Vulnerable children are bearing the brunt of governments’ failure to address the underlying issues contributing to over-incarceration, according to Sisters Inside CEO and human rights advocate Debbie Kilroy.
While her article below focuses on Queensland, it equally raises many issues relevant to the Victorian Government’s “lazy, kneejerk” decision to get “tough on crime” by sending 40 young people to an adult prison. This move, which is opposed by justice and human rights advocates, follows a riot at the Parkville youth justice centre.
In the lead-up to the launch of the #JustJustice book next Sunday (see details at the bottom of this post), we will be publishing a new article from the series each day this week.
Debbie Kilroy writes:
Governments must start to think “outside the bars” and address the underlying issues that contribute to the over-incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
It’s time for all governments to do more to address poverty, homelessness, education, violence against women, mental health and drug addictions.
Our prisons are full of the poor, the sick, the disabled, the young, the vulnerable and ever increasingly women.
Criminalisation and imprisonment cannot continue to be the default for those social issues in our country.
Building more prisons does not reduce crime. Nor does locking up children and young people contribute to a safer society. Vulnerable children are bearing the brunt of governments’ failure to address these wider health and social issues.
Queensland leads Australia in locking up 10 and 11 year-old children, and must raise the age of criminal responsibility for children to twelve years, the global average
No child should be imprisoned, no matter how old they are. All children should be protected. Indigenous children are most impacted by this policy.
Queensland also has the highest rates of children on remand in Australia. Between 2011 and 2015, the rate of unsentenced young people in detention in Queensland increased.
Of the 168 young people in prison in Queensland in the June quarter of 2015, 141 (84 per cent) were unsentenced. Of those who were unsentenced, 61 per cent were Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.
The Queensland Government has promised to remove 17 year olds from adult prisons, and we welcome this announcement. However, we are concerned that it will not have an immediate impact. Seventeen-year-olds will continue to be deemed as adults in criminal matters until the legislation is passed and then for another 12-month period.
On any given night in Queensland, 40 to 50 young people aged 17 are sharing accommodation with adult prisoners.
The trauma of incarceration impacts on children for the rest of their lives. It comes as no surprise then that, where 17-year-olds are treated as adults, there is evidence that they are more likely to be criminalised and imprisoned again.
Some of these children imprisoned on remand were ultimately acquitted, yet the damage of their imprisonment stayed long after release.
For many years, various inquiries (most notably the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody) have recognised the link between social disadvantage and criminalisation.
Repeated studies have found that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are more likely to end up behind bars because they are more likely to be disadvantaged, removed from their families, absent from school, experiencing violence, racism and trauma, addicted to substances, and to have a disability or mental illness.
These are all social issues that can be addressed in the community if we all really valued our children.
It is critical we end the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in the prison system, stop locking up children on remand, and stop using imprisonment in preference to alternative de-carceration strategies.
In 2014-2015, the Queensland government wasted $89.2 million on imprisoning children, the second highest expenditure on youth imprisonment in Australia. It cost an average of $1,445 per child per day to keep them in prison.
There’s an old saying that a justice department that spends most of its money on prisons is like a health department that spends most of its money on cemeteries.
Our children, our Indigenous children, are all precious resources and deserve an equal opportunity to grow up in loving and supportive families, with access to health and education resources.
There is deep concern, particularly in the absence of the protections of a Human Rights Act in Queensland, that 17-year-old children are being imprisoned in adult prisons. We are equally concerned about violations of human rights, systemic violence against children prisoners and practices which meet the international definition of torture, being routinely imposed on children in both adult and youth prisons throughout Queensland.
Sisters Inside is horrified by the rates of imprisonment of children in Queensland and the evident human rights abuses they routinely experience in both youth and adult prisons.
The failure of youth prisons to respond effectively to the needs of children has most notably been detailed recently through media coverage of the alleged mistreatment of children at both the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre, the Cleveland Youth Detention Centre and in the last few days in Victorian youth prisons – including the use of tear gas, restraints, spit hoods, beatings and extreme isolation to punish children.
Secrecy and mistreatment
In its recent report, Amnesty International described a systemic culture of secrecy and mistreatment of children, mainly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, in Queensland youth prisons.
The report identifies an alarming number of human rights abuses uncovered through a freedom of information request (including use of dogs to scare young Aboriginal girls, isolation for 22 hours a day, handcuffs during family visits, invasive search practices and extremely high rates of self-harm).
The report recommends that the Queensland Government develop an enforceable Human Rights Bill, in consultation with Indigenous and community sector organisations that incorporates, among others, international law and standards on the rights of children and Indigenous Peoples. (Recommendation 15)
Young people are being increasingly criminalised in Queensland, compared with other Australian states. In the four 4 years to 2015, there were decreases in the youth prison population in all states and territories except Queensland and the Northern Territory, where the number of young people in prisons on an average night increased. In Queensland, the number in youth prisoners increased from 130 in the June quarter 2011 to 168 in the June quarter 2015.
Revelations about the mistreatment of a 17-year-old Aboriginal boy in an adult prison highlight what Sisters Inside and some other NGOs have been stating for many years. We have long had detailed, consistent anecdotal evidence of the violations of human rights routinely directed against child prisoners in both youth and adult prisons.
This incident was extreme and degrading. It was punishment unlawfully administered and reflects the lack of skill among prison officers in dealing with young people. We have multiple examples of mistreatment akin to torture of young people in adult prisons. The very existence of a boys’ yard suggests that the prison system recognises the inappropriateness of keeping children in adult prisons.
The fact that this child, who had no previous experience of (youth or adult) imprisonment, did not have access to the boys’ yard (reportedly, due to overcrowding) only further highlights the critical urgency of moving these children out of the adult prison system. Seventeen-year-old girls do not have a girls’ yard as they are placed directly into the mainstream prison population.
The incarceration of 17-year-old children in adult prisons represents a failure of both the moral and legal obligations of the Queensland Government, and we call on them to act now.
• Sisters Inside is an independent community organisation that advocates for the human rights of women, girls and their children in youth and adult prisons. More information here.
You can read more than 80 #JustJustice articles published to date here.
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