Media Releases - 8 February 2024

Opinion piece: Adult prison is no place for children

There’s no escaping this grim fact: In Tasmania, we put children in adult prisons.

I commend those Tasmanian correctional officers who, supported by their union and some members of parliament, have recently taken a stand against the appalling practice of holding children in adult prison facilities.

The fact remains that in Tasmania, children as young as 10 who have been arrested by police are routinely held in reception prisons while awaiting interview, bail, court proceedings or transfer to Ashley Youth Detention Centre.

Sometimes they wait for hours, sometimes for days.

The government’s response to media inquiries (Kids in prison fears raised, the Mercury and The Examiner, February 1) claims young people “are not routinely held in adult prisons” but “can be held temporarily in watch houses”.

Here, the government is trying to define a difference between a “reception prison” and a “watch house”. This is convenient bureaucratic jargon.

In the Hobart and Launceston reception prisons, where the majority of arrested children are housed, there is an invisible line on the floor which apparently divides the “reception prison” from the “watch house”. That invisible line may comfort the government, but it means nothing to a detained child.

All they know is that they are in a cell, inside a prison, surrounded by adults who are also in custody.

What they also innately understand is that the guards in charge are not trained in child safe or therapeutic practices.

This is how a young person recently described their experience of being held in a reception prison to me:

“Lonely and scary and traumatising. You’ve got nothing but your lonely thoughts in a cell at night, so you just guess how you feel … if you go into a Hobart Reception Prison, where there’s four or five guards putting you into a cell with nothing but the mattress, and then five minutes later, you look out your window and you see eight prison guards on top of people, taking their clothes off and putting them in gowns and stuff like that and putting in suicide cells with nothing and hearing people yell out, asking for toilet paper. They say shut up and wait. Then, when … Security come pick you up, two random people you don’t know put you in handcuffs and say, ‘Oh, come get in the car. I’m going to take you to Ashley.’ It’s very scary, I think.”

Tasmania’s recent commission of inquiry shone a light on the abuse of children in a range of government institutions, including in youth justice detention, however it did not explore in detail the fact that children enter the custodial system through the same front door as adults.

The government has accepted the recommendations of the commission of inquiry, including a commitment to driving wholesale cultural change to create safer communities for our children and young people.

They have also committed to a new 10-year plan for our youth justice system.

However, it includes no explicit acknowledgment of the current reliance on adult prison facilities to hold children or a plan to stop using them.

Regulatory mechanisms are an important part of the wider change that is needed, and Tasmania now has legislated standards to define Child and Youth Safe Organisations.

Tasmania is also implementing the Optional Protocol under the UN Convention Against Torture, which includes visits to places of detention to ensure compliance with international standards.

In my view, the practice of housing children in adult custodial facilities undermines, and is entirely inconsistent with, the intent of these new oversight frameworks.

As members of the Tasmanian community, we all need to ask ourselves if we are happy that our children are kept in adult prisons.

When children are alleged to have engaged in harmful behaviour, do we want them to have everything they need to grow and thrive, as is their fundamental human right as children?

Or do we want to lock them up with adults, out of sight and out of mind? The evidence clearly tells us, over, and over again, that only the first option makes a positive difference.

Leanne McLean,
Commissioner for Children and Young People