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Cornelia Rau - lost in a black hole

By Debbie Kilroy - posted Monday, 14 February 2005

Public outrage over the detention and ill-treatment of mentally ill woman Cornelia Rau - six months in the Brisbane Women's Correctional Centre and three in immigration detention in Baxter - is both cheering and frustrating for prisoner and detainee advocates.

We are cheered because this humane reaction shows that our community can still be outraged by inhumanity.

We are frustrated because the same, systemic inhumanity is meted out daily to thousands of mentally ill prisoners and detainees and most of their shocking and heartbreaking stories will never come to light.


As Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone so rightly points out, we have an agenda.

Our agenda is to shine a light inside hundreds of solitary confinement cells so the community can see the ill and disturbed people huddling there in pain and terror. Vanstone is determined to thwart us. But here we go again.

All women's prisons in Australia are filled with mentally ill women. In 2003 the NSW Corrections Health Service found that 86 per cent of women entering prison were suffering some form of mental illness and that 12 per cent had psychotic disorders.

Considering the numbers of women who are screaming for help in Australian prisons, it's no wonder Rau wasn't heard.

In 2004, after years of fruitless efforts to get appropriate care for hundreds of mentally ill women in prison, Sisters Inside decided to take a systemic approach and lodged a human rights complaint with the Queensland Anti-Discrimination Commission.

At the core of that complaint was the "treatment" of mentally ill women with powerful doses of solitary confinement and physical and pharmacological restraint - and the absence of non-disciplinary mental health services.


Fearing an unwelcome flood of light from an external source, the Queensland Department of Corrective Services decided to pre-empt any human rights busybodying and, in June 2004, launched what the Corrective Services Act euphemistically calls an "independent investigation" into themselves.

Cornelia Rau, then an inmate of Brisbane Women's Correctional Centre known as "Anna" and regularly confined alone in her cell or in the "Detention Unit" as punishment for her odd behaviour, gave a one hour tape-recorded interview to the department's investigators complaining of her treatment.

She told them, as she had been telling anyone who would listen, that she had committed no crime and should not be in prison. No doubt the investigators had heard that one before.

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First published in the Courier-Mail on February 11, 2005.

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About the Author

Debbie Kilroy OAM was jailed for drug trafficking in 1989. After her release she established Sisters Inside, which advocates for the human rights of women in prison.

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