When does a jail sentence become a death sentence? The answer, it seems, is when you become geriatric or seriously ill in the New South Wales prison system.
Take these cases:
- Mary Anne Roberts, a 73-year-old woman suffering cancer, dementia and other problems. Despite a report from the director of geriatric services at the highly regarded St Vincent's Hosptial that she was not fit to serve a jail term, a District Court judge sentenced her to a minimum three years' jail for serious welfare fraud. She died less than five months later after a horrifying ordeal in a cruel system.
- Charlotte Lindstrom, sentenced to three years for having tried to hire a hitman to kill witnesses against her drug-dealer boyfriend, is now so seriously wasted by anorexia her organs may be breaking down and she risks death. The prison system's medical treatment clearly is indadequate, but the NSW State Labor government has refused an offer from Sweden to let her serve her term back home in humane conditions.
- Albert James Paddock – one wonders what the future holds for an 80-year-old man with paranoid delusions and early dementia, sentenced this week to at least six years after pleading guilty to the manslaughter of his wife.
Our prison policies should worry humane Australians. We should worry about overcrowding, the handling of prisoners with mental illness, high rates of recidivism, plans to build new prisons in distant towns where families cannot visit . . . the list goes on. But on all these issues, it may be possible to argue some justification.
But who could justify our prison system's failure to provide adequate care to the seriously ill, including those with mental illness, or those in serious geriatric decline who need nursing home care? People such as Mary Roberts and Charlotte Lindstrom.
Grumpy Old Journo has already noted the appalling treatment of Mary Anne Roberts. You may read the post (May 9, “Australia doesn't impose the death sentence, does it?”) here, athough it might be better to read the report in the Sydney Morning Herald.
The Herald ran the story on P8, suggesting its editors thought the public wouldn't be all that interested. As far as I can ascertain, the only media references have been my blog post, and a post by a contributing blogger on Larvatus Prodeo.
But the story – reporting the assisting counsel's outline of evidence to be given at a Glebe [Sydney] Coroner's Court inquest – may have caused consternation in some parties to be examined.
The hearing, set for May 11 to 15, did not go ahead. The court told me it had been adjourned to November 16.
It's my conjecture that the SMH story, describing the evidence to be given, alerted various parties that they faced public exposure in a scandal similar to that of the OOO operators who sneered at a schoolboy dying of thirst in the Blue Mountains. It's likely these parties sought the adjournment to obtain legal representation.
One can imagine the Justice Health employees' union, and that of the prison officers, urgently briefing silk – counsel assisting said the old woman had been left unwashed for days because of a demarcation dispute, and no-one would push her wheelchair.
I wonder whether a coroner can invite a District Court judge to explain his sentencing?
Charlotte Lindstrom, then a classic Swedish beauty besotted with her drug-dealer fiance, agreed to his request to hire a hitman to kill two witnesses who were to testify against him. The hitman turned out to be an undercover cop. After her arrest, and after overcoming her infatuation, she showed complete remorse and co-operated fully with police and prosecutors.
Because of her contrition and co-operation, she received a lenient sentence of two years – which would have seen her walk free on Monday – but the Crown appealed and it was increased to three years.
This SMH story (which I find credible), suggests she now suffers acute anorexia. She is at risk of having her organs melt down, of heart failure, of brain impairment, and possibly of death.
She needs specialist care, hospitalisation and careful feeding. Her parents say she has been seen by only the prison doctor and the prison pyschologist, and a cooking teacher comes once a week. She has never been admitted to a prison hospital. She is in solitary confinement because other prisoners have threatened her with death for having co-operated with police.
Displaying a humane approach not to be found in NSW, the Swedish Government has offered to pay for her transfer to finish her sentence in her own country, where she can receive proper treatment. The NSW Labor Government rejected the offer because it needs her to give evidence in a criminal trial in July.
Sweden offered to pay for a video link. The NSW Attorney-General said video-link evidence might be inadequate. She could apply for transfer after the July trial.
Perhaps the NSW Labor Government does have good cause to keep Ms Lindstrom in Australia until the trial is over. But if so, it also has a duty to ensure she receives adequate medical care – by a specialist in anorexia, and in hospital if necessary.
What lies ahead for Albert Paddock? Will the 80-year-old, suffering from paranoid delusions and early dementia, survive his six years in jail? Will poor medical treatment accelerate his geriatric decline? Time will tell.