NSW using prisoners as political pawns, critics say, after state refuses to let UN inspectors into detention facility

Queensland also revealed to be restricting access to mental health wards, despite Australia’s ratification of UN torture protocol

The New South Wales premier, Dominic Perrottet, has hailed as a “great decision” the Queensland government’s move to limit United Nations inspectors from accessing the state’s inpatient units.

But critics say NSW is using prisoners as political “pawns” and both states should open their doors to allow inspectors full access under Australia’s commitment to the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture (Opcat).

Inspectors from the UN subcommittee on prevention of torture arrived in Australia this week with plans to conduct surprise visits on state, territory and commonwealth detention facilities over 12 days. However, NSW has said it will refuse to grant them access.

The state’s corrections minister, Geoff Lee, told 2GB radio on Thursday that inspectors had been refused entry to a Queanbeyan facility on Tuesday night.

“The officers did the right thing and refused them entry,” he said.

“The whole role of our jail system is to keep people safe, protect us from the criminals that we lock up every day. It’s not to allow people just to wander through at their leisure.

“They should be off to Iran looking for human rights violations there.”

Earlier, Guardian Australia revealed Queensland was also planning to limit the access of inspectors. While they would be allowed into the state’s prisons, the health department would not allow them to access inpatient units where people ordered to undergo treatment or charged with crimes were being held under state law.

At a press conference on Thursday, Perrottet described this as “a great decision from Queensland”, refuting that it was a “bad look” for governments to be blocking access.

“We have some of the strongest conditions anywhere in the world,” he said.

Opcat was ratified by the federal government under the former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull in 2017. This is the first time inspectors have visited Australia.

Under its mandate, the SPT is able to make unannounced visits to all detention facilities and conduct private interviews with people deprived of their liberty without witnesses.

Amnesty International Australia campaign director Tim O’Connor said the refusal to allow inspectors access jeopardised Australia’s ability to meet its deadlines and obligations under the treaty.

“It seems that the refusal to allow inspectors into places of detention in NSW is a tactic by the state government to secure funding from the federal government, and if that is the case it’s incredibly concerning,” O’Connor said.

“People in detention centres yet again are being used as pawns by governments who continue to play politics with their lives.”

Chief executive of the Queensland Advocacy for Inclusion, Matilda Alexander, said she held grave concerns about the psychological and physical conditions of those held in some Queensland institutions.

“It is equally important that locked environments like mental health wards are subjected to the same level of scrutiny … as prisons and watch houses,” she said.

“It’s deeply concerning to think that these visits would be restricted.

“If there’s nothing going on in there, then we shouldn’t be afraid of that level of scrutiny.”

Alexander said the QAI has recommended the UN subcommittee to visit the Rockhampton mental health ward, the Forensic Disability Service and The Park in Wacol.

“We provided the UN with [some case studies], including a 15-year-old Aboriginal girl who was in a private setting with men with sexualised behaviours around her,” she said.

The NSW government’s opposition to the visits has previously been criticised by Australia’s human rights commissioner, Lorraine Finlay.

“When we make promises to the world, it is important that we keep our word,” she said.

The NSW opposition leader, Chris Minns, said the state’s refusal to let officials in “leaves the impression that Australian prisons are not meeting the minimum standard”.

“My concern about rejecting these UN inspectors is that people will believe that our prisons are as bad as Rwanda or Azerbaijan when we know that they’re not,” he said.

“If [the government] had a problem with it, [they] should have objected to 2017 when there was a Liberal National government in Canberra and it was a Liberal National government in NSW.”

A Queensland Health spokesperson said while it supported the subcommittee’s visit, it was bound by the Mental Health Act 2016 to limit inpatient unit access to “certain categories of visitors” for the safety of patients.

“While Queensland Health respects the UNSPT’s remit and will support the visit as far as lawfully permissible, these requirements mean that Queensland Health is not able to lawfully permit physical access to inpatient units,” the spokesperson said.

States have known for five years that the inspections would occur and some changed laws to provide for access.

Queensland Corrective Services said it was “committed to the humane containment, supervision and rehabilitation of prisoners and offenders” and had issued authority for “unrestricted access of the UNSPT delegation to all corrective services facilities managed by QCS”.

The UN has been contacted for comment.


Tamsin Rose and Eden Gillespie

The GuardianTramp

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