Juvenile incarceration is the real outrage

For 18 hours last weekend, kids in Parkville prison tried to take something back for their own, to tear down some of the fences that keep them in. They made their way onto the roof of the facility they’d been shoved in, escaping – briefly – the disgusting conditions of the concrete block beneath them.

The outcry from media like the Herald Sun has been predictably hysterical. For them, these kids are just the latest punching bag in their campaign against Victoria’s so-called “youth crime crisis”. Premier Dan Andrews, from the supposedly left wing of the ALP, has jumped on board with the law-and-order hysteria, promising to send these kids to the Barwon maximum security adult prison.

But the real scandal is not that a few young people rioted; it’s the brutal system of juvenile incarceration itself.

Reports of riots in juvenile detention centres across Australia have come coupled with images of torture of the incarcerated children. In July, papers were flooded with images of kids in the Northern Territory being hooded and gassed. In October, it came to light that NSW children had been locked in their cells for 23 hours a day, and kept in handcuffs during their one hour of “recreation”.

Conditions in Victoria are similar. In the Malmsbury youth facility, one teenager was held in isolation for 10 days. Another had a limb fractured by guards.
Parkville, where the most recent riots occurred, is no exception. The ombudsman reported in 2010 that “self-harming is a significant problem for female detainees”, and described heavy scarring on the arms of children as young as eight.

Of restraints, one staff member told the ombudsman, “by the time they get down to the isolation rooms, anything can happen down there … it might be an extra knee into the back or a couple of kicks here or a punch here, ramming boys’ heads into walls and things like that”.

He reported that most staff refuse to eat the food doled out to “clients” and that conditions in the facility were “clearly in breach of principles contained in the Charter of Human Rights”. Another staff member described children being made to sleep in their own excrement:

"At the moment we’ve got a couple of kids there that, through being victims of sexual abuse and that, of a night time poo themselves … The kid will get up, he’ll go to Court … His mattress is just left in there. Staff have to strip it. We’ll sit it in the sun a bit to dry as best we can but if we need a bed that night, it comes back in and goes back on that bed and the next kid comes in, makes it up and sits on it.”

Staff reported similarly about the spread of scabies: “The wound was weeping pus and that into the mattress. Next kid come in of a night time and just put a sheet over it … he woke up in the morning and was itchy … it went from possibly one kid having it to probably a dozen to 15”.

The reports above are about Remand North, a section of the Parkville facility in which none of the children have been convicted of a crime. Eighty percent of the children in Parkville are on remand, including some of those being transferred to adult prisons. Corrections Victoria says that “remandees are unsentenced and are innocent until proven guilty”. If this is what they do to the innocent, then the guilty must be in hell.

It is no surprise, then, that children locked in these places have tried to fight back. The monotony and brutality inflicted upon them by the state can be broken for a few hours. They can bring some of their suffering to bear upon the guards, the cops and the walls that dole it out to them. They can assert some humanity.

Their cries can be heard for scarcely five minutes before the media move on again. For all of the headlines of car-jackings and theft by young people, the Victorian Crimes Agency notes that rates of crimes committed by those aged 10 to 17 have declined by 42 percent since 2009-10.

Facilities such as Parkville are where the real crimes – torture and child abuse – are occurring. It is only when kids fight back that the nature of these institutions begins to come out, albeit hidden among the searing indictments that the Herald Sun and liberal press make of the children’s behaviour.