By Guest Contributor Rachel Sadoff*
[John Sikowel, age 36] was brutalized, beaten and forced to walk although he is disabled. He had to crawl into his cell. […] He received some medication, but no proper medical treatment. He is locked in his cell most of the time.
– Manfred Nowak, United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on Torture.
Globally, people with disabilities (PWDs) are “more likely to experience victimization, be arrested, be charged with a crime, and serve longer prison sentences once convicted, than those without disabilities,” reports the US National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability. This group includes people with intellectual and developmental conditions like Down Syndrome and blindness, as well as psychological ones like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. In Papua New Guinea (PNG), this structural violence is enabled by legal neglect, torpid reform, and a lack of enforcement of disability policies. As PNG’s largest source of aid and investment – constituting 80% of its foreign development assistance – Australia is uniquely positioned to advance the human rights of Papua New Guinean incarcerated people with disabilities.
Prisons in PNG are rife with human rights violations, especially for PWDs. The US Department of State has described Papua New Guinean prisons as “overcrowded” and “suffer[ing] from serious underfunding, food shortages, [and] inadequate medical facilities.” The torture and murder of incarcerated people in PNG are frequently reported. At any given time, 34% of them have not gone to trial, and since many are arrested for such ableist charges as “unsound mind” and “wandering at large,” a fair number of incarcerated Papua New Guineans must be innocent. Regardless of guilt, no one should be subject to such gross human rights abuses.
Based on estimates from Australian prisons, there may be over 2,500 PWDs being systemically victimized and neglected in these facilities in Papua New Guinea. Special Rapporteur Nowak has encountered “many detainees with physical and mental disabilities in [PNG] prisons and police lock-ups who have no access to adequate medical treatment and rehabilitation.” In Pacific countries, the UN reports, PWDs are frequently given medical exams and treatments against their consent, forced into solitary confinement as a “substitute” for healthcare, and are generally:
…more susceptible to disciplinary sanction or punishment on account of negative stereotypes associated with disability and mental illness and the lack of understanding of symptomatic behavior (which could be wrongly cast as dangerous, threatening or insubordinate).
Australia also regularly violates the human rights of incarcerated people with disabilities. “Viewed as easy targets,” PWDs make up only 18% of the population but 60% of prisoner deaths. Intersectionality widens disparities in the criminal justice system, especially among First Nations people and women with disabilities. Scores of Australian programs are addressing this issue domestically and certainly deserve more attention and funding. But without targeted, robust investments from its major donors, Papua New Guinea may not be able to do the same.
The PNG government has formally committed to supporting PWDs in its criminal justice system. For example, its 2015-2025 National Policy on Disability promises to improve their “access to justice and participation in public life” by training police, courts, and prison staff how to manage cases involving people with disabilities. The PNG Correctional Service Detainee Rehabilitation Policy of 2016 also has supportive provisions like “develop[ing] appropriate facilities” for PWDs and asserts that “equal opportunities will be considered for detainees living with disabilities.”
In support, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) dedicated AUD 90 million to strengthening PNG’s law and justice systems via the Papua New Guinea Justice Services and Stability for Development Program (JSS4D; 2016-2019). The program proposal stressed that it would be guided by Australia’s Disability-Inclusive Development Strategy and prioritize the dignity and inclusion of people with disabilities. In practice, however, DFAT “found no evidence of JSS4D activities being based on a deeper analysis of how disabilities intersect with law and justice” and claimed the program had “demonstrated limited attention to broader social inclusion.”
JSS4D has been renewed (Phase 2: 2021-2023) and now centers people with disabilities in two of its three “priorities,” promising to “raise awareness of the particular difficulties facing People Living with Disability (PLWD) and support local efforts to ensure PLWD are able to access law and justice services and included in decision making.” The reality looks very different. A Google News search for “JSS4D” returns nine workshops, presentations, trainings, and construction projects since 2020 – not even one mentions the word “disability.”
JSS4D is Australia’s best point of entry to protect the human rights of incarcerated Papua New Guinean people with disabilities. It has well-established partnerships, positive public opinion, and DFAT resources. Since its sister program, the PNG-Australia Policing Partnership, expired in June 2022, JSS4D may also be the only option. The following policy recommendations are therefore based on the latter’s activities and management.
JSS4D’s management committed to studying how disability and crime are connected in PNG by the end of 2019; if this research is complete, it should be released for public use, and if not, it should be conducted by December 2023 to avoid a funding gap. JSS4D should actively include PWDs who are currently or formerly incarcerated in the planning and execution of its programs both in the spirit of “nothing about us without us” and because they have culture-, institution-, and disability-specific knowledge that could make-or-break foreign interventions. JSS4D could also use their input to add tailored disability-related content to its ongoing police trainings. Finally, DFAT should conduct a review of JSS4D’s second phase with special attention to PWD-supportive programs, as well as duly account for – if not merely acknowledge – criminal justice in its aforementioned national Disability-Inclusive Development Strategy.
As the UN’s Universal Periodic Review summarizes, “the justice system in Papua New Guinea is not equipped to support many persons with disabilities [and] leaves those facing injustice with nowhere else to turn.” Until the PNG government is willing and able to protect incarcerated PWDs’ human rights and ensure their access to justice, Australia has a moral obligation to support this vulnerable population through promising initiatives like JSS4D.
Rachel Sadoff (they/them) is a Master of Public Health student at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health specializing in health policy and global health. They are a former Criminal Justice Intern at the National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability, an initiative of the national disability rights nonprofit The Arc of the United States.