The Palaszczuk government announced last week that it plans to build another children’s gaol in Woodford, right next door to the adult maximum-security facility in the local corrections precinct, which comes on the back of its decision last October to build another kiddie prison in Cairns.
If these plans trigger questions as to which young people the Sunshine State is planning to detain within these centres of punishment, well, not to worry, because in March it enacted a package of draconian youth justice laws that will ensure there will be no shortage of bodies on supply.
These laws involve repeat offenders facing tougher sentencing principles, expansion of the list of offences where the presumption is against bail, and the reinstating of breach of bail as a youth offence, which required the government to override its own Human Rights Act 2019 (Qld).
Sisters Inside, a grassroots organisation working to uphold the rights of incarcerated women and girls, has been calling out Labor’s tough on youth crime agenda, and has warned the government that it will be holding it to account for any human rights violations youths are subjected to.
Indeed, the group was in Cairns last month, suggesting locals reject the new prison proposal, and rather look to viable community options to deal with youths who break the law, which would not only serve to heal these kids but, indeed, the entire community, whereas a gaol would wreak havoc.
Escalating child imprisonment
“Children are being used as a political whipping board, and that’s what we’ve got because some of the media has been on the rampage in relation to so-called ‘youth crime’,” said Sisters Inside chief executive Deb Kilroy, “where it’s actually a small number of children that need intensive support.”
“These are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children being targeted,” the prison abolitionist told Sydney Criminal Lawyers. “So, the target of the government’s policy is racial/gendered violence, and that’s the result they’re getting.”
Kilroy raised the point that since she’d been in Cairns calling for an end to a new children’s prison, the government has gone on to announce a plan for another within the Woodford Correctional Precinct, which she described as “horrifying”, as its to be built right next to an adult male facility.
“So, the children can look out their cell windows and see what their future is, which will be that men’s prison,” she added.
The government outlines that the new youth gaols are necessitated due to a growing population, ageing infrastructure, and the “tough new laws introduced… to target young offenders”. And it’s further ensured that kids will be detained longer, so they can complete rehabilitation programs.
Sisters Inside chief executive officer Debbie Kilroy
Abuse of kids par for the course
Townsville’s Cleveland child prison recently came under international scrutiny, due to its having held a 13-year-old First Nations boy in solitary confinement for 45 out of a total of 60 days spent inside, 22 of which were consecutive. And the UN stipulates that isolation should never be used on youths.
The harming of children inside, whether that be via permitted prison practices or straight out physical, mental and sexual abuse, is rife right across this nation, with prominent recent examples having occurred at WA’s Banksia Hill, Tasmanian’s Ashley gaol, and the NT’s notorious Don Dale.
Currently, all states and territories imprison kids as young as 10. And whilst laws to raise the age of criminal responsibility have been, or are about to be, passed in several jurisdictions, this is after decades of resistance from politicians seeking to keep the imprisonment of youngsters an option.
According to Kilroy, the drastic measures being taken in Queensland at present are all in response to a small number of First Nations children whose families have been cast out onto the streets with no supports or access to social services and then being demonised by the state, its police and vigilantes.
The Sisters Inside founder further relates that she’s just returned from a meeting of formerly incarcerated women and girls in Colombia, where the newly-elected government is seriously considering abolition, and has drafted legislation to end the incarceration of women and girls.
A world without prisons
Sisters Inside is about to hold its 10th international prison abolition conference in Meanjin-Brisbane in early November, which will feature an array of abolitionists from across the planet, with the most prominent participants being professors Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore.
Abolitionists call for an end to the use of facilities to incarcerate people. This entails a whole-of-society transformation, whereby the underlying conditions that produce crime, such as inequality and racism, are recognised and dismantled, leading to an end to any supposed need for gaols.
After decades of remaining on the fringe, prison abolition became mainstream over the pandemic period, in conjunction with a global surge in the Black Lives Matter movement following further US police killings of Black civilians, which raised questions as to the roles police and incarceration play.
“Abolition has got traction here. And there’s been conversation over the pandemic, since the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor,” explained Kilroy.
“However, we need to harness that, and we need the younger generation to understand abolition in practice, because many people are saying they are abolitionist but are still calling for a reformist agenda,” the lawyer added.
“Thinking outside the bars”
In terms of Queensland, Sisters Inside has been actively working to guide the rebuilding of local communities, via programs like its end toxic prisons campaign. And its recent transformative work has incorporated elders, Aboriginal-controlled organisations and even vigilantes.
The nongovernment organisation has also lobbied the Palaszczuk government to expand its Yangah program, which is a bail scheme that ensures that girls in southeast Queensland don’t end up stewing in local watchhouses prior to the finalisation of their cases.
And the Sisters Inside campaign against the tough on youth crime measures that have been introduced over the last six months, has resulted in the community questioning the crackdown approach being taken by government.
So, in response to this pushback, the Queensland parliament held three sitting days in Cairns last week, in a move that was perceived as an effort to curry favour.
“They packed up their bags, went to Cairns, held parliament there and threw hundreds of millions of dollars at the community in return for their silence, so they can build a prison,” explained Kilroy. “It is not going to work. People know that prisons don’t work.”
“People know that children are harmed in children’s prisons, and we’ve actually got to start thinking outside the bars and demanding the government acts outside the bars and not continue to build bars,” the prison abolitionist said in conclusion.