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Tuesday, 15 October 1974
Page: 1717

Senator KEEFFE (Queensland) - I do not want to detain the Senate for very long either. I will be like Senator Sir Magnus Cormack and confine my remarks. I want to raise a couple of points in relation to justice in Queensland gaols and the justice system in Queensland generally. The Attorney-General (Senator Murphy) is probably aware of these matters because a lot of people have written to him along these lines. But there are a number of things that I want to read into the Hansard record because they are of paramount importance so far as the State of Queensland is concerned and so far as justice in Australia is concerned. It is significant that the Queensland Government never listens to complaints from the people. The dominating coalition Party in Queensland is fortified by the fact that it has 19 per cent of the people's vote in Queensland so that they are able to dictate to all sections of the community behind a strong fortification of 19 per cent of the vote. There have been periods when even Government Ministers have said they would look into this and would arrange for a royal commission or a commission of inquiry. But when the pressures go on, of course, we never see the commissions of inquiry nor do we ever see a royal commission.

Because there are a number of controversial issues involved I propose to read a few paragraphs of the statement I wish to incorporate in Hansard. I have made a request to the AttorneyGeneral to see whether it is possible to make Australian Government moneys available for the upgrading of Queensland prison services. If this is not possible, then I will seek the help of the Australian Government through the AttorneyGeneral in obtaining a royal commission into prison services in Queensland. Over a long period of years there have been many complaints about the treatment that prisoners have received in Queensland gaols. If it is not constitutionally possible to have moneys made available at the Australian Government level for the updating of prison buildings and the abolition of primitive punishment methods, I will seek the AttorneyGeneral's assistance in having a royal commission instituted into prison conditions in Queensland and with particular reference to the Stuart Creek gaol.

For a considerable period of time former prisoners and gaol inmates have been lodging statements with my Townsville office complaining of inhuman and primitive treatment. Some prisoners have given us the complaints in signed documents. They realise, of course, that when they give these statements to us in signed documents they really put themselves on the line. For obvious reasons, the names will not be revealed unless the persons concerned are protected by a royal commission with wide terms of reference or by some similar type of inquiry. Former prisoners have volunteered to make public statements on living conditions and details of punishment meted out to Stuart gaol prisoners. I know that this applies to the gaol at Rockhampton and I know that it applies to other points of imprisonment in Queensland.

Let me quote a couple of examples. On a date early in August a prisoner collapsed and died in the prison hospital at Stuart Creek. He died on the floor near his bed where he had lain for some hours with several other prisoners present. Within minutes of the death an officer who acted as a medical orderly appeared. All this man did, or apparently knew how to do, was to place a stethoscope on the dead man's chest for a brief period of 15 to 20 seconds and then pronounce the prisoner dead. No attempt was made at any form of resuscitation. This particular person had been admitted to the gaol some weeks previously and was ill even at that point of time. He was given oxygen soon after his arrival and then put into the prison hospital. The prisoner apparently suffered from an acute form of asthma and was unable to sleep. Often he struggled around the prison hospital ward and other prisoners complained because of his heavy breathing and nocturnal wanderings which kept them awake but no prisoner was in doubt regarding the fact that he was obviously a very sick man. I am told he complained many times that he was receiving little or no treatment from the prisoner doctor.

The doctor apparently visits the hospital on 3 days each week. During the week before this particular prisoner died, his ankles had swollen to an abnormal size. There are plenty of witnesses to this. In the two or three hours before his death he fell from his bed to the floor, was moaning loudly and was calling for help. I am told that a passing prison officer heard the noise and opened the hospital door to investigate. But he did nothing about it at that point of time. He again opened the door at 6 a.m. to let the people who are known as 'early workers' out of the ward. The prisoner patient was still on the floor and remained there until he died shortly afterwards. After the stethoscope check the body was moved from the floor to the bed to await the arrival of the prison doctor. The body remained on the bed for about 4 hours with a sheet covering the body but not the face. Other prisoners were issued with their breakfasts a few feet away. The man was a middle-aged Aboriginal and Aborigines, incidentally, suffer more than white prisoners who, according to statements made to me, have suffered as well. For the record, Mr President, I state that the percentage of Aboriginal prisoners in Queensland gaols is fairly high. This is consistent, of course, with the position in most other States of Australia where there is a fairly high population of Aboriginals. Other deaths have occurred in the prison and the stories invariably are almost identical. The prison doctor on his 3-times-a-week visit remains for a period of 1 to 2 hours.

Another statement describes the agony of a prisoner who screamed for hours from a gallstone attack. The attack did not occur overnight. He had complained previously and had sought hospital treatment but this was refused. There are other instances I can relate and which I hope to be able to relate in an open form of inquiry where the prisoner's right will be protected. He lodged his complaints with the doctor and the visiting justice. My informants tell me that there is documentary evidence to cover this accusation. I hope those documents remain intact after what I have said tonight. Many black prisoners are incarcerated for long periods of time in cages. There is no relief. Some seek sanctuary in the cages to avoid bashings and worse. One man has told an informant: 'While I'm in here I'm left alone'. So at least he feels protected while he is in the cage.

Some months ago a man committed suicide when he was supposed to be under strict observation. This particular prisoner committed suicide by hanging. When the prisoner was cut down it was obvious that he was not dead but recuscitation was not carried out because the mask for the oxygen apparatus could not be found for about 50 minutes. A few days ago another young man who was a suicide risk died because he was not kept under strict observation. This man had been receiving treatment for cuts to his wrists but he was able to hang himself with a bed sheet. When prisoners are released they seldom have money but are usually given a rail pass and according to custom cannot register for unemployment benefits until at least 24 hours later. Ex-prisoners who are in severe financial straits obviously will be tempted to commit another crime in order just to live. There should be proper rehabilitation processes with trained social workers who are able to assist discharged prisoners until they can get back on their feet.

Many prisoners are demoralised when they are forced to work at menial jobs during their prison terms when in fact they are often qualified tradesmen or are qualified in a profession and should be allowed to serve out their hard labour in their respective callings. Stuart is one of the worst places in Queensland for release to work orders as very few are given this concession. I understand that there have never been more than three or four. Unfortunately, internal supervision is not properly carried out and this leads to lack of security. If prisoners take the opportunity to arm themselves with a knife- mostly only for self-protection- they are given additional sentences and life is made very much harder for them when they are detected. In addition to the complaints that have been lodged with me, other statements have been made to representatives of the Aboriginal and Islanders Legal Service, and there are a number of other people in the city of Townsville who will be prepared -

Senator Sheil - I raise a point of order. The honourable senator is reading that speech to knock Queensland.

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