Following reports (here and here) that Sue Neill-Fraser had been placed in solitary confinement as the first part of her punishment for writing a letter about prison life that we published, Independent Member for Clark, Kristie Johnston (criminologist & lawyer), in the budget estimates Committee hearing asked the Attorney-General about it. Luckily, the Director of Prisons was also present …it went like this:
Budget Estimates A-G Archer Wednesday 8 September 2021 – House of Assembly Estimates Committee B pp59-60-15 Daily Hansard
Ms JOHNSTON – This is the first time I have had the opportunity to ask questions. It is certainly not the experience I have had in the other committee. I have two questions. The first question is that research shows that that solitary confinement has many serious negative, physical and mental health impacts on inmates. Do you agree that solitary confinement as a disciplinary tool should be used as a last resort and that other disciplinary tools should be preferred?
Ms ARCHER – We don’t have solitary confinement in our prisons. Director of Prisons, we don’t have solitary confinement, do we?
Mr THOMAS – No.
Ms O’CONNOR – What do you call it?
Ms ARCHER – We need to define what it is you’re talking about because we don’t have solitary confinement.
Mr THOMAS – Solitary confinement does not exist in our prisons. We do separate prisoners from other prisoners and we minimise or control their access to other prisoners; their engagement to other prisoners and staff, depending on their behaviour but we don’t use the term ‘solitary confinement’. and we don’t consider that we use it. Prisoners are separated by units, by cohorts, by classification but even if they’re in the most restrictive of regimes they won’t be in what I would term ‘solitary confinement’. They will get access to the open air, they will get access to services such as health visits, programs, et cetera, maybe in a more controlled way than those in less secure settings but they’re not confined in what I would recognise as solitary confinement.
Ms JOHNSTON – Would you accept that in ‘separation’, like you described, restricted in terms of access and programs should be a last resort?
Ms ARCHER – My understanding is that it is only the situation for the various reasons the Director has mentioned. If there has been a breach of protocol or procedure by that particular prisoner there will be certain restrictions imposed. Prisoner behaviour is another reason that the Director just addressed. Sometimes, there is a need to separate certain prisoners. There may have been an assault situation and for obvious reasons you separate. If a prisoner also breaches clear protocols within the prison that may be the result. Of course, it needs to be something that is a last resort situation in that type of circumstance but nor can we take away the right operationally – I don’t deal with operational matters but the Director does, as do his delegates – from being able to decide what needs to happen in any given particular case.
“A last resort situation…” does not seem at all appropriate a description for Sue Neill-Fraser’s letter writing transgression which led to her being ‘separated’ … The question of proportionality remains; and will she now be placed in maximum security, with its attendant restrictions? To a reasonable person, it seems to be a vindictive punishment.
Prisons Director Thomas makes it sound like a pleasant break from the madding crowd of prison life, where prisoners are ‘separated’ from the others.
We’re glad that Ms Johnston put the question, as it has elicited revealing answers. Andrew L. Urban