Children are being abused in Queensland’s adult prisons. ABC’s Four Corners spent 12 months investigating the state’s practice of holding children in watch-houses when no beds are available in youth detention facilities. It revealed chronic, racist violence.
Upset or sick children, some as young as 10, were stripped, forced into “suicide smocks” and isolated in padded cells. Some were kept in solitary confinement for weeks, conditions in which adults should not be held for more than 48 hours. At least one child has had their fingertips cut off in doors.
Natalie Siegel-Brown, Queensland’s public guardian, told Four Corners: “I am aware that the squat and cough method of strip searching is used in the watch-house”. These are human rights abuses for people of any age. For children, they are torture.
Two-thirds of detainees aged 10 to 17 are Indigenous, as shown in a 2017 Queensland government report. Seventeen percent have intellectual disabilities. While salacious news headlines decry out of control youth, the crimes are often minor. One Indigenous 12-year-old was charged with wilful damage for “smashing a coffee mug”, according to NITV News. Behaviour like spitting at someone, if done by an Indigenous person, is treated by the police as serious assault, with serious consequences.
Most youth in detention in Queensland have not been convicted of a crime. Eighty percent are on remand. These young people are imprisoned, taken thousands of kilometres away from their families, isolated and abused, before they have even received a trial.
Indigenous people are disproportionately affected. Indigenous children in Queensland, according to Amnesty International, “spent an average of 71 days in detention on remand, compared with 50 days for non-Indigenous children”.
Labor’s minister for child safety, youth and women, Di Farmer, spluttered repeatedly, “I was not aware” during her Four Corners interview.
But the government’s own reports have exposed racist abuse. As recently as 2018, the Atkinson report raised concerns about children being detained in watch-houses, commenting: “While this is being monitored and all efforts are made to ensure that children are safe ... this is not a satisfactory long term arrangement”.
Michael Berkman, Greens MP for Maiwar and one of the few Queensland politicians willing to comment on the Four Corners episode, recommended last October that the minimum age of criminal responsibility be raised to at least 14, so 10-year-old children are not locked up to begin with.
That would be a start. The solution to this crisis is not still another inquiry, and certainly not building new prisons. It’s addressing past injustices, improving the quality of life for the poor and marginalised and standing against the draconian and racist police state that criminalises poverty.