Prisoners with disability – human rights and disability rights, a seminar by ALHR’s Natalie Wade

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On Monday 8 August 2016 the La Trobe Law School welcomed the Disability Rights Chair of the Australian Lawyers for Human Rights, Natalie Wade, to present a seminar to students on prisoners with disability and the criminal justice system.

Natalie Wade is a lawyer in Adelaide. She has a Bachelor of Laws and Bachelor Commerce from the University of Adelaide and a Master of Laws (Legal Practice) from the Australian National University. She also has comprehensive experience in examining and addressing human rights violations of persons with disabilities, including as an Advisory Member to the Everywoman Everywhere campaign and consulting with government and non-government organisations on ways to identify and improve the inclusion of people with disabilities in all facets of the community (i.e. employment and access to justice). In addition to her professional experience, Natalie has a physical disability which brings a personal understanding to the human rights issues facing people with disabilities.

“I became interested in Human Rights while I was at university,” Natalie says. “[Studying at university] made me aware of the challenges minority groups could face in public spaces. Through engaging in student politics and writing for the student paper, I was able to develop myself as a grassroots activist, and advocate for people struggling with a disability.”

Disability advocacy & Law Reform

Natalie has continued to promote and fight for the rights of minority groups since she was admitted as a lawyer three and a half years ago. Natalie has published academic work in the Alternative Law Journal and Precedent on the rights of witnesses with communication disabilities to access justice in South Australian and Commonwealth courts. She has authored submissions to the Attorney General in South Australia, advocating for the Evidence Act to be changed and provide equal access to justice to people with disabilities, especially witnesses with communication disabilities. In 2014, the South Australian Attorney-General made reform to the Evidence Act to improve accommodations to people with disabilities in courts . “I think seeing this reform come to be  is definitely one of the highlights of my career.” Natalie says. “It’s a step in the right direction.”

Even though this is a step in the right direction, Natalie also recognises that this may bring further challenges, “lawyers and judges might not fully understand the needs of people with a communication disability. We need to make sure that we provide them with the right training, so that judges and lawyers will be equipped with the right tools to make sure the law will do what it’s supposed to do.”

Equal before the Law – Towards Disability Justice Strategies

During the La Trobe Law Human Rights seminar, Natalie discussed the 2014 Australian Human Rights Commission Report, Equal before the Law – Towards Disability Justice Strategies, the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) and accordingly, the treatment of prisoners with a disability face within the criminal justice system.

She stressed that prisoners with disability are usually “victims of violence” who are in a perpetual “cycle of injustice and vulnerability”. The crux of the problem stems from the issues that the criminal justice system has with properly assessing an offender’s disability before they are incarcerated and then failing to adequately provide them with the requisite supports or aids which they may need to function.

Prisoners with disabilities may not have access to basic aids such as wheelchairs or auditory aids. What is even worse, is that there are reports of these aids being taken away from certain prisoners as a form of punishment. Additionally, it has been found that prisoners with disabilities do not have access to the courses and programs provided by the criminal justice system, which prohibits them from engaging with the rehabilitative process. This process is further exacerbated when prisoners with disabilities need to apply for bail because these prisoners are less likely complete programs in prison; they are less likely to receive bail as well. Research has indicated that they are also more likely to breach bail because they may not understand their bail conditions, and/or are not provided with the adequate support or aids when applying for bail.

Because of this, Natalie suggests that there is “a strong need for the criminal justice system to identify and respond to these issues”. People with disabilities should have accommodations and aids provided to them by people who are properly trained. Without adequate reform, prisoners with disability will continue to suffer gross human rights violations.

Australian Lawyers for Human Rights

In Natalie’s eyes, organisations like the ALHR can make a huge difference in human rights issues: “ALHR brings people with an expert legal skill set from different backgrounds together. Uniting different professionals – like lawyers, academics and law students allows ALHR to have a stronger voice on human rights issues in Australia.”

As published at the La Trobe Law and Justice Blog