Kids locked up

Amy Hall speaks to the campaigners leading the call against childhood incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Photo: Fifaliana-Joy/Pixabay

Children as young as 10 years old should be developing in an environment of freedom and safety, but in Australia, 600 children between the ages of 10 and 13 were imprisoned in 2019 – over 60 per cent of them were Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

It had been hoped that the Council of Attorneys-General would raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility to 14 years old when they met in July this year, but instead they said that more work was needed on alternatives for children ‘who exhibit offending behaviour’.

Children can be sent to prison for things like burglary, stealing cars or breaking a curfew and then end up in the system for life, explains Indigenous Rights Advisor for Amnesty Australia, Rodney Dillon. ‘Once they get into detention it’s like a one-way ticket. If you've got a 10-year-old kid in the prison system you know where they’re going to be when they’re 20.’

Inquiries into the youth legal system in Australia have found practices such as solitary confinement and routine strip-searching in youth detention centres. Many children who end up in prison have already experienced neglect, trauma and abuse or are experiencing mental health issues of learning disabilities. Instead of support to deal with health issues and trauma, they are being deprived of their childhood behind bars.

Once they get into detention it’s like a one-way ticket. If you've got a 10-year-old kid in the prison system you know where they’re going to be when they’re 20

‘What we’re saying is that these kids need therapeutic treatment they don’t need isolation in the prison cell to address their issues,’ says Dillon. ‘It’s not only Aboriginal kids; no kids should be in jail at 10 years of age.’

A prison can mean that children are transported thousands of kilometres from their loved ones. ‘Their parents have already not got enough money to go to the shop and then they have no way of getting to see them. So these kids are thrown in prison a long way from home with different cultures; for these kids English could be their third language.’

Campaigners want to see more community-based services and support for families that helps children stay in education and addresses problems like poverty, housing instability, family violence and alcohol abuse, as well as responding to health and disability needs of children that are identified early.

Dillon wants to see more funding to expand Indigenous-led diversionary programmes that provide an alternative to imprisoning young people, including programmes where elders take children out on the homelands.

‘We know they work,’ he says. ‘Elders show the kids what the land means to them and what the lands meant to their family, their blood runs in this land, they've got ancestors buried in this land for 1500 generations. They've got a responsibility to their families, to the water and to the land and that’s a far better way of dealing with the kids than putting them into a prison system.’

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are being disadvantaged at every step of the system. Overall, over a quarter of the total prison population are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, compared to around three per cent of the general population. Since 1991 there have been over 430 Indigenous deaths in custody.

‘Locking people up doesn't work,’ says Dillon. ‘We need to start thinking about how to keep kids out of the prison, rather than making an industry of keeping them in it.’