Politics Opinion

Queensland's answer of more prisons for troubled children is wrong

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Queensland's prison system is failing troubled youths in need of proper guidance (Screenshot via YouTube)

Instead of trying to rehabilitate and guide troubled youths, Queensland has decided to build more prisons to incarcerate those in need of help, writes Gerry Georgatos.

MUDDLE-MINDED politicians have built 17 children’s prisons (juvenile detention centres) across Australia, with five more slated for construction. More than one in two incarcerated children go on to adult incarceration. One in 50 living Australians have been to prison. Because of the intergenerational sins of this nation, one in six of the living descendants of this continent’s First Peoples has been to prison.

Australia cannot stray away from the proposition that it is a violently punishing society. One hundred and fifteen adult prisons, with more to be built, are testament of retribution instead of restoration and redemption.

While more than 50% of incarcerated children go on to adult prisons, with one juvenile detention centre, it’s over 80% on to adult prison life and with the majority, it’s more than 60%.

Is any juvenile detention centre a positive “model of care and transformational”?

The answer is “no”. Some are not as bad as each other but none are good in any sense of the transformative.

Some claim to be rehabilitative, restorative, therapeutic, steeped in psychoeducation, psychosocially adept and redemptorist. I emphasise “some claim” because that’s all they are — unsubstantiated claims and empty buzzwords.

Child prisons all over Australia have always failed the children. It has always been the case that more than half of the children have gone on to lives incarcerated as adults. As long, as this statistical narrative holds steadfast, then we have failed.

There are governments and many others who portray the present and past as filled with better practices and outcomes. I call BS — the stats speak.

The Productivity Commission is a reliable source of statistics. Year in and year out, it reveals more than one in two children re-offend — in fact, between ages ten to 16 close to 80%. Between half to three-quarters go onto adult gaols.

Please show me an Australian juvenile detention centre where the statistics prove a turnaround in the lives of our most vulnerable and disadvantaged children.

Why is Australia failing vulnerable children?

They are failed by one government after another. Governments must own responsibility.

Governments argue the issues and stressors our most vulnerable and disadvantaged children have been dealing with are “complex” and “there is no easy fix”. Governments have been hiding behind the “complex” and “no easy fix” rhetoric for decades despite success stories in some other countries, such as the Nordic countries which have dramatically reduced reoffending and nurtured troubled lives to healthier childhoods.

I have written prolifically about Western Australia’s juvenile detention practices and the corral of human misery that I believe is Banksia Hill. But we must take on all of Australia’s juvenile detention centres, not just the ones where the children are rebelling, protesting with rooftop rioting and calling out the harsh conditions. We must focus on the high reoffending rates of Australia’s juvenile detainees.

The priority goal must not be to reduce incidents in these Dickensian hovels but surely to reduce reoffending rates and the horrific number of children who leave childhood, and as adults are incarcerated. If we reduce these two rates, inherently we reduce incidents in detention centres. It should not be any other way.

We’ve got to be about these suffering children, the majority born into horror show disadvantages from the beginning of life. If we are not about these children, then what is this life about?

Nearly one in three child prisoners are in Queensland

Thereabouts 1,400 Queensland children per day are subject to supervision orders. With current trends, Queensland will soon boast one in three of Australia’s juvenile detainees. There are three child prisons in Queensland. The state’s response to increasing youth offending in Queensland is to build two more prisons.

If the three child prisons are not working, failing to turn around lives, why would we go the way of more prisons? We must ask, are Queensland’s two prisons in Brisbane and the one in Townsville (Cleveland) sponsoring the type of support that some of the Nordic countries have proven to work?

Not long ago, Queensland’s Deputy Premier, Steven Miles, told the ABC that juvenile detention works for 90% of offenders. Seriously? The Productivity Commission describes a different tale – nearly 60% of children aged ten to 16 re-offend in less than 12 months of being released.

Queensland has nearly 300 children in its three prisons, the highest in the nation.

Will Queensland’s child prison population rise?

Yes. On current trends, it will increase by at least a third, to more than 400 by mid-2025. If two more detention centres are built, they’ll be filled and Queensland’s child prison population may exceed 500 by mid-2025.

The Queensland Government has introduced harsh laws, with more to be proposed, and with Queensland’s one chamber government (there’s no Upper House), they’ll be passed. There will be a greater propensity for more types of offences to be meted carceral sentences and with longer stretches — so there goes “childhood”. Instead of more support to turn around trainwreck childhoods, laws are monstering children into demons.

Those who have experienced the dungeons of Queensland’s juvenile detention centres describe sufferings that, if they occurred in any similar form in the community, would be considered abhorrent and criminal. Some of the children and youth I work with in Queensland describe long periods in their cells and are left unsupported when there are lockdowns.

They describe the stir-craziness that children have told me they experienced in Banksia Hill (WA), Don Dale (NT) and Ashley (Tasmania). They speak of four concrete walls closing in on them. They speak of trash talk by some of the guards. They speak of anger and hate building up. They speak of hopelessness.

They speak of inconsequential time-wasting “programs” of low calibre efforts. They cry out with self-harming.

They speak of release without any support. For those on parole, they count the days till they’re picked up on a breach. Some have no safety net whatsoever, no one able to help them and therefore it’s a matter of time till they return to the Children’s Court and juvenile detention — far too many for merely breaching curfew or for not reporting, even if there isn’t a criminal offence during this period.

We must call upon governments to stop calling for tougher laws. Presently, it is a race to the bottom of the barrel but in the end, when there is such a race, everyone finishes at the bottom of the barrel — it does not matter who was there first.

Queensland must not introduce two further child gaols and instead abolish the three existing gaols: Brisbane Youth Detention Centre, West Moreton Youth Detention Centre and Cleveland Youth Detention Centre. These three centres have 306 cells and are close to capacity. So, if two more facilities are built, say with 150 to 200 cells, the sad math is there.

What must be done in the least?

There must be support – with substantial outreach – in the community to pathway troubled children to positive selves, to independent-assisted living where necessary. Too often, far too many say that juvenile detention is a warm bed, guaranteed feeds and showering for children living in at-risk circumstances, who are transient or street-present homeless. I say a child’s gaol primes them for adult prison life — and the stats agree.

The right supports, with tailor-made after-hours models of care and well-resourced community centres with no shortage of mentors, are long overdue. I have written about the ways forward and now I argue we must heed. If the rhetorical argument continues, that child prisons are safer places than all else, that’s an indictment of society.

I am tired of governments and institutions hiring mostly former journalists as public relations officers and selling half-truths and lies. I am tired of these prisons described as rehabilitative, therapeutic and educational. I am tired of reading and hearing that all the detainees are supported with substance misuse interventions, with “transitions” to a better life.

Even healthcare in children’s gaols is appalling. There is no Medicare in prisons. We are also campaigning for Medicare to be universal, and to be in adult and child prisons. The only Australians who do not have access to Medicare are adult and child prisoners. There is no access to the National Disability Insurance Scheme. Many prisons are without doctors and infirmaries. This is health discrimination and the healthcare in all custodial settings is so low-level or non-existent that if this were the case anywhere else in Australia, it would lead to a royal commission. Prisoner health is invisible.

Education in Queensland’s juvenile detention centres

Another missed opportunity. If we are to have these child prisons, they should be in the least restorative. They should be a bastion of education that helps children catch up on learnings missed, that inspires and pathways them to further formal education once released — and who are supported post-release with ongoing tutoring and transport to school.

Queensland’s Department of Corrective Services and the Department of Education must release annual stats on how many children post-release resume and complete primary and secondary education. I can tell it’s not many. If they’ve got nothing to fear, they’ll release the numbers and facts.

The calibre of education in Queensland’s child detention centres is not equivalent to a normal school setting. In fact, it is so low level, that there are no transferable learnings which the children can tap into once released.

What supports are organised for the children upon release?

That is the biggest failure of all. Effectively zero support. It is a systemic failure. It must be as I argue, release and support. Nurture and mentor. Daily support. After-hours support. Believe in them, till they believe in themselves.

I mentor several children in Queensland who were incarcerated. I have only met them in person once, so far. However, we are on the phone daily. I did this type of mentoring in Western Australia, with children in the Kimberley and the Pilbara. It works if you’re able to rapport and resonate — and importantly, listen and do not interrupt, let them unpack their stories and explain what they’re feeling.

Obviously, in-person support and going out together is best, but there is relatively little investment in working with children not only post-release, but also preventively and in diversionary settings. It’s a chasmic gap. It’s disastrous.

If we can achieve success by phone and online with vulnerable children, from afar, then what is argued as complex is not complex, but about being there. When you lock children in their cells for most of the day, they go stir-crazy. But children also get lonely, go to dark places or stir-crazy even if they’re out of their cells ten hours a day but have no one to talk to, nothing or very little to do.

It is imperative that the Departments of Corrective Services does not misrepresent that programs and services and expertise are on tap, that they exist, when maybe this is not the case. What happens when everything is misrepresented, is the public is misguided to conclude the children’s complex traumas are possibly irreparable or they’re ungrateful.

Gerry Georgatos is a suicide prevention and poverty researcher with an experiential focus on social justice.

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