This article was first published by The Age
I've just returned from Barwon maximum security adult prison. I found myself squatting on the floor to talk to one of our clients – a 16-year-old child – through the trapdoor to his cell. The tight steel opening so small I could only see his anxious eyes. He is being held in solitary confinement; pacing his cell, uncertain when he will be let out. He hasn't seen the sky since Thursday.
This is my second time visiting the children being held in Barwon jail. The prison is unfit for this purpose.
There is no escaping how ominous Barwon is. This is where the state's most dangerous, most unpredictable criminals are locked up. There is razor wire and searing concrete walls in every direction. Changing its name cannot change these facts – calling Barwon jail a youth justice facility does not make it so.
Whatever the challenge the Victorian government faced after the incidents and resulting damage at Parkville Youth Detention Centre, treating children cruelly should never have been part of the answer.
It is simply implausible that in this day and age the government had no alternatives but to warehouse children in the same prison where notorious gangland criminal Carl Williams was murdered.
Last week, on behalf of the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service, we challenged the lawfulness of holding children in Barwon jail. The government buckled and agreed to settle the case on the basis that no Aboriginal child would be transferred to any adult jail for 18 months, except in the most exceptional circumstances – and, even then, only on advice from the Aboriginal Children's Commissioner that it is in the best interests of a child.
Treating one group of children humanely in no way excuses the mistreatment of another. All children, even those who have made mistakes, have the right to be housed in a safe environment and to be given the opportunity to reach their potential.
But the government and opposition are in a law and order race to the bottom: who can appear tougher, more punitive, more callous – so much so that we now have a Premier proudly declaring that he makes "no apologies" for disregarding the human rights of children in his care.
As a lawyer who represented children involved in the Don Dale incident, I find this toxic rhetoric particularly difficult to stomach.
The brutality the nation railed against after witnessing the Don Dale Four Corners expose did not occur in a vacuum. It was the consequence of punitive policies and political chest-beating – a government that prided itself on disregarding the rights of children.
What is now unfolding in Victoria is an eerily familiar demonisation of vulnerable children caught up in the criminal justice system – the very venomous rhetoric that marred the Northern Territory.
And while this week the Northern Territory slowly reckons with the magnitude of what happened in Don Dale, and the Royal Commission hears evidence that housing children in restrictive environments is detrimental to adolescent brain development, Victoria continues its dogged pursuit of myopic youth justice policies.
If Don Dale has taught us anything, it is that we shouldn't turn a blind eye to the type of "lock 'em up" drivel we are hearing from the Andrews government and the opposition.
Irrespective of their crimes, what happens to children behind the razor wire should matter to all of us. Not just because the community is ultimately safer when children are in classrooms rather than locked in concrete boxes. But also because as a society we have matured enough to know that children should never be the pawns of politicians.
Today I saw children who two weeks ago were completing their year 10, but who are now left to stare at the ceiling of their Barwon jail cell. While the supposed appetite of some in our community for punishment may be satiated, we are doing ourselves an irreparable disservice in the long run.
If children must be detained, they should be detained in age-appropriate facilities, where there are proper education rooms, outdoor areas, support programs, family spaces and ample opportunity to learn and develop in a positive direction.
Evidence tells us that children are fundamentally different to adults and have great capacity for reformation. Barwon jail can never provide this type of needed environment.
This week the Victorian Supreme Court will begin to hear our second case where we argue that no child should be left to suffer in Barwon jail. It is untenable for the government to pick and choose the children it wants to protect. It should not be up to lawyers to litigate for the rights of every child in detention.
It is time for Premier Andrews to show moral leadership and admit that his government made a terrible mistake in pretending Barwon jail could ever be fit for children.
Ruth Barson is the Director of Legal Advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre.