Schapelle Corby: mind matters

Kay DanesWith Schapelle Corby’s health obviously suffering in a Bali jail, the Australian Government must step up efforts for a prisoner exchange agreement with Indonesia, possibly based on emergency mental health grounds in her case. Kay Danes, who has been through foreign imprisonment unjustly, explains how the mind’s roller coaster runs awry.

Schapelle Corby: mind matters

By Kay Danes, Advocate, Foreign Prisoner Support Service

In response to the article in The Australian, “Doctor confirms Corby condition” by Deborah Cassrels, August 29, 2009, I think that there is an excellent opportunity here for Indonesia to exercise due diligence in providing duty of care by transferring Schapelle Corby to the Bangli Mental Hospital, as suggested by both Dr. Thong and Dr. Phillips.

On 23 December 2000, whilst working as security managers in Laos, my husband was abducted by Laos secret police and taken to an undisclosed location, where he endured brutal interrogations. The Laos authorities had tried forcing him into signing a false statement against one of his clients, whom they were seeking to illegally nationalise. When my husband refused to cooperate, the authorities arrested me. For the 11 months that followed that harrowing ordeal, we were detained in a prison camp in complete isolation from family, and in violation of our human and civil rights.

During the latter part of our detainment, I began experiencing ‘depression with psychotic symptoms’. There were occasions that I convinced myself that I heard voices of dead people whispering in my ear, and at other times, that my own shadow was working with the secret police to manipulate me into signing a false statement against our client. It was all rather bizarre and a little frightening which prompted the Australian Embassy doctor to prescribe me anti-depressants. Despite the fact that I had strong support from my government and their belief that we were innocent pawns in a political power play, I still found the conditions of the prison often intolerable.

Perhaps the most frustrating part, aside from being robbed of my freedom, tortured and isolated from our three small children, was the fact that we were in an environment that presented both cultural and language challenges. It is maddening to face every day knowing that the only way to ensure your needs are met, is by communicating with others in another language. Given that I was unable to communicate with my own husband, I was forced to become a whole other person.

Most Australian prisoners detained overseas learn very quickly, as I did, that they must adapt to language and culture as a mechanism for survival. Taking care of the mind is primarily important since it is par for the course that when you are detained in a foreign prison, you begin to become conditioned,  often subliminally, to your environment. In my case, though vastly different from Schapelle Corby’s, I didn’t even realise when it was that I had stopped thinking in English because my mind automatically began reprogramming itself to think in Lao language.

After our eventual release from Laos, after our government successfully secured an unprecedented Presidential Pardon, my mind had to struggle with reversing all that it had programmed itself to do. I would say to my sister ‘Where you now?’ Instead of ‘where are you now?’

One of the many things I have learnt through my experiences as a former detainee, and as an advocate for the Foreign Prisoner Support Services, is that it is not necessarily the actual conditions that affect a prisoner’s mental health, but rather the prisoner’s ability to process their circumstances and their environment.  After all, a person can be detained in the most luxurious surroundings but in the absence of their freedom, those surroundings can become a hell.

It is also the actual exposure to stress and how that stress is managed that can affect the mental health of prisoners detained overseas. Where there is a constant roller-coaster ride of emotion, it is inevitable that the prisoner’s mental health may steadily decline and if left untreated, become more serious. These constant rushes of adrenaline, based on hope, make it virtually impossible for the prisoner to stabilise and rationalise their situation, particularly when they are constantly being led to believe that their freedom is imminent. Depression and psychosis are illnesses that many prisoners face at some point in their internment, and can be exacerbated in a foreign prison, but need not be fatal if managed through early intervention.

The bottom line in all of this is that, where it can be proved that a prisoner is suffering a severe mental illness, then that prisoner should be provided proper medical care and treatment in an appropriate and secure mental health facility. The main challenge for any detaining State, whether it is here in Australia or elsewhere, is foremost that prisoners are physically secured, and secondly that they receive an appropriate standard of care. Both Dr. Thong and Dr. Phillips have both suggested that the Indonesians should consider transferring Schapelle Corby to the Bangli Mental Hospital. Ideally, given that she is a foreigner, though not suggesting any preferential treatment should be given as such, it is obvious that she is struggling with cultural and language difficulties which, in turn, hinder her ability to cope with foreign internment. This, coupled with the fact that those around her are, perhaps, unwittingly compounding the situation by constantly building false hopes for imminent release, then under such extenuating circumstances, consideration should be given to her being repatriated to an Australian Justice health facility where she can receive care in a familiar but secure environment without the associated challenges as described.

Both the Australian and Indonesian Governments will no doubt be tested in properly dealing with this case, given that the number of Australians arrested overseas has increased by 38% in the past five years, and the families of those 250+ who have been convicted and sentenced, will also no doubt be watching with heightened interest, as to how this case unfolds.

– Kay Danes, International Humanitarian, 29 Aug 09
Foreign Prisoner Support Service … It is our Right 2 Human Rights

Author Website: Kay Danes’ website

By Kay Danes:
Families Behind Bars; Stories of Injustice, Endurance and Hope (New Holland Publishers)
Standing Ground; An Imprisoned Couple’s Struggle for Justice Against A Communist Regime (New Holland Publishers)

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