Mental Health Legal Centre Inc.
Inside Access delivers free legal services and advocacy to imprisoned persons in Victorian adult and forensic correctional facilities. Inside Access is a therapeutic justice initiative affiliated with the Mental Health Legal Centre located in Melbourne, Australia.
Inside Access has been operating for over five years and currently runs legal clinics in partnership with pro bono legal firms DLA Piper and Ashurst at Dame Phyllis Frost Centre and the Melbourne Assessment Prison and provides legal services to incarcerated persons. Inside Access also assists forensic patients at Thomas Embling Hospital and other secure hospitals on a referral basis.
“Prisons are places of punishment. They are intended to achieve retribution, deterrence and rehabilitation through exclusion from the community and deprivation of freedom. Although their running is invariably by the administrative arm of government, they should not be places where prisoners are subjected to punishment over and above that ordered by the courts” (Warren CJ, Charles J and Chernov JJA. R v SH  VSCA 83).
Aditional funding secured
The Mental Health Legal Centre’s Inside Access Project, which provides free civil legal services to people with cognitive impairment and mental health issues in correctional and forensic facilities in Victoria, has recently secured additional funding from the Phyllis Connor Memorial Trust in addition to the ongoing funding by the William Buckland Foundation. The additional $100,000 grant will enable Inside Access to continue its important work responding to the increasing demand for civil legal advice and advocacy and community legal education for prisoners with mental illness.
About Inside Access
Background to the Inside Access Project
As a result of the MHLC's 2009 pilot study, Inside Access has clear and overwhelming evidence of the need for civil legal services to the prison (mental health) population.
The purpose of the Inside Access project which followed that study was and is to bring together specialist expertise in mental health, intellectual disability and prison law and advocacy, to provide effective individual and systemic advocacy, law and legal policy reform and community legal education on issues affecting prisoners with mental disorder and intellectual disability - in particularly their experience of imprisonment and their access to appropriate care, treatment and rehabilitation programs whilst in prison and on release.
Inside Access was also set up in response to the growing concern regarding the over-representation of people with mental illness in the criminal justice system and their overwhelming need to access to specialised legal education. As mental illness is endemic within the prison population affected prisoners are doubly disadvantaged when accessing justice.
Inside Access - providing innovative legal services and solutions to access to justice for people with mental health difficulties in prison
"Ignored, mismanaged, released unprepared, rapidly re-offending and returning to prison. This is all too often the story of the mentally ill offender, repeated and repeated."
Inside Access has been operating for around four years and provides a fortnightly legal clinic at the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre. It also provides legal services to other incarcerated persons with mental health difficulties including inmates of metropolitan and regional prisons such as the Port Phillip Prison, Barwon Prison, Langi Kal Kal and the Melbourne Assessment Prison. Inside Access also assists forensic patients at Thomas Embling Hospital, also on a referral basis.
Inside Access is the only legal service that routinely visits the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre (DPFC) since Victorian Legal Aid suspended its service to prisons.
Inside Access seeks to contribute to an improved justice system for people with mental illness through delivering legal assistance to our clients to enable them to more easily re-enter the community on release. We provide an innovative and practical solution to the identified gaps in the availability of civil law services to prisoners.
The work of Inside Access includes but is certainly not limited to: accessing reasonable healthcare and medications in prison, negotiating outcomes for clients' relief of debt, navigating the infringements system, facilitating claims for victims of crime compensation, advising on housing and tenancy matters, referring claims for TAC compensation, assisting in relation to parental or family matters, seeking access to documentation through the Freedom of Information process, answering internal Governor’s charges, objecting to or requesting prison transfers, responding to immigration and visa enquiries, agitating for visiting rights, assembling parole submissions and many others.
Examples and case studies illustrating how Inside Access has assisted clients:
An example of the work commonly performed by Inside Access includes a client with diagnosed schizophrenia who had become increasingly stressed by her financial matters. New debts were created and existing debts increased whilst she was incarcerated. Consequently her family members were themselves impoverished after attempting to meet our client’s debts. Simply by negotiating with the debt collector we were able to explain our client’s circumstances and have the debt waived. This settlement significantly reduced our client’s anxiety and allowed her to focus on her otherwise challenging situation.
“Inside Access provides a vital, invaluable support and advocacy resource for female prisoners.” – Inside Access client.
Another typical case involved a mother of six who feared her children were being abused in foster care. She assigned her case to us for action thereby helping to ensure the safety of her children while she was incarcerated. IA is immensely grateful for the continued work of the Good Shepherd Foundation as it provides unique financial assistance to DPFC clients and accepts referrals of clients from Inside Access. This in turn, considerably diminished our client's existing mental health symptoms, allowing her to focus on her release preparation, including her plans to care for the children on release.
Inside Access manages many similar cases as it attempts to restore some order to the legal chaos left behind in a prisoner’s personal life or in meeting the difficulties the prisoner will encounter as he or she attempts to abide by the administrative decisions made in relation to their rights and obligations during incarceration. Hence, examples of this work include challenging inter-prison or intra-prison transfers, Governor’s disciplinary charges and hearings, withdrawal of privileges, imposition of additional constrains such as a reduction in ‘run out’ or recreational time out of their cell each day, obtaining sufficient quantity and quality of medical treatment available in the Corrections system, clarifying after and facilitating arrangements for requirements to be met by hopeful parolees as well as agitating for the proper recognition of the client’s human and other legislative rights.
Community legal education and systemic advocacy and law reform work:
Inside Access also works to achieve a positive change in the Victorian legal environment by bringing together the organisations and individuals with the experience and expertise to overcome the barriers to accessing the law for prisoners with mental disorders and/ or intellectual disabilities. Effective and longer term work on these issues is intended bring about change that will benefit the entire community by contributing to lower recidivism rates and increased public safety.
Through its community legal education program, Inside Access also provides fundamental information and education to prisoners with a mental illness to enable them to understand and exercise their rights.
To find out more about the Project and how to get involved by volunteering, contact Inside Access on (03) 9629 4422.
 Victorian Institute of Forensic Mental Health, Submission to the Parliament of Australia Senate Select Committee on Mental Health and quoted in the Committee’s 2006 Report “A National Approach to Mental Health – From Crisis to Community.”
Inside Access may provide legal assistance and advocacy to imprisoned people in the following areas of law:
- Debt and credit issues
- Parole Advice
- Post release legal issues
- Tenancy/ Housing
- Guardianship / Administration issues
- Access to health and mental health services
- Human rights
- Victims of Crime
- Freedom of Information
- Family Law (referrals)
- Crime (referrals)
On the basis of casework generated from these legal clinics, Inside Access identifies and addresses systemic issues requiring law and policy reform.
Inside Access also operates community legal education courses which aim to provide persons in incarceration with a greater understanding of the legal system and their place within it, as well as services available to them. Inside Access further aims to continue this in the broader community.
For more information, please visit the Inside Access website.