Sisters Inside says alternatives exist to Palaszczuk’s youth ‘crime’ crackdown

May 22, 2023
The campaign to close Don Dale youth detention centre is growing. Photo: Close Don Dale NOW/Facebook

Queensland’s Annastacia Palaszczuk government announced on May 11 it plans to build another children’s jail in Woodford, next door to the adult maximum-security facility. It comes after it decided last October to build another children’s prison in Cairns.

If you are wondering where the Sunshine State will find the people to imprison, do not fear: a package of draconian youth justice laws, enacted in March, will ensure there will be no shortage of bodies.

The laws mean repeat offenders now face tougher sentencing principles. They also expand the list of offences where the presumption is against bail and they reinstate breach of bail as a youth offence — the latter which required the government to override its Human Rights Act 2019.

Sisters Inside, a grassroots organisation for the rights of incarcerated women and girls, is campaigning against Labor’s “tough on youth crime” push. It said it will hold the government to account for any human rights violations.

The group was in Cairns in April campaigning with locals to reject the new prison proposal and look to viable community options for those who break the law. This would not only help heal the kids, but the entire community: a jail 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’,” Debbie Kilroy from Sisters Inside told Sydney Criminal Lawyers.

“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 said.

“So, the target of the government’s policy is racial/gendered violence and that’s the result they’re getting.”

Kilroy said that since she’d been in Cairns calling for an end to a new children’s prison, the government had announced a plan for another one within the Woodford Correctional Precinct, which she described as “horrifying”.

It will be built right next to an adult male facility “so the children can look out their cell windows and see what their future is — that men’s prison”.

The government says the new youth jails are necessary due to a growing population, ageing infrastructure and the “tough new laws introduced … to target young offenders”.

Further, it has ensured that kids will be detained longer, so they can complete rehabilitation programs.

Abuse of kids par for the course

Townsville’s Cleveland child prison recently came under international scrutiny because it held a 13-year-old First Nations boy in solitary confinement for 45 out of 60 days inside, 22 of which were consecutive.

The United Nations stipulates that youth should never be put into isolation.

The harming of children inside, whether that be via permitted prison practices or straight out physical, mental and sexual abuse, is rife however, with prominent recent examples in Western Australia’s Banksia HillTasmania’s Ashley jail and the Northern Territory’s notorious Don Dale.

All states and territories imprison kids, as young as 10. While 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 are a response to a small number of First Nations children, whose families have been cast out onto the streets. Without supports or access to social services, they have then being demonised by the state, and its police and media.

Kilroy said she had 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 will hold its 10th international prison abolition conference in Meanjin/Brisbane in early November. It will feature an array of abolitionists from across the world, with the most prominent participants being professors Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore.

Abolitionists want an end to the incarceration of people. This entails a whole-of-society transformation, whereby conditions that lead to crime, such as inequality and racism, are recognised and dismantled.

After decades of being on the fringe, the prison abolition campaign has become more prominent during the pandemic as the Black Lives Matter movement has also grown.

“Abolition has got traction here. And there’s been conversation over the pandemic, since the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor,” Kilroy said.

“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.”

‘Thinking outside the bars’

Sisters Inside has been working to guide the rebuilding of local communities in Queensland, via its “End toxic prisons” campaign. Its recent transformative work has included elders, Aboriginal-controlled organisations and even “vigilantes”.

The NGO has also lobbied the Palaszczuk government to expand its Yangah program — a bail scheme that ensures that girls in South-East Queensland do not end up in local watch houses prior to the finalisation of their cases.

The Sisters Inside campaign against the “tough on youth crime” measures introduced over the last six months has led to the community questioning the government’s approach.

In response, parliament held three sitting days in Cairns recently — a move Kilroy said was an effort to appease concerns.

“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,” Kilroy said.

“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 got to start thinking outside the bars and demanding the government acts outside the bars.”

[Paul Gregoire writes for Sydney Criminal Lawyers, where this article was first published.]

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