Breakfast at 6am, then strip search, and shackles

THE daily regime that a psychiatrist warned could trigger major depression begins with a wake-up call in the state’s highest-security jail wing, Acacia Unit at Barwon Prison, about 5.45am.
Breakfast is offered to the men at 6am but is not accepted by all of them, according to defence lawyers, because some fear motion sickness in the vans that transport them to and from Barwon, near Lara, to the court in Melbourne. The men are strip searched when they enter and leave the prison, which means twice each court day.
Forensic psychiatrist Douglas Bell told the court they had all their clothes removed “and they are asked to squat and part the cheeks of the buttocks” to ensure there is nothing concealed there.
The strip searches do not include cavity searches, Dr Bell said, but he warned that the consequences of such a routine for the duration of a trial that might run for nine months would be “a cumulative burden of embarrassment, a feeling of shame and humiliation that . . . will just contribute to the overall level of distress and trauma”. Questioned by the judge, prison manager David Prideaux said no contraband or weapons of any kind had ever been found in any strip search of the prisoners.
The men are shackled to travel the 80 or so minutes between Barwon and the County Court building in Melbourne. Their hands are shackled to a belt around their waist, and their feet are shackled to each other.
The court was told the men travelled for two hours each way: either on foot, waiting in the van for others to be loaded, on the road or getting out of the van. The first group of prisoners leaves the unit and goes to the prison gate at 6.50am. The van leaves at 7.45 and arrives at court at 8.55am.
The vans are air-conditioned but armour-plated, so occupants cannot see out, and are mostly subdivided into small, boxlike steel compartments that hold one or two people.
Occupational physician Dr Amanda Silcock inspected them and said: “I found it extremely claustrophobic and I don’t normally suffer from claustrophobia . . . I think if I was shut in there, I’d probably have a panic attack.” The men get back to Barwon about 6.30pm on court days. They have dinner and can use a day room and exercise yards until 9pm. They get two hours out of lock-down when court is sitting, and six hours out of lockdown other days. Last year they spent up to 23 hours a day locked in their cells.
Dr Bell told the court that despite this and other improvements, their regime was still “very austere” and one in which “the ordinary person, I think, can reasonably be expected to experience a very significant degree of psychological and emotional distress”.
Another forensic psychiatrist, Dr Adam Deacon, said: “Some of the men have described periods of disorientation, which is not uncommonly seen in people who are incarcerated and kept in isolation for long periods of time.”
Dr Bell warned that the stresses could damage the defendants’ ability to concentrate and to remember matters related to their case.
Justice Bongiorno said the accused must be able to pay attention to detail and follow the complex legal proceedings “if they are to look after their own interests properly”.

First published in The Age.