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Grave fears for safety of children and other prisoners during pandemic

*** This post was updated on 4 October with Twitter analytics for the event ***

Grave fears for the safety of children and other prisoners held in pandemic lockdown were raised during a public forum hosted by Croakey this week.

Robyn Oxley, a Tharawal and Yorta Yorta woman and lecturer in criminology at Western Sydney University, sounded the alarm about the impact of isolating children in detention as a “health response” to the pandemic rather than releasing them.

Oxley is an Independent Visitor under the Commission for Children and Young People in Victoria, and before the pandemic physically visited youth prisons each month, at Parkville and Malmsbury, to check on Aboriginal children and young people.

Since the pandemic, her contact has been limited to Zoom, she told a Twitter festival launching Croakey’s new #JusticeCOVID publication (download here).

Some children had been seven months with no physical contact with family. “No hugs, no kisses, no contact,” Oxley tweeted.

She said:

Prisons are no place for anyone, let alone children and young people. These children have been in lockdown, far worse than any Melbournian could ever even imagine, for seven months.

These children have been punished enough. They have been exposed to the violence of prisons at such an early age. It is not only time to raise the age of criminal responsibility. It is time to release these children and let them be kids.

We need to be thinking about what it means to be locking kids up! How it impacts their life now and in the future. We need to ask ourselves are we OK with this?”

The Twitter festival, moderated by Dr Tess Ryan, shared wide-ranging discussions from Aboriginal community organisations, prison abolition and reform advocates, public interest journalism advocates, researchers, legal experts and health leaders.

It came as the Sentencing Advisory Council in Victoria released a new report showing increasing numbers of children are being held in remand in Victoria, often because there are inadequate supports for them in the community (see more in this Twitter thread). Many do not end up receiving a custodial sentence.

Dan Nicholson,  Executive Director, Criminal Law at Victoria Legal Aid, said on Twitter that too many kids are being locked up because of issues in their lives, such as lack of housing or community support, not the offences they’ve committed.

He said: “Time on remand causes further harm to kids, most of whom have survived trauma or neglect. It makes it more likely they’ll commit further offences.

Imagine if we made better choices with the millions we waste on remanding kids each year? Gave these kids hope and opportunity?”

Below is a full report of the #JusticeCOVID Twitter Festival.


Introductions and official launch

Dr Janine Mohamed, chair of Croakey Health Media


Public interest journalism matters

The Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas

The coronavirus pandemic has had a profound and negative effect on much of the media industry. But, the need for public interest journalism — reporting that ensures the community is well and fairly informed — is as strong as ever.

The Institute has been working to support journalism in Australia throughout the pandemic. We have backed community broadcasting and fact-checking initiatives, as well as helping media organisations engage freelance and casual contributors.

Croakey News freelance journalists, writers and data visualisation designers have done an outstanding job to provide information and expert commentary on prisoner health during the coronavirus crisis.

Their reporting has brought transparency and debate to an important but often-overlooked issue. It is an excellent example of the public interest journalism that is needed at this difficult time.

You can also stay up to date with the Institute’s activities by visiting our website and subscribing for updates.


Another missed opportunity to reimagine the justice system

Nerita Waight, CEO of VALS & Co-chair of NATSILS

Prisons are epicentres for the spread of COVID-19, like aged-care or cruise ships. We’ve seen outbreaks in Victoria, Queensland and NSW; we’ve seen lockdown, solitary confinement. But no proactive measures from governments to stop mob going into prison or reduce prison numbers.

Instead, governments have policed the pandemic.

In NSW, the top 10 areas where fine recipients lived, seven had Aboriginal populations of 1,000+. Suburbs with most fines were the poorest, with no correlation to where the most COVID-19 cases were.

Similarly here in Victoria, Aboriginal people made up 4.7% of the fines, despite making up just 0.8% of the population. Poor communities & South Sudanese people were targeted. Like in NSW, young people are being targeted.

At the height of Stage 4, an Aboriginal man was allegedly knocked off his bike and ended up in hospital with arm injuries. He was an essential worker riding to work. He says police called him offensive names and fined him.

We also saw heavy handed policing at #BlackLivesMatter peaceful rallies including pepper spray, arrests, large numbers of police. Rally organisers were accused of causing spread of #COVID19Aus despite medical evidence saying there was no community transmission.

It’s heartbreaking to see State Budget after State Budget invest billions in new prisons and extending old ones and yet so little on prevention, diversion and transition supports. It has turned the criminalisation of communities into an income stream for companies.

Meanwhile in prisons, punitive restrictions have caused harm to our people. There have been over 40 positive #COVID19Aus cases connected to prisons here in Victoria, including 19 children testing positive. Kids have been held in isolation in tiny cells for weeks.

In Queensland, 130 children, some as young as 13, were held in solitary confinement after a #COVID91Aus outbreak at Brisbane Youth Detention Centre. We know the devastating lifelong damage solitary confinement has on kids’ mental health.

Aboriginal people are most at risk of dying from #COVID19Aus due to effects of colonisation like chronic illness. This is compounded by our overincarceration. We’ve called for governments to act to release mob from prison to prevent black deaths in custody. We can’t afford to wait.

My question to our governments remains the same: are they truly committed to keeping everyone safe during these unprecedented times? And do our governments value the lives of people in detention?

Will they show courage and leadership, and immediately decrease the number of people in detention to mitigate Victoria’s collective harm and loss? They need only look overseas, to the many countries adopting decarceration strategies, for guidance and inspiration.

Places of detention are not insulated from the rest of the community; people enter and exit places of detention on a daily basis, including people who are released back into the community and people who enter detention upon arrest or sentencing, as well as staff and contractors

The porous nature of detention facilities makes it highly likely that any COVID-19 outbreaks in detention will spread to the community. The health of the people in custody is inextricably linked to the health of all Victorians during this pandemic.

We have seen the devastation that comes with the spread of COVID-19 in detention in countries such as the US.

An American Civil Liberties Union study concluded that ‘COVID-19 could claim the lives of approximately 100,000 more people than current projections stipulate if jail populations are not dramatically and immediately reduced, according to a new epidemiological model.’

In a joint media release on 20 July 2020, VALS, Human Rights Law Centre, Fitzroy Legal Service, Inner