Children in prison

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Children in prison

Amy Hall writes about to the campaign against putting the children of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people into prison.


Photo: Fifaliana-Joy/Pixabay

Children as young as 10 years old should be free and safe. But in Australia in 2019, they put 600 children between the ages of 10 and 13 in prison. Over 60 per cent of them were Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

There was a hope that the Council of Attorneys-General would raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility to 14 years old when they met in July 2020. But they said that more work was needed on alternatives for children ‘with criminal behaviour’.

Rodney Dillon is the Indigenous Rights Advisor for Amnesty Australia. He says that they can send children to prison for things like burglary, stealing cars, or breaking a curfew and then they are in the prison system for life. ‘It’s like a one-way ticket. If you've got a 10-year-old in the prison system, you know where they will be when they’re 20.’

Inquiries in Australia found examples of solitary confinement and routine strip-searching in prisons for young people. Many children in prison have experienced neglect, trauma, and abuse or they have mental health problems and learning disabilities. They receive no help with health and trauma, but they lose their lives as children in prison.

‘These children need treatment. They don’t need isolation in prison for their problems,’ says Dillon. ‘It’s not only Aboriginal children. No children should be in prison at 10 years of age.’ A prison can mean that children are thousands of kilometres from their families. ‘Their parents don’t have enough money to go to the shop and then they have no way of going to see them. So these children are in prison a long way from home with different cultures; for these children English could be their third language.’

Campaigners want to see more services in the community and help for families so that children can stay in school and there is help for problems like poverty, housing, family violence, and alcohol abuse.

Dillon wants to see more money for programmes that give an alternative to prison for young people, including programmes where elders take children out on the homelands.

‘We know they work,’ he says. ‘Elders show the children what the land means to them and what the lands meant to their family, and their families of 1500 generations. They've got a responsibility to their families, to the water, and to the land. That’s a better way of helping children than prison.’

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

‘Prison doesn't work,’ says Dillon. ‘We need to start thinking about how to keep children out of the prison and not making an industry of keeping them in it.’


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