Challenging disadvantage in Zambia: People with psychosocial and intellectual disabilities in the criminal justice system

A groundbreaking report which provides an in-depth understanding of the challenges faced by people with psychosocial or intellectual disabilities in the Zambian criminal justice system. The report presents a clear case for improvement and shared solutions for change. It is the product of a two year research project driven by a unique partnership of government and civil society players.

Author

The Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA)

July 15th, 2015

 “We need to look at how people with disabilities are treated across the whole criminal justice system, from the point of arrest, and introduce reforms, to ensure fairer treatment.” - Stakeholder, Ministry of Home Affairs

The Paralegal Alliance Network (PAN) and the Ministry of Home Affairs have published a groundbreaking report which provides an in-depth understanding of the challenges faced by people with psychosocial or intellectual disabilities in the Zambian criminal justice system. The report presents a clear case for improvement and shared solutions for change. It is the product of a two year research project driven by a unique partnership of government and civil society players.

The report presents compelling evidence from direct interviews with over 100 stakeholders from the justice and health sectors, disability rights, and wider civic society, including senior officials, professionals and practitioners, self-advocates (people with psychosocial or intellectual disabilities in the criminal justice system) and family members. Together, these powerful personal stories and perspectives shine a light on the experience and circumstances of some of Zambia’s most vulnerable citizens. The honesty and insight of respondents has been crucial in demonstrating both the need for change and possible solutions.

Most people interviewed for this study highlighted the stigma and discrimination faced by people with psychosocial and intellectual disabilities in society. Around the world, people with psychosocial and intellectual disabilities are disproportionately caught up in the criminal justice system as suspects, defendants and as prisoners. These individuals tend to be disadvantaged by a criminal justice system that neither recognises nor supports their particular needs. They may face arrest, conviction and punishment for behaviour associated with their disability that has no criminal intent. At worst, the criminal justice process may actively discriminate against these individuals, or permit or facilitate abusive behaviour towards them.

“I was in a mental crisis and brutally beaten. I cannot remember what happened … I was ill-treated. Life was hard and I was starved. Everything was in one place including the toilet. I regained consciousness in the cell and realised I had a swollen leg. I didn’t know why I was there.” - Self advocate

Such disadvantage and discrimination can cause significant suffering and hardship for individuals with psychosocial and intellectual disabilities, and their families; it also has wider implications for society. Opportunities to support individuals in their communities can help to prevent contact with criminal justice services and stimulate progress towards internationally upheld principles of equality, the protection of human rights, and a fairer society for all.

The research evidence, particularly the harrowing experiences of individuals caught up in the Zambian criminal justice system, points to widespread and entrenched problems that will be challenging to overcome. The willingness of the Ministry of Home Affairs to confront these difficulties, and to work with partners from health, justice, disability rights and wider civic society is welcome and demonstrates a shared commitment to change.

It is hoped that the recommendations contained in the report will help to build on recent legislative progress impacting on criminal justice, healthcare and disability rights to achieve improvements in practice. Although focused on Zambia, these recommendations also have application to other countries in Africa, and elsewhere. 

Main findings

The study highlights routine and systematic disadvantage and discrimination experienced by people with psychosocial and intellectual disabilities in contact with criminal justice services.  A lack of community-based health care and social services can lead to crises where family and community members have few options available to them other than to contact the police. The police, for their part, are not trained to deal effectively with such situations and often have little alternative other than to arrest and detain the individuals concerned.

“When the police came for my son they lifted him like a goat, they tied his hands and legs to a gun the way a goat is carried…They think they can do anything, which is why some families keep people shut in the house. Family member Overburdened and under-resourced criminal justice services can result in severe delays to the progress of individuals through the system from the point of arrest through to court appearances, sentencing and release. Suspects and defendants with psychosocial or intellectual disabilities are at particular risk of encountering delays and indeterminate periods of detention. “People [with psychosocial and intellectual disabilities] can be detained in custody for years awaiting trial if they don’t have relatives or others to pursue their case. Its easy to forget a case.” Stakeholder, Legal Aid Board

While criminal justice proceedings can be difficult for anyone to navigate, understand and participate in, individuals with psychosocial or intellectual disabilities are likely to have particular difficulties. Access to legal representation to those unable to pay is extremely limited.

Like all detainees, people with disabilities experience the harsh and at times brutal conditions of detention, including violence and abuse from officers and other detainees. However, their disabilities can leave them more vulnerable than others, particularly given limited access to medical care and support. The harsh environment of prison can also trigger problems for individuals pre-disposed to certain conditions. “Conditions, facilities and infrastructure are very bad. It’s a matter of survival for prisoners; for those with disabilities it is even worse.” Stakeholder, Ministry of Home Affairs

However, the study points to encouraging signs that set the scene for change as outlined in the Key recommendations for change below: -

Key recommendations for change

  • Collaborative working and investment in early support: Change can only be achieved through a collective response across the whole system – involving health, justice, disability rights and wider civic society, and by the prioritisation of community services and social support, which can help prevent or reduce the likelihood of contact with criminal justice services.

 

“There will be improvement only when the government joins efforts and realises that…they need to make sure the environment is conducive for their [people with disabilities] rehabilitation rather than making the situation worse by stigma and neglect.” - Mental health practitioner 

  • Tackling stigma and discrimination: Zambian ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2010, and the Persons with Disabilities Act of 2012 have set the scene for change, while further forthcoming legislation should support provision of community services and support for people with psychosocial and intellectual disabilities. Strong political leadership and commitment from Government departments, allied with continuing advocacy and support from a range of other expert organisations will be required to ensure these changes achieve their intended impact. Public education for all citizens is vital and could be delivered through schools, colleges, other public services and the national media.
  • Addressing harsh prison conditions: This study supports the findings of other reports concerning the harsh physical conditions experienced by people in prison and police detention which are likely to have particularly negative impact on people with disabilities. Specific concerns raised by respondents which need to be addressed urgently include overcrowding, beatings and other forms of brutality.
  • Awareness, training and guidance: Almost all practitioner respondents highlighted a lack of guidance on how to deal with people with psychosocial or intellectual disabilities in contact with criminal justice services. Practical and operational support, awareness training, information and workforce development should be developed and made routinely available for health and criminal justice personnel. It is good practice for people with disabilities to be involved in designing and delivering training. Routine and independent monitoring could be undertaken to support effective implementation and hold Government departments to account.

 

Next steps

The players involved in the project upon which this report is based have demonstrated a broad commitment to improving the lives of people with psychosocial and intellectual disabilities in contact with criminal justice services. The Ministry of Home Affairs and the PAN, together with members of the consortium (see below) departments are committed to the next phase – that is, taking forward and realising the recommendations made.

Project Partners and Funders

The project was undertaken by a consortium of NGOs led by the PAN, and comprising the Mental Health Users Network Zambia (MHUNZA), the Prisons Care and Counselling Association (PRISCCA), the Zambia Federation of Disability Organisations (ZAFOD), the Legal Resources Foundation (LRF), the UK-based Prison Reform Trust.

The work was supported by the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA) and the Human Rights Initiative at the Open Society Foundations, and overseen by a Steering Committee chaired by the Ministry of Home Affairs.

Contacts

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