The Victorian government is facing calls to establish an independent watchdog to scrutinise solitary confinement and strip-searches in the state’s prisons in an effort to prevent human rights abuses.
In the lead-up to the November state election, the Human Rights Law Centre has urged the government to establish the body as part of its obligations under the UN’s anti-torture treaty that Australia ratified almost five years ago.
The call comes as the UN’s torture prevention watchdog prepares to visit Australia from Sunday to inspect and scrutinise places of detention and review compliance with the optional protocol to the convention against torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (Opcat).
Monique Hurley, managing lawyer at the HRLC, said the Andrews government had made “alarmingly little progress” to establish independent oversight of prisons, police cells and other detention sites as part of its obligation under Opcat.
“Human rights responsibilities do not end at prison gates,” she told Guardian Australia. “For too long, governments have maintained an ‘out-of-sight, out-of-mind’ approach to prisons.
“It’s been really well documented that the use of cruel and degrading practices like solitary confinement is an issue in Victorian prisons. The fact that anyone is ever subjected to such a barbaric and archaic practice is really unacceptable.”
Last month the Victorian ombudsman, Deborah Glass, criticised Victoria’s “apparent inability” to make progress on implementing Opcat.
“Some states and territories have now designated the body or bodies who will perform the inspection role, but despite the years we have had to prepare, Victoria has not yet done so,” Glass wrote.
The deadline for Australia’s implementation of Opcat obligations – which include establishing independent bodies in each jurisdiction to act as watchdogs and conduct unannounced inspections of places of detention – has been extended to January 2023.
Jurisdictions must also allow the UN’s torture prevention watchdog to undertake inspections of detention facilities under the Opcat obligations. Victoria last month passed legislation to allow this to take place.
The HRLC said no Australian jurisdiction had fully implemented an Opcat-compliant independent body, but Western Australia was the first to partly implement its obligations.
The governments of Victoria and New South Wales wrote jointly to the former Morrison government last year saying they would be unable to meet the requirements of the Opcat without federal support.
Hurley said national leadership was required to provide “adequate” funding.
“At the same time, I don’t think that that should be an excuse or a barrier to governments like the Andrews government taking active steps to implement Opcat as a matter of priority,” she said.
A spokesperson for the Victorian government said it supported the principles of Opcat and already had “robust oversight regimes” to protect people from torture or inhumane and cruel punishment.
“We and other jurisdictions have been clear that the commonwealth’s ratification of Opcat imposes additional separate obligations on states and territories, and that a sufficient and ongoing funding commitment from the commonwealth is essential to implement and deliver on these obligations,” the spokesperson said.
Guardian Australia revealed in August that more than 1,200 people with a mental impairment were being indefinitely detained in Australia despite not having been convicted of a criminal offence – labelled a human rights breach by advocates.
The Victorian opposition’s spokesperson for child protection and youth justice, Matthew Bach, has also written to the UN’s anti-torture watchdog, urging them to investigate the “systematic” use of isolation in the state’s youth justice facilities.
In March an inquiry into Victoria’s criminal justice system found that the implementation of Opcat was critical to increase transparency of prison conditions and tackle “problematic practices” such as solitary confinement, strip-searches and the use of physical restraints.