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The right to be treated humanely and with dignity is espoused in the 1969 Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Article 10. Under this articulated human right, detainees have the right ‘to be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person’. It follows that in Australia, the Parliament affords the same right within its legislative frameworks regarding those subject to imprisonment.
Fieldwork in Queensland shows the contrary. Notwithstanding Queensland’s greatest recorded drought ended with its greatest recorded flood in 2010-2011, prisoners in correctional centres in South-East Queensland are still subject to water restrictions. In some cases, prisoners have reported being limited to 5-6 flushes of the toilet per day, others have reported that showers are limited to 4 minutes per person per day – making it difficult to maintain hygiene and sanitation for large inmates. The argument has been, in a number of these privately run correctional facilities, which prisoners have been in the practice of flooding their cells. As a consequence of this behaviour, some prisoners are subjected to staying in water-free cells for up to 4 hours at a time.
The arguments seem tenuous. On one side there is a basic human right to water and sanitation (as recognised in the UN Human Rights Committee’s adoption of General Comment 15 of the 2010 resolution recognising the human right to water and sanitation), in addition to the right to be treated with dignity. On the other side, there is a need to maintain order and to prevent prisoners from hurting themselves and others (and in some cases, the property of the correctional centres).
The complexity of the issue increases as the policies of water use vary across the number of Queensland correctional centres. Water limitations seen in South-East Queensland are not prevalent in Central Queensland nor in Northern Queensland. The complaints made by prisoners affected are not numerous either. Prisoners who are affected and who report come from one major correctional facility. There’s limited argument to be made according to numbers.
So why should we care?
The issue is minimal, yes. Although this does not detract from the major issue – the lack of cogent policy surrounding water rights and dignity in general. Without action, it is entirely possible that further disturbances in the treatment of prisoners could become apparent in light with political calls for mandatory sentencing.
It is said that the measure of a civilised community is the treatment of the lowest of the group, without policy recognition of humane treatment and dignity afforded to our prisoners, our society is left with very little.