Government must stop jailing children in the state’s most notorious prison

Government must stop jailing children in the state’s most notorious prison

This piece was first published by The Herald Sun

Just a day after Victoria’s highest court confirmed the government acted unlawfully in detaining children at the Barwon adult prison, the Minister has tried yet again to keep them there. The government is spending extraordinary resources defending the indefensible – jailing children in the state’s most notorious adult prison.

We are part of the legal team fighting to get the children out of Barwon. The government first tried to transfer children to Barwon through the Youth Parole Board. When the Board refused the transfer, the government hastily tried to classify a unit in the adult prison as a youth justice centre.

When we challenged that decision with the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service, the government backed down and agreed to remove Aboriginal children from Barwon. Just before Christmas, the government lost the second case we brought in the Supreme Court. On Wednesday, the government’s appeal against that ruling failed.

Seven weeks have now passed with children being unlawfully jailed at Barwon, yet the Government still perseveres.

The Supreme Court case documented the cruel conditions the children faced at Barwon. This included extreme solitary confinement, being handcuffed to and from outdoor areas, having guard dogs used in the unit, being threatened with tear gas and denied access to family visits. The school registration authority refused to register the unit at Barwon because it isn’t fit for teaching and the children continue to be denied proper schooling.

The Court concluded that the “Department and the Minister were flying blind as to the real situation and suitability” of Barwon as a place to detain children.

Incredibly, there’s only 11 children held there. The vast majority are on remand – detained waiting for their trial.

It defies belief that the Government can’t find somewhere to hold 11 children other than in the state’s highest security adult prison, immediately next door to the unit where some of the highest risk convicted gangland, terror and other offenders are held.

In fact, there is existing capacity in the normal youth justice system to hold these children. The government’s dogged persistence with Barwon seems to be about trying to appear tough on punishing those responsible for last month’s riot at the Parkville Youth Justice Centre.

Forget the inconvenient fact that some of the children now held at Barwon weren’t even at Parkville at the time of the damage.

We absolutely need to get to the bottom of the factors that caused the Parkville riot. Those responsible for the damage should be held accountable – and criminal charges have been brought. The investigation into the riot led by former Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Neil Comrie is a sensible move. But sending children to an adult prison is completely the wrong approach.

I have worked for the past 13 years on criminal justice and human rights issues, for both victims and offenders. Crime leaves an irreversible trail of harm to the victim, their loved ones and to broader society. It’s why people who commit crimes should be held accountable for their actions and why we need to do much more to prevent crime before the damage is done.

Mistreating people in jail - particularly children – is in no one’s interest. The children held at Barwon will eventually be released. In the interests of community safety, we need to make sure they leave better than when they went in. We need to give them a pathway away from crime. Jailing them in cruel conditions in an adult prison and denying them proper schooling will do the opposite.

There has been a lot of media focus on youth crime recently. A number of serious crimes have understandably caused significant community concern. So it’s important that the public gets the full picture to judge how best to respond.

The reality is that crime by 10-17 year olds is a small fraction of total crime in Victoria – about 7%. Adults are sentenced for crimes at around three times the rate of children. The number of children who offend has dropped sharply and the number of offences has also dropped.  Victoria has one of the lowest youth crime rates in the country.

This isn’t good enough. We need to drive it down further. The way to do this is by focusing on the things proven to be the most effective at preventing crime – like tackling child neglect, child abuse, poor education, substance abuse and more.

Jailing children in an adult prison will only make things worse. It was always a terrible mistake to send children to Barwon. It is manifestly unfit as a place to detain children. The Minister needs to abandon her plans and find a safe, lawful and appropriate alternative.

Hugh de Kretser is the executive director of the Human Rights Law Centre