In recent months the Victorian Labor state government has cracked down on youth who are being kept in detention. In an unprecedented move, they transferred a number of young inmates to the Barwon Maximum Security Prison late last year following unrest at the Parkville Youth Justice centre.
The Andrews-led government has been facing a crisis in the youth prison system. There have been a number of clashes between the teenage inmates and staff at both the Parkville and Malmsbury facilities. The government has even resorted to deploying riot police and dogs at these facilities.
The Fitzroy Legal Service and the Human Rights Law Centre challenged the government’s decision to send young people to the adult prison in the Supreme Court. The court ruled the detention of children in Barwon was illegal and the government failed in its attempt to appeal the decision.
Disgracefully, the government has attempted to get around the decision by re-gazetting a section of the prison and claiming that a part of the site is now a “youth justice facility”. At the time of writing it remains unknown if the Human Rights Law Centre will continue to pursue legal action.
The conditions at Barwon are clearly unsuitable for children. They are forced to spend long periods in isolation and they have inadequate access to schooling. Sending them there is in reality a form of torture, aimed at breaking their morale.
The reasons that unrest has broken out at the juvenile detention facilities are clear. The inmates are rebelling because of the horrible conditions they face. Overcrowding is a major issue, as is a lack of properly trained staff and adequate services. More funding for these things is required, not more bars and higher walls.
Any staff who have used excessive force and inhuman punishments against children should be dismissed. In one case in July last year, a teenager was placed in isolation for 10 days and sustained a broken limb at the Malmsbury Youth Justice Centre. The people responsible must be held accountable.
The problems of youth detention are not just unique to Victoria. As revealed by Four Corners last year there are issues at facilities right across Australia. Staff at the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre had used tear gas on the child inmates and placed them in solitary confinement for days and weeks at a time. The imprisonment of children is an abhorrent act and the conditions they are forced to live in are totally unacceptable.
The government’s ‘tough on crime’ approach to youth detainees is a desperate measure aimed at winning support from more right-wing and conservative sections of the electorate. While governments scapegoat these often-vulnerable young people, nothing is done to address the reasons why young people turn to crime in the first place.
Unless measures are taken to actually tackle the social and economic conditions that breed crime, more young people will end up falling between the cracks. It is the ongoing presence of conditions such as poverty, desperation, alienation and inadequate schooling that increase the likelihood of people becoming trapped in a cycle of crime.
Alongside major changes within the juvenile detention system, broader societal reforms are necessary. Investment in jobs and training programs are needed, as well as real universal access to education opportunities. Decent welfare payments should be available to all those out of work or studying, and the minimum wage should be increased to ensure everyone is paid a living wage regardless of their age. Measures such as these would go a long way to eliminating the drivers of crime, and therefore greatly diminish the need for youth prisons in the first place.
By Dane Letcher