No. There was a window, but it had a full steel shutter on it and I couldn't see out. I couldn't see where I was in the prison or outside.
MS McMAHON: And do you understand why you were placed there?
MS LYONS: I understand because they didn't have any facilities to put me, because I needed a wheelchair. Because I needed showering, and I couldn't do that on my own there was a bathroom but it wasn't a disability bathroom. They bought a toilet seat from the men's prison over for the toilet, because there was no handrails. And the toilet was very low. So, getting up and – you know, off it and back on it was difficult without the chair. Sorry, without the toileting chair.
But there was nothing in the room at all. There was no radio, no TV, I wasn't allowed to have magazines or books. Or newspapers or even my own paperwork. I have even got – there is paperwork where they caught me with four magazines and two newspapers, I think, that one of the nurses gave me, and they took them away. So – because they were in the cell.
MS McMAHON: Ms Lyons, as far as you were aware, is it case that you understand that you were placed there because there was no other accessible place for to you go as opposed to some other risk issue?
MS LYONS: I don't know what the other risk issue. They realised I had – I was a big fall risk. I believe one of the nurses was familiar with what I had, and she said that I had a – I was a very big fall risk, which is true. I really don't know why I was put in there. I was in there for many weeks. Yes. It was horrible.
MS McMAHON: Sorry, Ms Lyons. For those many weeks –
MS LYONS: It was horrible, yes.
MS McMAHON: It was horrible, was your evidence.
MS LYONS: Yes. Yes
MS McMAHON: For those many weeks that you were in the white room or that particular cell, were you able to go outside and, if so, for how long?
MS LYONS: They weren't taking me outside. I was in there from the 21st of August I think, and I believe they had a meeting on the 19th of September about taking me out of the cell. So, the two hours you are supposed to get outside of a cell didn't happen in the first few weeks. So, I basically was in this white room with fluorescent lighting that was on 24/7. Yes, it was an observation cell for people bringing drugs into the prison.
MS McMAHON: Now, you have just touched upon the issue about the 24 hour fluorescent lighting. Was that a bright white light that you were describing?
MS LYONS: Yes.
MS McMAHON: And what –
MS LYONS: Yes, there were two.
MS McMAHON: There were two.
MS LYONS: Two sets of two, yes.
MS McMAHON: And what impact did that have on you with particular attention on the effect it had on your condition?
MS LYONS: Well, I wasn't getting very good sleep and if I don't get good rest, the muscles contract. That's basically what happens over time, is that muscles shorten and when I'm not getting good sleep, I have very painful contractions. So, the muscle will actually rip if it gets really bad. They go rock hard and hurt.
MS McMAHON: And I understand from your evidence in your statement that that particular cell also had cameras inside of it.
MS LYONS: Yes, there was cameras in the cell and cameras in the bathroom, yes.
MS McMAHON: And how did that make you feel, knowing that you were possibly, I suppose, being observed in both the white room cell and the bathroom?
MS LYONS: Very vulnerable. I had no privacy at all. Even going to the toilet, no privacy. So, yes. Showering, being naked in the shower, I had no privacy.
MS McMAHON: May I ask you now about using the bathroom. Would that be alright?
MS LYONS: Yes.
MS McMAHON: And the help that you needed.
MS LYONS: Yes.
MS McMAHON: Now, you have made it clear that you have – you require assistance to use the toilet. Were you always assisted when you requested help?
MS LYONS: No. No.
MS McMAHON: Would you experience delays or what problems arose –
MS LYONS: Yes.
MS McMAHON: – for you?
MS LYONS: I couldn't use the toilet because it was locked. The toilet was – the toilet and shower were between the white room and the padded cell. So, it was locked on both sides. And I had to wait. A nurse could not come into the room without two officers being present. Sometimes there was as many as six officers in the room. Particularly when I first got there, I believe – I think a lot of it was to come and have a look at me. I don't know.
Yes, so I had to wait sometimes two hours when I really needed to go to the toilet. So, I would have to wait and that would be very painful. And they just tell me to wait. There was no officers available.
MS McMAHON: And, Ms Lyons, in terms of showering, I understand that you would be showered by a nurse, but that Corrective Services officers or officer would need to be present as well. Is that right?
MS LYONS: Yes.
MS McMAHON: And you have just described –
MS LYONS: Yes, two officers.
MS McMAHON: Two, and you have described sometimes it was more than that.
MS LYONS: Yes.
MS McMAHON: Was the nurse always a woman who bathed you?
MS LYONS: Yes.
MS McMAHON: And what about the –
MS LYONS: She was an older woman.
MS McMAHON: An older woman. And what about the Corrective Services officers who were present and able to see you. Were they women?
MS LYONS: Most of the time. On occasion, there were men. Yes. The – there could be up to six officers in the white room while I was in the bathroom with the door wide open. And the nurse would be showering me, so I would be fully undressed, and she would kind of pull me around, put me in the shower chair. She was pretty rough. I ended up with some bruises on my arms from her. And on occasion, I was given a cold shower.
And on one occasion – and it was winter, so it was very cold. Everything is steel and concrete. And I was given a cold shower on one occasion, and I did this to sort of get away from the water, and one of the officers made a snide remark that this isn't a day spa. So, yes, I believe that was – they were just trying to take me down a peg.
MS McMAHON: How did that make you feel?
MS LYONS: Yes, very vulnerable and unsafe.
MS McMAHON: Now, with showering, Ms Lyons, I understand sometimes you didn't get a shower every day. Is that right?
MS LYONS: No. I was there for the first seven days, and I didn't get a shower for seven days. And the reason being is that I don't think they had hired a nurse at that time and also you – the nurse can only come in when the officers are available. So, a lot of times, the officers just aren't available. They're busy elsewhere in the prison. So, when that happens, you don't get a shower. So, I did go for up to seven days.
It was during the period before I got sentenced, so it was in that first month. But I was not getting a shower every day. After that, it was every couple of days. Sometimes – generally just one shower a day. So – yes.
MS McMAHON: Can I just understand that a little bit more clearly. So, there was a period where there was about seven days where you went without a shower. And there were other periods where it might be up to two days. Is that right?
MS LYONS: Two to three days, yes, that I wouldn't get a shower.
MS McMAHON: Two to three days. And how frequently – and, of course –
MS LYONS: During that
MS McMAHON: – you don't need to be precise, would it be you might go without two or three days without a shower?
MS LYONS: Yes. Over that – it was almost seven weeks I was in that white room. So, yes, over that period, I wouldn't get showers every day. Because the nurse would be there but there were no officers available to come into the room.
MS McMAHON: I see. Now, I understand that you also require assistance with getting dressed and undressed. Is that right?
MS LYONS: Yes.
MS McMAHON: So if you weren't showered on a particular day, would someone come and help you change your clothing or did you just stay in the same clothing?
MS LYONS: Yes. No, I would stay in the same clothing.
MS McMAHON: And would that –
MS LYONS: Same underwear, same clothing.
MS McMAHON: Okay. Ms Lyons, I understand from your evidence also that you did experience being dropped when you were being moved and occasioned some injuries to your body as a result. This occurred –
MS LYONS: Yes.
MS McMAHON: – didn't it, when were you being moved to court one day? Can you tell the Commissioners about that?
MS LYONS: It occurred quite a few times yes. It occurred when I was transferred to the PA and also to the court. The officers claim they didn't know how to lift. They weren't paid to lift anybody. If – when I'm transferred I – I was transferred to the travel wheelchair, the one that fit into the back of the prison van. So, I was taken out of my wheelchair and put in a different wheelchair. And the transfer – if you don't get my me up on my feet I just collapse. I can't – I can't push myself up. I don't have that ability to push up. So, if you don't get me up eye level and on to my feet and you let go, I will just crumble and fall to the ground, and that's what would happen.
MS McMAHON: And so how – how did that make you feel emotionally when you were dropped?
MS LYONS: At one stage – at one stage, I thought they were trying to kill me, actually, at one stage, I thought, because they thought I was a problem, because I spoke up for myself. I tried not to show fear. But I was very afraid and at one stage I did think, when they dropped me a few times – I remember when I got back late that night, I was talking to my carer in my room, one of the carers, and I told her, I thought they were trying to kill me.
MS McMAHON: Okay.
MS LYONS: It was like sport. It was like they did it on purpose. And then to get me up out of my chair, one of the women pulled the underwear up behind in – behind my tracksuit. The tracksuit pants. She grabbed the tracksuit and the underwear and pulled me and I collapsed over a table. And then she said I was showing my bum and she was laughing because there was male officers there. "Oh, look, your bum is showing ha, ha, ha". It is terrifying because they control everything. Everything. They are in charge of everything you do. The only thing you get to do voluntarily is breathe. So, yes.
MS McMAHON: Okay. Now, I just wanted to clarify when you said PA before, you were talking about being transferred to a hospital; that's right, isn't it?
MS LYONS: That's correct, yes.
MS McMAHON: Now, Ms Lyons, I want to move on now to talk about accessibility of the prison.
MS LYONS: Yes.
MS McMAHON: Now, how would you describe, in a general sort of a way, the accessibility of the prison environments that you were admitted to?
MS LYONS: It was totally inaccessible. My wheelchair, because it is power assist, I still have to push the wheels when I'm getting around on my own. And, of course, my hands are out here, and going through doorways, I often hit my hands and, you know, you are hitting steel doors and steel, you know, frames, doorframes. So, yes, I had a lot of injuries on my arms mostly.
MS McMAHON: So –
MS LYONS: And, yes, others when I would have a fall.
MS McMAHON: So generally the passageways just weren't wide enough?
MS LYONS: No. In fact, the travel wheelchair was too wide to even get through the door to go into the prison for me to transfer safely. So, that's why they were transferring me at the back of the van, because the travel wheelchair wouldn't go in the door at all. It was way too wide. So –
MS McMAHON: Did that also apply to the doorways or most of the doorways, do you know?
MS LYONS: All the doorways. Yes.
MS McMAHON: Okay. And did that affect your hands?
MS LYONS: Yes. Yes. I often whacked them, bruised them, scraped them. Yes.
MS McMAHON: Now, you describe in your statement that the adjustments made for your disability were grossly inadequate, were your words. What request did you make? And I just want to direct you particularly, your evidence at paragraph – sorry, 47 regarding handrails.
MS LYONS: Yes. At my sentencing, the inference was made by the prison that they were going to put in infrastructure so that my disability would be, you know, taken into account and make the prison accessible for me. So, at the very least, I needed handrails to get up and out of my wheelchair on to the toilet or into the shower. I needed somebody to help me with things. The prison doesn't have handrails or it's very inaccessible.
The visit areas don't have anything. They are just like toilet cubicles without a toilet. There is nothing on the walls. And nothing was done – there was only one disability toilet in the prison, and that was in the secure area in room 1 or cell 1 in the secure area of the prison. And that was it. There was no disability facilities at the Brisbane Prison in residential, which is where the general population is.
MS McMAHON: So, Ms Lyons, if I can just be clear, is it the case that you requested handrails in the bathrooms and in your cell, and they didn't arrive. Is that right?
MS LYONS: Well, they were never done yes.
MS McMAHON: Did you ever get handrails in those locations?
MS LYONS: No. And the main one I wanted was in the visits area so that I could see my family.
MS McMAHON: Yes. And I will come to your family shortly. But I just want to ask you about being placed in the mother's unit for some time.
MS LYONS: Yes.
MS McMAHON: Do you know why that was?
MS LYONS: I have no idea.
MS McMAHON: Okay. And that also presented accessibility issues for you in terms of, as I understand it, there were pool gates that would have been used for children who might have –
MS LYONS: Yes.
MS McMAHON: – been there. Were you unable to get through those gates. Is that
MS LYONS: Yes, they were too high. They were pool gate, not child – you know how you have the child ones that are low? No, these were pull gates. So, you had to pull the thing up to open it. And
MS McMAHON: And you simply couldn't reach that; is that right?
MS LYONS: Yes, and even if I could, the pool gate was like on a – it was like on a magnetic thing or whatever. You had to pull it really hard to get – so you have got to hold it while you are trying to wheel through, which is, like, impossible. So, yes, and that was on the bedrooms or the cells – I call them bedrooms. It was on the cells, it was on the kitchen, and it was on the bathroom. So, I didn't have access to those places without help.
MS McMAHON: And I understand, Ms Lyons, that, if I could put it this way, some adjustments were made but by some of the women in the prison for you in that unit. Can you just describe what the women tried to do to make that accessible for you?
MS LYONS: Yes. There were eight cells and cell number 2, they opened their pool gate door and opened the pool gate door on the cell I was in and tied it with a rubbish bag. A plastic rubbish bag to keep it back so I could go in and out of the cell. And when the prison officers came through and saw that, they undid it and told us not to do that. So
MS McMAHON: Ms Lyons, I want to move on to another topic now about carers. I understand that there were opportunities or are opportunities for other women in prison to be paid, that is, other inmates to be paid as carers. Did you have any carers appointed or assigned to you when you were in prison?
MS LYONS: Yes.
MS McMAHON: And I understand –
MS LYONS: Approximately 12 to 13.
MS McMAHON: And why was there so many assigned to you?
MS LYONS: The women were coming and going. I was stuck in high security so women were on remand, they were getting sentenced or they were going to low security. The normal process is to come through the prison and ultimately go to low security and then into the community. And that's the process for everyone except me. So – and except people in wheelchairs. They don't get to go. We are stuck in high security.
MS McMAHON: If I could just come back to the carers for a minute. Is it your understanding that any of those women who were assigned to you, did they receive any training, as far as you know, to safely and properly, say, lift you or attend to any personal care for you?
MS LYONS: No. I was told by one of the carers that all they had done was a session on washing their hands and that was it. And I think they trained about four to wash their hands. But only two of them ended up being carers for me.
MS McMAHON: I see. Now, if I could just ask your opinion about something for a minute. Who – if you are going to be carers for people in custody, including people like you who use a wheelchair, who should be performing that role?
MS LYONS: I think a professional support worker should be doing that role. Because we have particular needs. Everybody is different as well. The disabilities, what you can do, what you can't do. All of those things need to be taken into consideration. There is no respect. You are just a – you know, you are a nuisance. So, if I wanted a cup of tea or something like that, I had one carer that was reasonable early, on and then I had a wonderful carer for two and a half years of the four years but only because she had been a carer of her father on the outside.
But the majority resented having to look after me. Ultimately they resented having to clean up or – they wouldn't clean or do pretty much anything other than push me to work. Yes.
MS McMAHON: Okay.
CHAIR: Ms Lyons, in your statement at paragraph 52, you say that you were entitled – your statement, paragraph 52.
MS LYONS: Thank you.
CHAIR: Yes. You say that you were entitled to a carer to assist in cleaning the cell, helping you wash clothes and so on. Where did that entitlement, as you understood it at the time – where did that come from?
MS LYONS: That came from the management in the prison. As far as I know. I don't really know.
CHAIR: Right. So, it was an entitlement as – what, as you understood it, that was available to somebody in a wheelchair?
MS LYONS: Yes. I think because they had given evidence that they were going to make, you know, reasonable adjustments or I think the words were "put in new infrastructure." Later on, they told me that the carers were the new infrastructure. But these are prisoners. So, the majority – it was the – one of the highest paying jobs in the prison so everybody wanted it. And most would get the job, and I had ones putting hair and spitting in my food.
So, you are in a high security prison. That's the environment. It's a tough environment. You are with the worst of the worst. You are with all the murderers, and the people who have committed, you know, serious violence. So, you're not getting a lot of sympathetic or empathetic people.
CHAIR: No, I understand. But I judge from what you say that this may have been the attempt to provide the infrastructure that was promised at the time of your sentencing.
MS LYONS: Yes. I think it was more of a cover your arse situation. Excuse my wording.
CHAIR: That's quite alright. We have encountered some words previously today.
MS LYONS: Okay. Yes.
COMMISSIONER McEWIN: I might ask a follow up question, Ms Lyons, just following on from the Chair's question. What interaction, if any, did you have with prison management to discuss your reasonable adjustments or access needs? What if any?
MS LYONS: When I had raised the issue, because nothing was done, the prison management came to see me, and they told me that they would never put in even a $50 hand rail. That the building had been built prior to the legislation, and I told that person that, no, the prison had been built in '98 and '99 and the legislation had come in '91/'92 and they said to me they didn't understand anything about the law. And I told him – I told the person that ignorance is not a defence. He can ask anyone in his prison, and they will let him know, ignorance is not a defence. So – but he never – he was true to his word. He never did put in a handrail. Not even a handrail. Nothing.
COMMISSIONER McEWIN: Thank you.
MS LYONS: That's okay.
MS McMAHON: Ms Lyons, on this topic, I would like to now ask you about your intensive management plan. There was such a plan in place for you as I know you understand. What did you understand to be the purpose of that plan?
MS LYONS: I understood it was – the purpose of the plan was to manage me in the prison.
MS McMAHON: Okay. And were you ever consulted with regards to its development?
MS LYONS: No.
MS McMAHON: And it sets out certain rules and some needs for you. Is that right, if I could describe it that way?
MS LYONS: Yes.
MS McMAHON: And one of those things –
MS LYONS: I think it is mostly rules. I think it is mostly rules, yes.
MS McMAHON: Mostly rules. And one of the things that's mentioned in the plan – and I might just quote from the plan itself – it says:
"Wheelchair to be left external to her cell at 1800 hours. Lock away in a position that does not pose an issue to staff conducting head counts."
That appeared in your didn't it?
MS LYONS: Yes.
MS McMAHON: So what – what did that rule or plan condition mean for you on a daily basis?
MS LYONS: Every day at 6 pm, they would take my wheelchair off me and leave me stranded on the bed. So, I couldn't go to the toilet or go to the shower or anything. The walls were just cement, painted cement Besser blocks, and there was nothing for me to get off the bed. So, they just left me stranded until 7, 7.30, when they felt like giving it back in the morning. And some mornings, they would open the cell door but wouldn't give it to me and shut the cell door and just walk off laughing. So, it was – I was sport in there. So – yes.
MS McMAHON: How did it make you feel for those hours not to have mobility? Not to have your chair?
MS LYONS: Desperate. Desperate. Desperate, uncomfortable. In pain. Very vulnerable. Yes.
MS McMAHON: Now, I want to ask you another question about your plan. It also stipulated a condition about dressing and undressing after family visits. How did that condition play out for you?
MS LYONS: My brother came for a visit. I think it was his third visit or fourth visit. I think I had two visits with him that were non contact, and I had had one contact visit where I was able to give him a hug. And it was when I was going for a visit he was waiting, and that's when they told me about the condition, if I was unable, unwilling to undress unassisted, then I would be put in the padded cell, MO1, or back in the white room until my medical condition improved.
So, I knew I couldn't undress unassisted after the visit. So, I couldn't have the visit with him. And they told him that I didn't want to see him. So, he was pretty hurt and angry with me and then, of course, we got locked down, and by the time I was able to ring him, it was about 3 pm to let him know that I was really sorry, but I don't want to go back to the white room or end up in the padded cell, and I said he can't visit me anymore.
I – I can't do the visits because I was being undressed after the non contact visits. They made me take my shirt and bra off and show them after a non contact visit. So, I wasn't game to even do those. Because I thought they would want to have an excuse to put me back in the white room or the padded cell.
MS McMAHON: And did that condition that we just spoke about, did that stay in place for the whole period of your incarceration?
MS LYONS: The entire four years. Yes. So the last time I saw my brother was on the 6 October 2017 and I didn't see him until 2021.
MS McMAHON: And did that include any other family members or friends that you didn't have any other visits for the same reason. Is that right?
MS LYONS: Yes.
MS McMAHON: Okay. Now, Ms Lyons, I want to move on and ask you some questions about what's contained at around paragraph 41 of your statement, and that is about your illnesses and admissions to hospital. You went to hospital on a number of occasions whilst you were in prison. Why were you admitted to hospital?
MS LYONS: I was finally admitted to hospital. I had a thing called starvation ketoacidosis because there is no nutrition in the food, and I was really low on iron. My heart had been beating really loudly in my ear – ears, and I normally have a slow heartbeat, but it was up around 180, 190, and they were giving me blood pressure tablets. And then I was – I basically collapsed. I was unconscious, I think. The second time it was a lot worse.
But the first time I was in hospital for 10 days, and I was basically taken out of the hospital as soon as I ate a meal. And that happened again on – in the second one, which – on the second occasion when I was in hospital for 15 days. The second occasion, I don't remember the first five days at all. I was unconscious.
MS McMAHON: Ms Lyons, I understand from your evidence that you had bacterial infection. Is that right? As the reason –
MS LYONS: Yes.
MS McMAHON: What do you attribute that to in terms of the prison environment?
MS LYONS: Yes. Well, obviously I have wheels on the wheelchair, and it picks up everything on the floor. It will pick up all the hair. But it picks up anything that's on the floor or on the ground and, you know, people spit and stuff like that. But, at that stage, the second time I was admitted there was another prisoner in the – it was called the medical unit, where I was housed, and this was at Gatton. Not in Brisbane.
And this lady was – I don't know what was wrong with her, I think she had mental health issues. But she was defecating everywhere. All over herself. And she was mopping it up with the mop and the woman who was looking after me at that time got the mop and just used it, and it was full of all this gunk, and she has used the mop in my cell and around the shared areas. So, everywhere I was going there was food – little bits of capsicum and onion – it's disgusting – everywhere and it was sticking to the wheels.
So, she wouldn't pick it up. So, I went around trying to pick it up with paper towel and – but when you run over that stuff it gets stuck in your tyres and I have picked up five different bacterial infections they treated me for the second time I was in hospital, and I believe it was probably from the wheels. Because you can't help them touching your wrists or your hands.
MS McMAHON: I see.
MS LYONS: So as much as I washed my hands like crazy, I still got really sick.
MS McMAHON: Now, Ms Lyons –
MS LYONS: And I probably –
MS McMAHON: Yes, please continue.
MS LYONS: Sorry I was going to say I will probably never look at a supreme pizza the same way ever. So it was horrible.
MS McMAHON: I would like to now ask you about NDIS funding. You applied from NDIS from custody; is that right.
MS LYONS: Yes. In 2018.
MS McMAHON: And I understand that you had some difficulties doing that because of a lack of access to the portal and internet. Is that right?
MS LYONS: Yes. There is no access.
MS McMAHON: No access.
MS LYONS: So I had to do it by mail. It's like going back to the 70s, when you go into prison. There is no internet. There is no nothing. So, yes, I did a written request to be put on NDIS.
MS McMAHON: And so you were doing hard copy documents being posted. Is that right? Is that how you were facilitating your application?
MS LYONS: Yes.
MS McMAHON: And how long did it take, can you remember, from when you started applying to when you actually
MS LYONS: I think it was towards the end of 2018 when an OT came to see me and I saw her a few times. I saw her again in 2019.
MS McMAHON: Yes.
MS LYONS: And that she had put together a budget of $8,000.
MS McMAHON: Now, you received a budget of $8,000. Was any of that funding actually utilised while you were in custody?
MS LYONS: $1,000 was used to buy a mattress. That makes it sound like a really good mattress but the reason for the expense was that the mattress sizes were not standard. They are not the – they are smaller than a single bed. So, they are not standard. So, because the mattress had to be made – and it was a pressure mattress, so it had to be specially made for the prison. And I received a pillow, a memory foam pillow, and the prison bought me a doona, like a $20 single cotton doona. We did have blankets, like those hospital blankets and we were allowed to have two. And they were very heavy for me to roll over. So, I did get a doona from the prison.
MS McMAHON: So, in terms of, though, funds utilised from your NDIS plan, is that the extent of it what you have just described?
MS LYONS: Yes. And then the OT gets paid as well. So not much of it was used. I think about $1,300 of it.
MS McMAHON: And I understand that as part of your plan – and please correct me if I'm wrong – that you were eligible for physiotherapy.
MS LYONS: Yes.
MS McMAHON: Did you receive that physiotherapy?
MS LYONS: No. They said that it couldn't be done in the prison.
MS McMAHON: Now, you have given evidence much earlier –
CHAIR: Sorry, when you say "they", you mean the prison authorities, do you?
MS LYONS: Yes. They – they told me it couldn't be done.
CHAIR: Yes, it is the prison authorities that told you that, not the NDIS or NDIA.
MS LYONS: No. No, NDIS had approved that funding. That was fine. But the prison said no. So –
MS McMAHON: And, Ms Lyons, in the community now your funding is much higher than $8,000, isn't it, with all the supports that you need?
MS LYONS: Yes. My funding package is $300,000 a year.
MS McMAHON: And can you just tell the Commissioners, please, just finally on this topic before we talk about your release, what has the impact been for you of not having received the support that you needed – and by that I mean physiotherapy and so on whilst you were in custody?
MS LYONS: Well, my condition has progressed a lot quicker. I was basically sitting in the wheelchair for every day for four years. There was no other seating other than the cell bed. That was it. And I got no physiotherapy, so my condition is a lot worse. I could still walk a little bit when I went into prison. I can't walk at all now. That's completely gone. So, I haven't been able to keep the muscles supple and that sort of stuff.
MS McMAHON: Now, I would like to just – the final topic before I might ask you about some – a recommendation for the Commissioners, but when you were released from custody that was because of a successful appeal; that's right, isn't it?
MS LYONS: That's correct.
MS McMAHON: So you weren't released on, say, supervision orders or parole orders or anything of that nature. That's right isn't it?
MS LYONS: Yes. That's correct.
MS McMAHON: When you were released from custody, I understand it was the case that you went to a motel because you didn't have anywhere else to go. Is that correct?
MS LYONS: That's correct. Yes.
MS McMAHON: And how was that motel organised?
MS LYONS: It was organised – well, it was the only place I could think of to go, and I had a small amount of superannuation which I drew down – not while I was in custody, when I got out. But, actually, one of the carers that had looked after me – who was told not to look after me, I might add, because she was looking after me – she actually paid for that first night for me. And I paid her back later. The motel let me stay for about two weeks before my superannuation came through. So, they were incredibly kind.
But without that, I would have been in the street in the wheelchair with nothing. So, I – the people who had – the people who had come into the prison to sign everybody up later with the NDIS sent me a list of caravan parks to get into. Obviously, I can't get into a caravan so – and even if I could, I wouldn't be able to move around. So – the wheelchair won't go in. So, yes, that was the help I got.
MS McMAHON: So –
MS LYONS: And the prison van dropped me to the hotel. So, that was really good. Everybody knew where I was from. So, yes.
MS McMAHON: And was there – were there any other supports offered in terms of anything else? Or was that it, being transported to the motel?
MS LYONS: Yes. You know, just a comment too, there was a disabled taxi in Gatton. There were a few. And I said to them, "Why don't you just order me a disabled taxi?" But, no, they were intent on dropping me off at 9 pm at the motel in the prison van you know, so, yes, everybody would know. So, yes. That's just the way they operate.
MS McMAHON: So, Ms Lyons, I wanted to just move on to ask you about recommendations. Do you think that people with lived experience of using a wheelchair could be a valuable addition to designing prisons?
MS LYONS: Yes. Absolutely. Well, how do they – you know, if they are going to put us into prison then maybe they should sit in a wheelchair for a day to find out how accessible or inaccessible their jail is. But, yes, they need to be – you know, there are standards with NDIS. It's not – this is not – this is not a difficult thing. You know, it's a no brainer, really. There are standards for hall widths, door widths, that sort of thing.
If you are going to incarcerate people with disabilities – and not just physical disabilities but mental health and cognitive, then you ought to be making sure that you've made the reasonable adjustments for people. So – and if you haven't, own up, tell the truth. You know, don't say, "We're going to put in infrastructure" and then tell me you are never going to put in a $50 handrail because you don't understand the legislation. Like, you can't have it both ways. Well, I suppose you can. In there, you can. They can do anything they want. They are a law unto themselves.
MS McMAHON: Ms Lyons, I might just ask you one final question before the Commissioners no doubt want to ask you something too. But you have gone to the trouble of preparing some recommendations, but I would just like to you focus on one important recommendation to share in this forum today. What would that recommendation be?
MS LYONS: I think that if they are not going to make these facilities accessible, if they are going to make that decision, then they ought to consider an alternative such as home detention. It's been – it's available in some states, not available in others. But if they are not going to make the adjustments in prison, if they decide it's too expensive to make those changes, then they need to consider an alternative. So, if we can't get through a door, we can't get through a door. So – yes.
MS McMAHON: Thank you, Ms Lyons.
MS LYONS: So that's – I think that's what they should be doing, yes.
MS McMAHON: Thank you. Chair, that completes my questioning.
CHAIR: Thank you very much. If you don't mind, I will ask my colleagues if they have any questions to put to you. I will start with Commissioner Mason.
COMMISSIONER MASON: Thank you, Chair. And thank you very much for your evidence today, Diane. I was going to ask you a question about universal design, but you have answered that question with Ms McMahon. If you are able to, I wanted to know the experience you had when the wheelchair was taken away from you between the hours of 6 pm and 7 am or 7.30 the next morning, what did you do to go to the toilet? Because were you on the bed and you said it was very difficult to move. What – explain to the Commission what happened?
MS LYONS: I couldn't go to the toilet. The carer was in the cell with me, but the floor was so slippery – it's painted cement – she couldn't – she was also short. I'm fairly tall, and she just couldn't lift me off the bed. It was impossible. And I was stuck there on the bed. Out of desperation, one night I got off the bed on to the floor and urinated in the shower. I was desperate. But then I couldn't get back in the bed. So, it was just insane.
And they didn't care. There is actually photos of prison cells with wheelchairs outside in a 2017, I think it was, disability review of the Queensland prisons, so it's clearly something they do all the time. They do it to everybody. So, yes. I just couldn't go. I had to hold on. Which is pretty difficult when they wake you up at 6 in the morning and you are supposed to be ready and – but they don't give me back my chair until 7, 7.30, sometimes 8.30. Yes. So, it's the first thing you want to do.
COMMISSIONER MASON: Thank you very much for you explaining, and you paint that picture very clearly. I'm sorry that happened because that's very uncomfortable. Thank you, Diane. Thank you. Thank you, Chair.
MS LYONS: Yes. No, that's fine.
CHAIR: Yes, thank you. I will now ask Commissioner McEwin if he has any questions.
COMMISSIONER McEWIN: Thank you, Chair. Thank you, Ms Lyons. So, that I understand your evidence about the interaction between the NDIS and prison management, so is it fair to say from what you described that the block – or it was the prison management and staff who were not allowing you to effectively use your NDIS package. Is that a fair characterisation?
MS LYONS: That's absolutely true. Yes. That is fair.
COMMISSIONER McEWIN: Okay. Thank you. And thank you very much for your evidence.
MS LYONS: Thank you.
CHAIR: Ms Lyons, in your statement I was interested to see that you hold a Bachelor of Commerce with Honours, and you are partway through a law degree. Did you study for the Bachelor of Commerce before you went to prison or during prison?
MS LYONS: Yes. Yes, I finished that at the age of 44. So –
CHAIR: That was before you went to prison?
MS LYONS: Yes. Yes.
CHAIR: And when – if I may ask when did you start your law studies?
MS LYONS: The PhD was in 2014.
CHAIR: And you are continuing with that?
MS LYONS: Yes. In the prison – first of all Brisbane Prison said is wasn't possible to continue, and then Gatton they signed me up for subjects but refused to give me my textbooks. So, I – those two subjects I couldn't cancel them because it was in the two weeks. So, they made it very difficult for me to study. Yes. I could have, but, yes.
CHAIR: And you have resumed your studies since you were released?
MS LYONS: Yes. I haven't restarted this year, but I will get back into it next year. So, yes. I was sort of moved and things have been going on. So.
CHAIR: Alright. And I see from your statement that you successfully appealed your conviction, and you say in paragraph 15 that you're facing a retrial. I understand that the Queensland Court of Appeal quashed your conviction and ordered a retrial, but is that the current position that you still face a retrial?
MS LYONS: At this point in time, yes. So, it has been going on for nine years now, but hopefully that won't be the case soon. Hopefully.
CHAIR: Because you have actually served four years in prison for an offence which has been – a conviction for which has been quashed.
MS LYONS: That's correct. And I did the appeal myself. So –
CHAIR: I was going to ask you about that. Was that a choice you made or was that because you were unable to obtain counsel to represent you?
MS LYONS: Legal Aid refused to fund anybody. So – they also refused to fund me during the trial, so – and they regularly tell people in writing that if they plead guilty they will fund them, if they plead not guilty they won't fund them. I would have thought there was more need for a not guilty plea, but there you go.
CHAIR: Yes. And was the reason they gave – I don't want to go further than this – was the reason they gave the merits of the appeal?
MS LYONS: That's correct, yes, that the appeal had no merit.
CHAIR: And it turned out it did.
MS LYONS: Yes. That's correct. Yes.
CHAIR: Yes. Just one other question if I may.
MS LYONS: Yes.
CHAIR: While you spent time in prison, four years, did you see anybody else, any other prisoner in a wheelchair during that time?
MS LYONS: Yes. I met a woman who was stuck in a medical cell. She had been in there for 18 months. I think she had to do another six months when I saw her. They lost her wheelchair on her when she first went in there and she was using one of the rubbishy $200 wheelchairs, which are like the travel wheelchairs, they are really wide. So there was her. I met other people that might have broken a leg, or had an injury of some sort, or were suffering from severe diabetes, that were in wheelchairs from time to time and they would comment to me that they had no idea how difficult it was to get around in a wheelchair until they sat in one. So – but yes, there are regularly other people in wheelchairs.
CHAIR: And the other people at least in the prisons you were involved with –
MS LYONS: In high security.
CHAIR: – would have experienced the same difficulties you experienced?
MS LYONS: Yes. Probably not to the same degree, but certainly they may have had, you know, a time – a period of time when they were helpless in a wheelchair unable to shower themselves. Things like that, yes.
CHAIR: Yes. And sorry just one other thing. Your statement indicates that you have lodged a discrimination complaint which was ultimately settled. Were you legally represented or did you handle that yourself as well?
MS LYONS: I was legally represented for that, yes, by Legal Aid.
CHAIR: Right. Okay.
MS LYONS: They told me they had been waiting for a case like mine for 10 years.
CHAIR: Thank you very much. Alright.
MS LYONS: You are very welcome.
CHAIR: Ms Lyons, thank you very much for your evidence. It's been, if I may say so, most instructive. I just will inquire whether there is anybody in the represented parties who wants to ask you any questions, and I will just pause having asked that question to see if there is anybody that has any such application.
MS MacMILLAN: Chair, it's representatives on behalf of Queensland. I have been trying to obtain instructions. Obviously this for evidence has gone a lot further than the statement but I'm not in a position to be able to cross examine at this stage. So, we will obviously have to respond in due course.
CHAIR: Alright. Well thank you, Ms Macmillan. I'm not entirely sure that Ms McMahon would agree that the evidence has gone much beyond the statement but if there is an issue about that it can be dealt with in due course.
MS MacMILLAN: Chair, sorry if I can just be heard. I mean, assertion for instance this witness thought they were trying to kill her is a very grave allegation made, and as far as I can read wasn't made in the statement. However, I won't debate the matter now, but we will obviously have to take some further instructions.
CHAIR: Again, I'm not sure it's a grave allegation so much as the witness giving evidence about how subjective state of mind.
MS LYONS: How I felt. Yes.
CHAIR: Perhaps two different things, but we will worry about that later on if we have to. Alright, thank you very much again, Ms Lyons. Thank you for your statement. Thank you for the evidence that you have given, and we very much appreciate your willingness to help us with the experiences of yours within the prison system in Queensland. Thank you.
MS LYONS: Thank you. Thank you for hearing me.
<THE WITNESS WITHDREW
CHAIR: Ms McMahon. Do I now get to get some sustenance. Is that how we work?
MS McMAHON: Indeed Chair. It's now 5 past 12 would you like to return at 5 past 1?
CHAIR: We will return at 5 past 1 Perth time and 5 past 3 Sydney time. Thank you.
<ADJOURNED 12:06 PM
<RESUMED 1:06 PM
CHAIR: Yes, Ms McMahon.
MS McMAHON: Good afternoon. Jennifer Cullen, CEO of SYNAPSE Australia, is on the AVL screen from Brisbane. And she will now give evidence.
<JENNIFER CULLEN, CALLED
CHAIR: Yes. Ms Cullen, thank you very much for coming to the Royal Commission in Brisbane to give evidence, and thank you for your statement. One pronounces it SYNAPSE, doesn't one?
MS CULLEN: That's correct. Thank you.
CHAIR: That's correct. Just to let you know where everybody is, we have two Commissioners in the Perth hearing room, that is, Commissioner Mason and Commissioner McEwin, both of whom you can see on screen, I assume. I am in the Sydney hearing room. You are in the Brisbane hearing room, so we are operating from three different sites. And Ms McMahon, whom I will ask to ask you some questions in a moment, is also in the Perth hearing room. Now, have you taken an oath or affirmation as yet?
MS CULLEN: Yes, I have. I have taken an oath, thank you.
CHAIR: Thank you very much. In that case, I will ask Ms McMahon to proceed.
<EXAMINATION BY MS McMAHON
MS McMAHON: Thank you, Chair. Ms Cullen, would you like to introduce yourself before we commence?
MS CULLEN: Good afternoon, everyone. My name is Jennifer Cullen. I'm the CEO of SYNAPSE Australia, and I'm a very proud Bidjara Wakka Wakka woman from here in Queensland. Before I give my evidence today, I wish to acknowledge the traditional owners on the land on which I sit today, the Turrbal and Jagera People, and I ask that the wisdom of the ancestors be with me, and my Elders be with me as I give evidence at the Disability Royal Commission. Thank you.
MS McMAHON: And Ms Cullen you are speaking today on behalf of SYNAPSE Australia, but also those who have developed the Guddi Way Tool. I understand you would like to make an acknowledgment to those you represent.
MS CULLEN: Yes, I would. Thank you very much. On behalf of the Guddi Way Screen partners, which consisted of individuals, organisations, traditional owners and elders and people with lived experiences of disabilities, I wish to acknowledge the lands on which the development of the Guddi Way Screen was raised and developed by those people who contributed to. On behalf of the people who contributed, they also have asked that I acknowledge that Commissioner Mason is attending today, and my elders pass their respect through to the Commissioner as well. Thank you.
COMMISSIONER MASON: Thank you.
MS McMAHON: Thank you, Ms Cullen, and you have provided a joint statement to the Royal Commission with Adam Schickerling dated 9 September 2022. Is that statement true and correct?
MS CULLEN: That statement is true and correct.
MS McMAHON: And, Commissioners, will you find that at Tender bundle B, tab 7. And you will also see a list of annexures 8 through to 13 that are relevant to Ms Cullen's evidence this afternoon. Ms Cullen, could you please tell the Commissioners an overview of SYNAPSE Australia and the work that that organisation does?
MS CULLEN: Certainly. SYNAPSE Australia is the peak body for brain injury, and we operate nationally across this country. We are a not for profit organisation that operates in partnership with communities, government, not for profit and our academic stakeholders. The aim of SYNAPSE is to ensure the rights of the people impacted by cognitive impairment by connecting knowledge, policies, services and systems. SYNAPSE has a very long-established history and profile as specialist disability organisation, in providing both direct service delivery and information as an information provider.
We are well known also for pursuing a strategic research agenda and advocating for evidence based policy. Our reach across Australia is based on the fact that we have place based engagement with the communities that have invited us in to do work with them, and our role is to work with those communities and organisations to promote the quality of life, self determination and choice of people with complex disabilities.
But my final point that I guess I would like to make about the work that SYNAPSE does is also with our First Nations people. We have a strong focus on advocacy for marginalised people at a high risk of brain injury, including our First Nations people, whether they live in urban, regional, regional remote or very remote areas of Australia. And what we know from both listening to communities and from research, is the First Nations people in this country experience an increased risk of brain injury and associated cognitive impairments.
And that's often the result of, same with non Indigenous people, through high exposure to risk factors such as violence, substance abuse, and chronic illness. We have a long and effective history of working with First Nations Australia to build on solutions that can actually look at addressing some of the issues around abuse, neglect, and exploitation of Indigenous people living with a brain injury and cognitive impairment.
MS McMAHON: Thank you for that overview, Ms Cullen. The Guddi Partnership Project commenced in 2004. What was the purpose of that project?
MS CULLEN: If I could give a slight change to that. It was in 2014 that we actually commenced our work with the Guddi Way Screen, and that was a collaboration with First Nation communities and with organisations based in Far North Queensland. And that basically was born out of a need where we were hearing from housing and homeless services that many First Nations people were having difficulty in maintaining their tenancy, and the narrative was First Nations people don't like to live in houses. Therefore, how could you expect them to maintain tenancy.
Over a period of time, we spent a lot of discussions talking about - did you ever consider that disability may impact on a person's capacity to maintain tenancy, and over many, many discussions, that actually led to the development of starting Guddi Way Screen, about looking at was there particular reasons, was there a disability reason that may impact on people's ability to be able to maintain that tenancy.
MS McMAHON: I want to now talk about the features of the Guddi Way Screening Tool. But before we go into particular features, could you just give an overview of it to assist the Commissioners and the wider public to understand what the Guddi Way Screen actually is?
MS CULLEN: The Guddi Way Screen has been developed as a culturally developed cognitive screen for cognitive impairments and psycho social disabilities in First Nations people. And I was remiss at the beginning to actually say that the word Guddi is from a Far North Queensland language, the Kuku Yalanji people, which means, "Come home, come heal and come rest." One of the things we know in this country is that the majority of the tools that are developed to actually diagnose or screen for disability are based on western constructs -Western ideas of how disability is, how it presents, and what it looks like and how it's interpreted. In this country, we know that there is no validated screen or diagnosis for people who are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander for cognitive impairment. So, one of our ideas was working with the elders to say there's got to be a better way to understand how we identify and what our construct is of brain injury for our people who may have cognitive impairment.
MS McMAHON: And, Ms Cullen, can you break down some of features of the tool for the Commissioners?
MS CULLEN: First and foremost, since 2014, our elders have told us very clearly that the development of the Guddi Way Screen must be led for and by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The beauty about the Guddi Way Screen is it elevates the voices of Aboriginal people as the assessors of the Guddi Way Screen. I think that's very important because if we are going to understand the context of disability and the context of brain injury and cognitive impairment with a cultural lens, then it needs to be understood and screened by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. So, I make that point first.
Now, the key features of the Guddi Way Screen is looking at assessing the cognitive function across several domains. So, we know that the brain is responsible for certain things about what we can – what we can do. For example, the brain helps me talk, helps me use my hands, it helps me in my engagement today around how I sit and things that I do and how I actually process the questions that have been presented to me. The Guddi Way Screen picks up on those parts of the brain.
So, it looks at orientation. Do I know where I am and what I am doing? Language. Attention. Memory. Am I able to recall what has been said to me and am I able to recall instructions that have been given to me? It also looks at motor planning, so, the ability to be able to undertake physical tasks. And importantly the executive function, which I guess is often described as the place in the brain that where I know my social nuances and my ways of engaging socially with people.
MS McMAHON: Ms Cullen, just before you go on to the next point, I just wanted to ask if you could just slow down just a little bit for our interpreters. And I just wanted to draw the Commissioners and other parties' attention to paragraph 27 of your statement that sets out the features that you are speaking to at the moment. And I understand the next feature you will be speaking to is the point 2.
MS CULLEN: Thank you, and my apologies for the fastness of my screen. The second feature looks at an acute health screen and a social and emotional and wellbeing screen and needs assessment. So this then provides a holistic overview of the Guddi Way Screen. You would be aware that the concept of social and emotional wellbeing is very important for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. So it looks at socially, our interaction with each other, our connection to land, country and cultural, how we keep – and how we keep our spirit strong.
And the needs assessment, as a result of what we find out from the Guddi Way Screen, provides people with an understanding of what an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person with a cognitive impairment might need as a result of what is shown up on that Screen. In relation to the Acute Screen, that was extremely important with everybody that we engaged in around the development. It was to understand if a person needed assistance at that particular point in time, to say, for example, one of the questions is flagging if a person is looking at self-harm. And so we know then at that point in time at the beginning of the Screen that we will pause and do a referral and seek support for that person. That will then allow us to make sure that we provide that support at a point in time.
I mentioned earlier too about the beauty of the Guddi Way Screen, is that it has been developed for and by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with very, very smart, deadly non Indigenous people as well, psychologists as well and some really good scientists. But it was always based and is based on our yarning methodology. And I draw to your attention that the yarning methodology is a safe and trusted way in which we can actually garnish information in the way that we provide support and to limit the trauma that can be – that can occur as a result of administering westernised tools that actually don't meet the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
MS McMAHON: Ms Cullen, can I just ask on that point of the yarning method, is it your experience and your knowledge from speaking to people that are administering the tool that that is assisting with disclosures of trauma?
MS CULLEN: It is – (1) it is about assisting with disclosures of trauma but also with the prevention of trauma. Because the way it develops a safe relationship, it reduces the power – the power imbalance that often happens between when you apply a western tool to an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person, so it equalises that relationship. And I think that's really important.
CHAIR: Can I ask you something that, if I may say so, struck me as just a tiny little bit odd. In your statement, you point to the – I'm just trying to find where it is, where you validate, as it were, the program by reference to a comparison with psychological tests. Can you help me, Ms McMahon. Where is this in the statement. I had it a moment ago. Here we are, paragraph 39. The comparison to, in effect, validate the Screen – the approach was to compare it with what I understand to be an orthodox western psychological assessment.
Why was that done? Because you have just said that an orthodox western psychological assessment is inappropriate. Why would that be used as an instrumental measuring standard to determine whether the Screen is effective or not?
MS CULLEN: So what we had, it was two parts. The first part is we had assessors, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, who administered the Guddi Way. The second was Aboriginal psychologists who used a western test to actually – to actually undertake. But what we actually found is that it was the yarning methodology used to obtain the information that helped with that validation.
CHAIR: What, then, was the comparison? I may not be understanding it correctly.
MS CULLEN: If I – if I can –
CHAIR: Paragraph 38 says:
"The results of the screen were compared with the outcome of a clinical interview with a psychologist trained in neuropsychology and culturally appropriate clinical practice."
So the comparison was between the screen and the interview conducted by, what, a First Nations psychologist or neuropsychologist. Is that what happened?
MS CULLEN: That's correct. I will just go back and check my notes, if one moment, please.
CHAIR: Yes, I'm referring to paragraphs 38 and 39 of the statement. It actually starts at paragraph 37.
MS CULLEN: Paragraph 37.
CHAIR: Yes. No, I was just interested in what this was – actually what this was as a test of the validity, because you have used the expression "validation study". The validity of the screen. That's all. It just seemed – I couldn't quite understand why the administration of a psychological test was used as the standard. So it doesn't matter.
MS McMAHON: Chair, I wonder if that's a question that perhaps Ms Cullen could take on notice.
CHAIR: Yes, that's right. That's fine. Just my curiosity getting the better of me. That's all.
MS McMAHON: Thank you, Chair. Ms Cullen, I might just take you to some of the aspects of the tool now. I know that they are set out in full at paragraph 27 but I just want to ask you about administering the test. And it says here that it can be administered by non-clinicians and I just want to focus on that for a moment. So can you please tell the Commissioners who can administer the test, how they are trained and what benefits that brings, the fact that the person who administers it does not need to be a clinician?
MS CULLEN: The whole purpose of a development of the Guddi Way Screen was so that First Nations people could identify and screen for cognitive impairment in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. And the reason for that was two fold, like I said. To reduce the power imbalance but also to be able to support communities right across this country, particularly in rural regional, remote and very remote.
In order to be able to administer it – so, for example, if we were working in a particular community, the community would identify who were the most respected and relevant people to undertake the Guddi Way training. Once that has been identified, training is actually undertaken by SYNAPSE staff, and those SYNAPSE staff are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have been trained in the administration of the Guddi Way Screen.
MS McMAHON: And in terms of the length of training, can you just explain that as well, please?
MS CULLEN: That's an interesting question. It's interesting for several parts. The first part is, in our experience, when we have gone across this country to talk about brain injury in our communities we have often heard “we are not sure that we understand what brain injury is”. And even if you look across some of the systems, whether that be criminal justice, out of home care, or child safety, there is a misperception that brain injury and mental health are the same thing.
While they may co occur, they are completely different. So, what we have found is that, first off, is the need for communities and individuals and organisations to understand what is culturally safe brain injury. What does it look like and how does it show up? And often the context is not about what a brain injury is as such, but how it shows up in the systems. So that's the first part of the training. It is about understanding how the brain works, what part of the brain – if it's actually had a level of damage or impairment, what may some of those impacts be. So, that's the first part.
The second part of the training is actually going through each of the items. So, when you have a screener or a diagnostic test, they are referred to items, which is just a fancy way of calling them questions. So, each individual is trained in what those questions are and how to administer them according to the yarning methodology of that community and of that group. There's a whole lot of variables that attach to it. So, for example, I said earlier, I sit here on Turrbal and Jagera land. That might be different if I was on another community, for example, you know, anywhere in Australia. There is work that needs to be done. So let me just backtrack.
What is culturally safe brain injury. Bring that as – that's part of the training. The second is getting community understanding of how they would describe what brain injury is and who the trusted people are. And the third part is then working with SYNAPSE's assessors to understand each of those questions and what they may be. That can take up to a day, and then we come back as part of a refresher and understand if people have knowledge and almost a level of proficiency. But we also have the – we also do what's – what is learning by doing. So, people then have the opportunity to practice, for want of a better word, on administering the Guddi Way Screen amongst themselves.
MS McMAHON: Now, just to be very clear, the tool itself is not diagnostic but rather flags a possibility of a cognitive impairment or an ABI with the purpose then of potentially making referrals. That's right, isn't it?
MS CULLEN: That is correct.
MS McMAHON: So given the lack of allied health services in remote and very remote communities, is it the case that this Screen may well have particular significance in those communities?
MS CULLEN: Absolutely. And I will be very clear about this. There's a narrative going around about thin markets, and that does have applicability, but certainly in the work that we have done over many years with the Guddi Way Screen, there is a willingness and a desire for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to understand what brain injury is and how they can identify and care for their mobs so (1) they don't have to go off Country and (2) that the support and care that's needed can be provided within their community, whether that community is rural, remote, or very remote, or a suburb here in Brisbane.
It also is about workforce capability. Provides the opportunity for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to be involved in the disability sector and to give back to their communities and to build the capability and knowledge that is inherently within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to understand the context of brain injury and what it will mean for that person and for their family.
MS McMAHON: So again, just to be clear, is it the case that you see the Guddi Way Screen as an important tool to building a local workforce in remote areas?
MS CULLEN: Absolutely. Absolutely it is. And the majority of time that SYNAPSE is actually contacted to learn more about the Guddi Way Screen has been on the basis – if it's an organisation, on the basis of building their individual capability of their workforce.
MS McMAHON: Thank you, Ms Cullen. Now – and you might do this by walking us through how a Screen is conducted, but how is the quality of the administration of the Screen controlled?
MS CULLEN: The quality is controlled by a number of things. The first one is the internal governance of the Aboriginal community in which it is administrated. And what I mean by that is that there is certain methods in which communities will engage around how the use of the Guddi Way Screen is. At this point in time, the Guddi Way Screen is quality controlled through peer-to-peer mentoring. So, that's, for example, access to SYNAPSE staff who have had the opportunity and are proficient, you know, assessors, opportunity to contact SYNAPSE to be able to ask questions about the Guddi Way Screen.
Where we are moving to next is online quality control where we will have people that will be able to provide that support to organisations and/or communities who actually want to continue to build their knowledge and understanding around the quality of the Guddi Way Screen.
MS McMAHON: So, Ms Cullen, just so that we all understand with the Guddi Way Screen, is it the case that someone in a remote community, say, could administer this after appropriate training. It's inputted into a system that then goes to SYNAPSE. Is that right?
MS CULLEN: That is – that is correct. So –
MS McMAHON: Sorry, I was just going to ask, if you could then just please explain what happens with that information and how is it then presented back to the person who needs – who needs it?
MS CULLEN: There was a silver lining to COVID and that silver lining was it allowed us to actually build an online capability of the Guddi Way Screen. So, one at the moment it's paper based and, two at the moment it is also available online. So, part of that training is paper based. The second part is how to utilise the online portal. Now, at the back of the portal has been a whole lot of information that will actually then allow for the Guddi Way Screen to be produced electronically. And that electronic, which then gives a scoring or a rating on the Guddi Way Screen, is produced back to either community or the organisation in relation to that individual.
MS McMAHON: And what's on that – I didn't mean to interrupt you, sorry. Were you about to tell us what information is then provided back?
MS CULLEN: Yes. I was about to say and further to the raw scoring is what's known as a needs assessment. So, it clearly identifies what that person actually needs as a result of what has been inputted into the Guddi Way Screen.
MS McMAHON: Can you give an example of some needs that might be identified?
MS CULLEN: So say, for example, one of the questions is about locating objects. So, there is three objects that need to be located. And the assessor might say to – say to me, "Alright Jennifer. What are these three things that I have and how would you use them?" And then I get an option to go, "This is a hairbrush. This is how I use it." So all that information, the results of how I respond to that, get put into Guddi Way Screen, online or by hand.
What comes out is – and then there is a 15 minute window where I'm actually asked where are those objects. Now, that actually looks at memory. And if I can't find those objects after a certain period of time, it flags that there's a problem with my memory. So, the needs assessment will say, for example, this particular person, Jennifer in this case, has difficulty with her memory and locating objects. So, this is what Jennifer would require: Assistance with prompting, might need some tools like a watch or something to tell me what the time is and what I need to do and where – things about where I need to go.
MS McMAHON: That's very clear. Thank you, Ms Cullen. And I now want to apply some of that foundation and understanding of the tool to criminal justice settings. So, you describe at paragraph 40 of your statement that the screen is far reaching. What are the benefits – what are some of the benefits that could come from using the Guddi Way Screen tool for people who are admitted into custody or, alternatively, people who are 16 to 18 in detention?
MS CULLEN: It is far reaching. The Guddi Way Screen could be used at intake, so first time intake whether into a remand centre, for example. Tools are actually applied, but they are usually mainly psychological tools. The Guddi Way Screen, if at intake was administered on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, it would pick up a cognitive flag, and that would be able to help support a person throughout their custodial period.
It could also be used in many other situations, being able to support a person around how adaptations might need to be for therapeutic interventions, for example, such as attendance at domestic and family violence program or anger management, and further to that it can also help support vocational and educational responses and adaptations to things such as learning and numeracy and literacy.
MS McMAHON: So are you suggesting that say, for example, an anger management program, if someone should be doing that because they are in custody because of a violent offence, say, that the output of the Guddi Way Screen from the report that's developed at SYNAPSE, if known to those delivering programs, could then lead to modifications to assist that person. Is that – is that the idea?
MS CULLEN: Absolutely. Absolutely. If it flags that there might be – if a prisoner might have issues, for example, around impulsivity, impulsivity can often lead to verbal and physical aggression. If there is understanding around that, then you would look at actually modifying how – one, how the program is delivered, but also working with that individual and the support systems around that person on how to ensure that aggression and impulsivity doesn't occur.
MS McMAHON: So I think you are talking about a separate issue there in terms of actually then using the information for prison staff to understand the person's behaviour. Is that another benefit that you see or that you are expressing?
MS CULLEN: Absolutely, absolutely. Let me give you an example. It's time to actually go into the mess room for lunch and you are out in the yard in the gym. And a prison officer or a correctional officer comes and gives you instructions. And the instructions could be given in rapid fire. They could be a number of instructions given all at once. You could be told to do something as well. So, that's three things that happen at once.
If you have difficulty with processing all of those things at once because of the way the cognitive impairment impacts on you, you have a processing issue. Often if you have a processing issue, that can lead to getting upset, it can lead to lashing out, calling names to a correctional officer, or it could lead to physical abuse. As a result of that, what occurs is the prisoner is then placed on being part of an incident and/or breaching the good custodial order of that correctional centre.
Whereas instead if you understood that prisoner X had a cognitive impairment which impacted on this way, then your response would be different. Prisoner A, it's now time to leave the yard. Pause. Prisoner A is now to line up behind prisoner C. Pause. And give your instructions like that.
MS McMAHON: And in terms of prison rules, I mean that's a good example of instruction. But do you also see the Guddi Way as being able to help with, say, understanding when a person might need a visual aid for example?
MS CULLEN: Absolutely. Absolutely.
MS McMAHON: Now, these examples, though, of course need to be implemented. They need to be understood, don't they, before any positive action could be taken to fulfil those needs. What do you suggest should happen with the Guddi Way report outcomes for a person who is in prison? Where should they go if this is going to be an effective process?
MS CULLEN: My understanding is that in every correctional centre in Australia, every prisoner has a progression through the correctional centre. So, they will come in. They will get labelled maybe as a high classified prisoner in mainstream, or high residential with the objective to work through the prison system to get to an opportunity to head towards parole. At every step of that prisoner's journey through the correctional centre, the Guddi Way Screen should be part of that sentence management.
It should be part of that rehabilitation function that already is established within prisons anyway, when it's actually not looking at devising something new. It's about adding the Guddi Way Screen to the prisoner's progression throughout those centres.
MS McMAHON: And in terms of preparation for release, do you have any examples as to how the Guddi Way Screen has been helpful in that process?
MS CULLEN: Look, I have – let me give two points: The first one, we know that there's people who have an NDIS package that are currently incarcerated. For those individuals, the Guddi Way Screen could certainly be used with the needs assessment to actually establish what support may be needed on exit from prison. So, I would highly suggest and recommend that if a person is flagged initially as having a cognitive impairment and is an NDIS participant, then that needs assessments needs to be redone and worked with through to the justice liaison officer and the relevant jurisdiction's disability services in their – either Justice Department or Corrections Office to ensure that the person who has a cognitive impairment who is working towards their parole is actually ensured that they have all the supports in place prior to applying for parole as part of the parole hearing so that the Parole Boards have the knowledge of what the prisoner might need and that the package is set up and available in the event that the person is granted parole.
The second – the second point there is that if a person has a cognitive impairment and is not a current NDIA participant, then that should be a flag to actually start establishing – obviously on the basis of when that prisoner's length of prison term is, what their custodial end date is or their parole eligibility date – to work towards, as part of the prison program, in ensuring that a person has the right to access the NDIS by using the Guddi Way Screen as one of the elements to consider eligibility.
MS McMAHON: And perhaps also planning?
MS CULLEN: Absolutely. Planning for reintegration into the community.
MS McMAHON: Now, Ms Cullen, I want to now move on to talk about some of the pilots that the Guddi Way Screen has been involved in. Now, first of all, at page 15 of your statement, you talk about the employment pilot program within custodial settings in Queensland. I'm just noting the time, so I'm just wondering if you can give a brief overview of that particular pilot.
MS CULLEN: That particular pilot is very new. It has only recently commenced, and it is in partnership with an employment organisation that supports people with disability. They have – I realised I'm speaking fast. I will slow down. They have approached SYNAPSE to look at administering the Guddi Way Screen in a number of correctional centres in South East Queensland to identify if a person has a cognitive impairment and how that post-employment can actually contribute to the employment agency's work in identifying post-employment after prison.
MS McMAHON: And is there a plan to evaluate that program?
MS CULLEN: Absolutely. That project is made up of a significant number of people, including SYNAPSE's research and impact evaluation group.
MS McMAHON: Next the Murri Court in Queensland – and for those that don't know, the Murri Court is a First Nations sentencing courts in Queensland. But as I understand it, one of the features is that the person must be on bail in order to be eligible for the Murri Court. Is that right, as your –
MS CULLEN: That is correct.
MS McMAHON: Now, how is the Guddi Way being used in the Murri Court?
MS CULLEN: The Guddi Way is currently being used in two Brisbane Murri Courts. And is – a local magistrate is supported by a community justice group, which are made up of respected Elders. The Elders provide a cultural report to the magistrate and SYNAPSE in conjunction with the Elders conducts a Guddi Way Screen. On the basis of the information that comes from the Guddi Way Screen, that's then presented to the magistrate.
And so when she comes to setting bail conditions and other conditions, she is aware of which part of the brain might be impacted by cognitive impairment and then ensures that those conditions then are supported through the community justice group and the organisation that provides support to the prisoners.
MS McMAHON: So is it the case that the outcomes of Guddi Way is actually making its way into conditions for bail and conditions for community based sentencing options?
MS CULLEN: Absolutely. The magistrate will sometimes identify particular prisoners who are before her and will ask that a Guddi Way Screen is administered prior to her setting those conditions.
MS McMAHON: For those that are in custody, would there be any benefits to, I suppose, a similar process that you've just discussed on release applications, say, or for someone being sentenced where a non-custodial outcome is possible, for the use of the Guddi Way Screen to – well, potentially improve their chances of getting bail or being released on community orders?
MS CULLEN: Absolutely, it should be used throughout all courts.
MS McMAHON: Now, I just want to ask you about your capacity and the capacity of SYNAPSE. I understand – or if you could tell the Commissioners where the tool – apart from the pilots where the tool is currently being used and how it's funded?
MS CULLEN: So the tool was initially funded by private investment, and that was for the first five years of the development. It is currently used not only in the criminal justice system, in other systems such as post transition to support women who have exited prison, in mental health services and in housing and homeless services. At the moment, organisations that have the capacity to pay where we do MOUs and service agreements on user pays, and the income generated from that revenue goes back to support community organisations who will not be able to fund and/or Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities who will not be able to fund the Guddi Way Screen.
MS McMAHON: So how – how, then, are you able to conduct training and then do the reports and so forth for communities such as remote communities who can't afford it?
MS CULLEN: As I said, we generate income, but the point I guess I wish to make is that there is not enough understanding about the value of the Guddi Way Screen and how it can actually dramatically impact on a person who has a cognitive impairment and is involved with criminal justice. More funding is needed, more organisations and systems need to uptake the use of the Guddi Way Screen to be able to generate that revenue to support remote and very remote communities.
MS McMAHON: Is SYNAPSE Australia able to support and provide the training to all communities that are approaching you to use the Guddi Way or are you not being able to reach everyone?
MS CULLEN: We are not able to reach everyone at this point in time. There is two parts. The first part is the infrastructure that we have developed, so the online use of the Guddi Way Screen. The second is we can't keep up with demand. There is an absolute thirst for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who want to be able to conduct the Screens in their communities. That is what we are not able to keep up with the demand about.
MS McMAHON: Do you see a benefit of rolling out the Guddi Way to organisations such as the Aboriginal Medical Service or the Aboriginal Legal Service who have, obviously, are either referrals or those representing people who may be in custody or at risk of going in?
MS CULLEN: Absolutely. I think it would be an invaluable asset for Aboriginal Legal Services. And the reason that I would say that is because, again, it would help to present to the court the reasons for offending behaviour or an explanation. I'm not talking about condoning the behaviour necessarily, but I'm talking about understanding the reasons why that behaviour might have occurred that led to the offending. And then for Aboriginal Legal Services also to present on behalf of the offender what should be considered in setting either bail conditions to support that person, particularly if they are on a non custodial sentencing.
MS McMAHON: Thank you, Ms Cullen. Now, just finally, I just want to talk about recommendations and going forward. You have made some recommendations about – particularly in relation to the custodial system and where the Guddi Way should be used in your statement. And I also just wish to bring to the Commissioners' attention the SYNAPSE Australia report that's been co-authored by you Assessing Disability Needs in Indigenous Prisoners summary report. And there are recommendations set out there. But are there any particular recommendations that you would just like to highlight to the Commissioners this afternoon?
MS CULLEN: I would particularly like to highlight there were eight themes that came out from the Assessing the Disability Needs of Indigenous Prisoners and it needs to be stated that those recommendations came from people who have been incarcerated with cognitive impairment and other disabilities. It was actually developed also by organisations who are part of that. The first one is really important, and I think goes to the crux of what I hope my evidence has shown today, is the need for assessment and identification of disability. And certainly the Guddi Way Screen can go to that.
It also talks about, you know, the cultural safety of assessments processes that need to happen, the cultural yarning, the methodology, led for and by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. And then the second is about building the understanding of prison staff about what is brain injury, what is cognitive impairment and how it shows up. And I would just like to probably leave this final note. The Guddi Way Screen is part of changing and implementing human rights in this country for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disability.
Everything that Assessing the Disability Needs of Indigenous Prisoners is about – talks to Australia's Disability Strategy around the safety and the rights and justice of people. This is one way to reduce the impact of people being safe and free from violence, abuse, and neglect and exploitation by understanding what is the basis why a person may behave in such a manner.
MS McMAHON: Thank you very much, Ms Cullen.
MS CULLEN: Thank you.
MS McMAHON: Chair, that's my questions.
CHAIR: Thank you. Ms Cullen, if it's okay with you I will ask my colleagues if they have any questions for you. And I will start with Commissioner Mason.
COMMISSIONER MASON: Ms Cullen, thank you very much for your evidence today and for your – the material you have provided to the Royal Commission. And thank you for passing on those respects from your Elders. It's incredibly valuable, this – this tool that's been developed by SYNAPSE. So a couple of questions. Because of the innovation and your leadership there in SYNAPSE, are you aware of anything available like this internationally with First Nations communities?
MS CULLEN: No, I'm not aware of anything, Commissioner.
COMMISSIONER MASON: And my second question is – and thank you for giving us some direction around areas which would really benefit from this tool. Have you experienced any resistance from sectors or systems to introducing this tool?
MS CULLEN: Certainly. Before we moved towards looking at some of the validation activities, we recommended the Guddi Way Screen to the National Disability Insurance Agency, and it wasn't approved at that stage to be part of the independent assessments. We know that's moved on, but I hold great hope that with the new project which is the IGAP, which is the Information Gathering and Assessing Project, that there is a place for Guddi in that space and that there is a place for it to be culturally reflective of the needs of our people who have a cognitive impairment.
The other places where we do get pushback, and if I just can make one last point around the admin. The Commonwealth Government accepted all of the recommendations of the Assessing the Disability Needs. So it's now up to the states and territories to actually say that they actually want to use Guddi Way Screen to support Indigenous prisoners.
COMMISSIONER MASON: Thank you very much.
MS CULLEN: Thank you.
CHAIR: Thank you. Commissioner McEwin.
COMMISSIONER McEWIN: Thank you, Chair. Thank you, Ms Cullen, for your evidence. I want to ask you whether you have found in delivering the program or in building the capacity of local First Nations communities to work with their community members, have you found that there have been benefits beyond what the tool was originally designed for and also, for example, in the use of the tool by the Murri Court? Are you finding that they are now understanding disability more generally and there has been more awareness about other forms of disability. Can you comment on that?
MS CULLEN: Look, Commissioner, I had the opportunity and the consent from one of the Murri Court Elders a couple of months ago to sit in one of the Murri Courts and there is something pretty special when a magistrate identifies that a First Nations offender should have a Guddi Way Screen administered to be able to support her in fulfilling her duty as a magistrate. So, there's that.
The second, I recently had an opportunity to travel to Perth with one of our SYNAPSE Elders to do some training around this culturally safe brain injury and the administration of Guddi, and it was invaluable in that we heard how the Guddi Way Screen could be used more broadly across the organisation in which they were working, and this absolute commitment of the people that we met in Perth at this training to carry the message to their families and to their communities about what is this thing called brain injury but also a message of hope.
I hope that there is another way of caring for our people and understanding cognitive impairment and being able to then get the support services around to support to reduce offending.
COMMISSIONER McEWIN: Thank you. Thank you very much, Ms Cullen.
MS CULLEN: Thank you.
CHAIR: Thank you. Ms Cullen, I have been trying, with this irrepressible sense of curiosity that sometimes overtakes me, to understand just how this works. Now, I understand paragraph 27 of your statement that was referred to earlier. As far as I can tell, in the material that is available to us, the most complete explanation of how it actually works is contained in the document described as Guddi Way Screen Validation which is behind tab 11 of Tender bundle part B. This is, in fact, the validation study that is referred to – at least I assume it is – in your statement.
And you will remember I asked you about the psychologists. The two psychologists who participated in that process are not identified by name, but we are told on page 15 that one – that they specialise in neuropsychology and First Nations people and both were female. One identified as a First Nations woman. So, that tells us who the psychologists were. But when you go to pages 11 to 14, that, as I understand it – and I don't know if you have got this document in front of you, but that, as I understand it, is the description of how it actually works.
And I think it is important to just get some idea about that so that everybody can understand just what happens. On the basis of this material, we see that the assessors have a paper copy of – the Guddi Way Screen. That includes all questions, spaces for responses and prompts if – that they use if necessary. And there are a number of sections. Section 1 is the acute screen, which is designed to identify any current needs or issues that may require immediate attention and/or reduce someone's capacity to undertake the screen.
And that is done, as I follow it, by table 3 by the assessor asking about head injuries, hearing impairment, vision impairment and fine motor skills on the basis of self reporting from the person who is being assessed. Is that your understanding of what happens?
MS CULLEN: Yes.
CHAIR: Okay. And then what the assessor is instructed to do again, as I follow it from this document, is that if it becomes clear, for example, that there is a hearing impairment as a result of self reporting, then there must be a reference immediately to a GP to investigate that further. Does that sound about right?
MS CULLEN: That is correct, yes, referral.
CHAIR: Right. And similarly, if there is a self reporting of a vision impairment, again, the interview will stop and there will be a reference to a GP. So, the first stage is designed to determine whether there is something acute that requires medical attention. And then the person is referred to the appropriate service provider medical person. Section 2 is then the Cognitive Screen, and this involve as a series – again, as I understand it, a series of questions and tasks that are designed to determine whether there is some cognitive impairment in the person being assessed. Am I right in that?
MS CULLEN: That's correct.
CHAIR: And that is done primarily through a series of questions which are not reproduced in this document, but they are designed, for example, to determine whether, as far as memory is concerned, there is free recall, cued recall, whether there are defects in memory and other words.
MS CULLEN: Correct.
CHAIR: And, similarly, language is assessed by virtue of these questions that are put to the person being assessed and then the assessor does a kind of marking, if you like, of the results of these questions. Is that – is that how it's done?
MS CULLEN: That is correct. If it's paper based. But it's online now, so it's done automatic, the scoring.
CHAIR: But the assessor will fill in, I assume, the – what – the information that's needed.
MS CULLEN: That's correct.
CHAIR: Then we come to section 3, which is social and emotional wellbeing and that is designed to ascertain – and I think I have said this in your evidence – whether the person being assessed may have depression or trauma in particular, and this is done by asking some questions and recording a score based upon the responses. Is that – have I got that right?
MS CULLEN: That's correct.
CHAIR: Okay. I understand that. And then we come to section 4, the needs assessment, and this is designed to identify personal and environmental factors that either support or challenge the individual. And if the person reports unhappiness, the yarning framework may assist in identifying targets for intervention. Is that right?
MS CULLEN: That's right.
CHAIR: And this is done by assessing the ability to yarn or communicate with people, ability to move around physically at home, whether there is a safe place to live, ability to do everyday things. That's based on questions that are asked of the person being assessed?
MS CULLEN: That's correct.
CHAIR: And then all of this, I understand from page 15, takes 30 to 45 minutes to complete?
MS CULLEN: That's correct. But it can be paused. It can be longer. It can come back. But, yes, it depends on – on how the person is feeling at that point in time.
CHAIR: Yes, alright. Well, thank you for that because I did want to get a sense of what is actually done. This not a criticism in any way of your statement, but I just wanted to understand how it actually works, and that, I think, provides us with the most complete explanation in the materials that we have. At some stage – and this may be a matter for Ms McMahon to consider, we might ask for a paper version of the test so we can just have a look at the questions. That might be helpful.
MS McMAHON: Yes, Chair.
CHAIR: Alright, thank you. I don't think there will be anybody who wishes to ask you any questions. I will just pause in case that is a mistaken view. I don't think it is. In that case, Ms Cullen, thank you again for your evidence, for the written statement, and for the additional documents that you have provided, and for the work that SYNAPSE has done. It is extremely interesting and, on the basis of your evidence, extremely promising. So, thank you very much for sharing all of that with us.
MS CULLEN: Thank you very much for your time this afternoon. Appreciated. Thank you.
<THE WITNESS WITHDREW
CHAIR: Okay. Ms McMahon, what now?
MS McMAHON: Chair, the Commissioners will soon hear the pre-recorded evidence of Alen, and that can be done straightaway unless the Commissioners will like a short break.
CHAIR: Unless Commissioner Mason looks very sternly at me, no we will go straight ahead. I'm confident Commissioner McEwin will continue. We will do that. How long will that take?
MS McMAHON: Well, I do have some explanations about the interpreting before I commence. It will take me about five or seven minutes, I expect. And then the pre record itself is about half an hour. A little under.
CHAIR: Alright. Let us go on, and that will, I take, conclude us for the day.
MS McMAHON: Yes, that's right.
CHAIR: Alright. Please go ahead.
MS McMAHON: Before I commence with that explanation I just referred to, I just wanted to acknowledge, as Commissioner McEwin did at the beginning of the hearing, that this is the International Week of the Deaf and Australia's National Week of Deaf People. The disability Royal Commission interpreting team has assisted in providing an explanation of the interpreting process to understand the skill and complexity of interpreting a session that you're about to see.
You will see that Alen wished to protect his identity, so he's not signing towards the camera, as would be the usual practice when a Deaf witness is interviewed. He is facing his Deaf interpreter, who is off camera. Also working in the room in this evidence session is an Auslan interpreter, and both the interpreters are working together as a team to interpret the conversation between Alen and myself.
To understand the complexities of this situation, it is worth noting the differences between an Auslan interpreter and a Deaf interpreter and explaining the significance in the way that they work together. The broader community is by now familiar with the work of Auslan interpreters, and you can see some working live right now in this hearing room and appearing on our live stream. Auslan interpreters in this context are people who can hear spoken English and interpret this into Australian sign language, or Auslan, for the Deaf community.
A Deaf interpreter, however, is a Deaf person themselves who is skilled and also usually qualified at brokering communication between people who can hear – Auslan interpreters – and other Deaf people who require further communication support. There are many reasons why a Deaf person may require the additional communication support of a Deaf – that a Deaf interpreter provides.
This may include because the person is Deaf-blind; if they have a mental illness; additional disabilities, including both intellectual and physical disabilities; if they are not fluent in Auslan, perhaps because of migrating from another country or having been denied access to sign language from a first young age; or if they are in a traumatic situation or a crisis. Deaf interpreters rely on the Auslan feed they receive from the Auslan interpreter. Then this – then turn this into a visually rich or tactile reliant and culturally nuanced interpretation for their Deaf client.
They might draw on knowledge of other sign languages from around the world. They may use visual aids or employ mime and gesture, or they may unpack a concept in a way that makes most cultural sense to the Deaf person they are supporting. A Deaf interpreter is critical, cultural and linguistic addition to many communication exchanges. They are often employed in courts and tribunals, in hospitals, and mental health settings.
They provide an extra level of communication clarity, and they can help to create a culturally safe space for a Deaf or a Deaf blind person at a time of great distress. Deaf interpreters are an incredibly valuable addition, and we were fortunate enough to have one working with us in the filming of Alen's video. My discussion with Alen was interpreted by the Auslan interpreter, then further interpreted and unpacked by the Deaf interpreter, which was a lengthy process.
For this reason, you will notice some of – some long silences in the video recording that you are now about to watch. Counsel Assisting would like to express our great – our gratitude to all of our interpreters in this session and those in hearing room today. Just prior, again, to playing that video, I just wish to give a warning that if this evidence in the hearing room today raises concerns, please do contact the numbers that are now on the screen. All of these numbers can be accessed through the National Relay Service. Thank you and I ask now that the pre-recorded evidence please be played. Thank you.
(Video recording played)
MS McMAHON: Thank you, Alen, for giving evidence at the Royal Commission. I understand that you now live in the community but that you spent some time in custody in New South Wales between 2019 and 2021. And I would like to ask you some questions this afternoon about your experiences in custody.
ALEN: Alright, yes.
MS McMAHON: When you were first admitted into custody, do you remember being asked questions about your health and the supports that you need?
ALEN: So a Legal Aid support person or solicitor came. Well, they were supposed to come but then that appointment was cancelled because we didn't have interpreters. Then that night, I got moved to the prison but no one else really discussed interpreting or support needs with me.
MS McMAHON: So how long after you were first admitted to custody was it before you had an interpreter provided to you?
ALEN: It was probably about four weeks until an interpreter finally arrived.
MS McMAHON: When you first went into custody –
ALEN: So sorry, just to add there, I had no access to Auslan during that time at all. So, there was no signing with anyone for four weeks. But I did get to write some notes back and forwards with my Legal Aid solicitor, but that's the only communication I had with anyone.
MS McMAHON: So you didn't have any communication with any of the Corrective Services staff for four weeks; is that right?
ALEN: Well, when I first arrived, I didn't know how to communicate with anyone. So, a Corrective Services officer gave me my uniform, my bedding and that was it. No one else really talked to me, and I didn't have access to an interpreter to talk to any of the staff about what was going on. I had to put away the clothes I arrived in. They were gone. I still don't know where they went. But – when I was finally released I did get my wallet back, but those clothes I arrived in disappeared. I don't know what happened to them, because I wasn't able to ask anyone about it.
MS McMAHON: Alen, how did that make you feel, not being able to communicate with anyone when you first arrived into jail?
ALEN: I was incredibly worried. I didn't know how long I was actually going to be in jail for. At first, I was told it might be eight years, and then another lawyer told me it might be less, maybe five. But I had no idea how long I would be without communication. So, over time, I found out I was only going to be there for two years, but I was very worried, and I was quite anxious about not having – not being able to talk to anyone.
MS McMAHON: When were you provided an interpreter?
ALEN: So four weeks after I was first – I first entered jail, I met with my Legal Aid solicitor and had an interpreter but then after that, after that, after I had met with them, there was no more interpreting. Only if I had to see my Legal Aid solicitor, and the interpreter would arrive with them, but that was the only access I had to Auslan the whole time I was in prison.
MS McMAHON: Could you communicate with the inmates – other inmates in any other way?
ALEN: Well, I would signal to them that I couldn't hear. That I was Deaf. And then the other inmates would understand what that meant but then no one would talk to me. So, I didn't have access at all.
MS McMAHON: What about with the Corrective Services officers? Could you communicate with them in any other way?
ALEN: Well, we would occasionally write notes backwards and forwards, but it was really simple messages, like what did I want to eat, if I wanted a drink of water.
MS McMAHON: I see.
ALEN: There weren't really any other conversations I had at all. It was just notes back and forwards about what I wanted to eat.
MS McMAHON: Alen, were you ever provided with any written information or visual aids about the rules of the prison?
ALEN: Yes, I just had to work it out myself because there was nothing provided. There were no signs or posters up. I wasn't given any information. I just had to kind of work it out as I went along.
MS McMAHON: And what about when there were alarms? Were there ever any visual alarms for you to understand if there was an emergency or something else happening at the jail?
ALEN: Well, I wouldn't know if there was an emergency. There were no flashing lights or any kind of visual alarms. I just would have to wait until one of the Corrective Services officers came up and tapped me on the arm and told me something was happening, otherwise I was completely in the dark.
MS McMAHON: And what about information that other inmates received over the loudspeaker. Do you recall whether you were – that was interpreted to you in any way?
ALEN: So I can remember one time there was a fight between two of the inmates. And so Corrective Services came up, grabbed us all. We had to line up, put our hands up on the wall. We were patted down and then we were locked into our cells. I didn't know what was going on. I just had to follow what everyone else was doing and try to work it out from watching others, but no one told me what was happening.
MS McMAHON: How did that make you feel?
ALEN: Well, I didn't understand what was happening around me. The guards were really angry. There was a lot of stuff happening, but I couldn't work out what it was and what was going on. Yes, it made me quite anxious that I didn't know what was going on. It took me a while to finally work out what it was I was supposed to do.
MS McMAHON: Alen, did you ever feel unsafe or scared because you were unable to communicate in prison with other people?
ALEN: Mostly I was bored because I had no one to talk to. I felt really lonely. I would let people know I was Deaf, and then after that I wouldn't speak to anyone. I don't specifically remember being frightened or scared. But I remember being very, very bored.
MS McMAHON: Sounds like a very, very only lonely time for you, Alen.
ALEN: I wasn't able to get involved in any of the activities like table tennis or anything like that. I spent a lot of time lying down. I was very lonely. Sometimes the guards would come and check on me because I spent most of my time just laying down. And I was fine. They thought I might be sick, but I had nothing else to do. Then I would be ordered to get up and move to another wing. Sometimes the guards weren't sure if I was okay. So, I would be sent to the doctors for a physical check up, but there was nothing wrong with me, really, other than the fact I was just incredibly bored and lonely.
MS McMAHON: I see. It sounds as though there were not – there were no interpreters to help you participate in any programs or other activities.
ALEN: Yes, that's right. I didn't have any interpreters for anything. Sometimes I might, you know, do some drawing or something myself, but I wasn't able to engage in any courses or workshops or any kind of program because there was no interpreters.
MS McMAHON: Alen, you were transferred to a number of different prisons while you were in custody.
ALEN: Yes, that's right.
MS McMAHON: When you were moved, were you ever given any notice that you were going to be moved?
ALEN: No, I wasn't given any notice. I just would wake up in the morning, and I would find out I was being moved that day. So, I would be told in the morning. I would be moved to a holding cell. The guard might write a bit of a note to me saying, yes, you're being moved to another jail today. I wouldn't know where it was. I would sit there waiting, a truck would pull up, I would be loaded on, and then I would head off to a new jail. But no one would tell me where I was going or what was happening. There would be a lot of us, a lot of us inmates in the holding cell and then also on the truck, but I wouldn't be able to communicate with anyone to find out where we were going.
MS McMAHON: And I understand that you were handcuffed during these transfers. Is that right, Alen?
ALEN: Yes. That's right. My – I was handcuffed [REDACTED] which meant I couldn't communicate with anyone. The other inmates would be sitting around me talking to each other, but because I use Auslan and need my hands, I was not able to move my hands, not able to talk to anyone, not able to gesture. I would be sitting like that in the holding cell. I would be moved on to the trucks and then moved to my new cell at the new prison, sometimes hours later, and only then would I be unshackled,
MS McMAHON: What does it mean for a Deaf person to have their hands restrained?
ALEN: Well, it means I couldn't sign. I couldn't use Auslan. I couldn't communicate. I had no way of communicating with anyone around me at all.
MS McMAHON: How do you feel when your hands are restrained?
ALEN: Well, it's physically very painful. And, you know, those handcuffs are so tight. And sometimes I would be able to kind of gesture to the guards and get them to loosen them a little so I had a bit more space around my wrists, but the biggest feeling was physical pain and some worry as well about the fact I couldn't communicate.
MS McMAHON: Yes. Alen, I understand that when you were at one particular prison, that you were teased and sometimes hit. Is that right?
ALEN: Yes, there was a situation where I was regularly hit over the head by another inmate. So, it started off with one guy slapping me over the head quite hard. Quite repeatedly. Rather than saying hi to me or anything like that, and then that kind of spread amongst the inmates, and then they all started hitting me over the head. And sometimes they would do it and then they would give me a free coffee sachet or something like that, but it would always start with this whack over the head. It was like to get some milk or to get some sugar, I would have to allow them to belt me over the head. And it happened every day and all of the inmates started doing it.
MS McMAHON: Were you able to complain about people hitting you on the head?
ALEN: Yes, I told the guards about it, and, you know, they would be like, okay, thanks for letting us know, but it never stopped. It just kept happening.
MS McMAHON: Now, I understand for a short time that there was another person in custody who was also Deaf.
ALEN: Yes, that's right.
MS McMAHON: And how long were you in custody with him for?
ALEN: Only one month with him. Yes, I was finally able to communicate with someone in Auslan. So, for that one month, I was able to have a chat, and then after he got moved, that was it. I was alone again.
MS McMAHON: How did it feel, having someone to speak to for that month?
ALEN: Oh, it felt great. You know, we would chat and then I would go to bed that night, and then I would wake up in the morning knowing I could chat to someone again. Yes, it was a great feeling, having someone to communicate with finally.
MS McMAHON: Now, Alen, you have made some really good suggestions about how conditions in prisons could be better for people who are Deaf or who are hard of hearing.
ALEN: I think my first suggestion would be all the guards need to learn some Auslan so that they can communicate with Deaf inmates. The other idea I had was that all prisons should be fitted out with visual flashing lights to represent – you know, like, fire alarms or door alarms, when locked doors will be open and closed. All of that information should be shown visually through flashing lights because at the moment it's just a siren or loud beep. Interpreters also should be provided regularly in prisons for Deaf inmates.
MS McMAHON: You also said to me earlier that it would be a good idea for people who are Deaf to be working in the system.
ALEN: Yes, yes, that's right. That is another idea I had. I think that would be of huge benefit to have other Deaf people working in the prison system.
MS McMAHON: Thank you, Alen. That's all my questions for this afternoon.
ALEN: No worries, thank you.
CHAIR: Yes, thank you, Ms McMahon.
MS McMAHON: Chair, that completes the evidence for this afternoon.
CHAIR: Thank you. I take it we adjourn until 9 am Perth time tomorrow?
MS McMAHON: Yes.
CHAIR: Well, 11 o'clock Sydney time. Okay. We will adjourn until then. Thank you very much.
<ADJOURNED 2:35 PM UNTIL WEDNESDAY, 21 SEPTEMBER 2022 AT 9 AM