Outcry as 16-year-old locked in adult prison

Issue 
A Port Phillip prison cell. Corrections Victoria allegedly chose to detain a teen in solitary confinement.

Calls for greater transparency for the Victorian legal system have been issued after it was revealed a 16-year-old Aboriginal boy was locked in solitary confinement for almost four months in an adult prison.

Following an escape attempt from Parkville Youth Justice Precinct in July, the boy was transferred to Port Phillip Prison. He was held in a cell for 22 hours a day, and allowed only two hours in the exercise yard while handcuffed.

The treatment is in breach of the Victorian Human Rights Charter.

The executive director of the Federation of Community Legal Centres, Hugh de Kretser, told Green Left Weekly that “under the Human Rights Charter, there’s a protection around the conditions of detention, they need to be humane, in broad terms, and locking up a 16 year old for four months in  effective solitary confinement has got to be a breach of that protection.”

He said international human rights law prohibits the mix of juvenile and adult prisoners. Since scrutiny into the case, two other 17-year-old boys placed in the same unit have been transferred back to juvenile detention. 

“The risk is under the current framework this could happen again,” says de Kretser. “For all I know it may be happening right now.”
 
“We want to see much clearer information about how often this is occurring. There is some information there in the Youth Parole Board but it’s inadequate.”

There is little information about how many youths are placed in the adult prison system. Several organisations, such as Amnesty International, the Federation of Community Legal Centres and the Australian Human Rights Commission have called for more transparency and accountability.

“The acting corrections minister said on the ABC's 7.30 ... that there will be at least some kind of review of the placement of these boys  in the high security unit,” de Kretser said. “But the extent of that review is unknown and there is certainly no commitment that the outcome of the review will be made public, so it certainly falls short of what you would expect in terms of proper accountability

“It’s a failure of proper scrutiny and accountability. It reflects on the lack of proper legal protections to prevent human rights breaches like this.”

It is believed that Corrections Victoria of the Department of Justice was responsible for placing the teenagers in the adult prison system.
 
De Kretser said that the Human Rights Charter binds these institutions, yet these decisions seriously breach human rights. He wants a body set up, independent of the Department of Justice, to investigate this case and uncover if similar instances may be occurring.

“Over the course of my career in legal centres, we’ve seen time and time again inadequate scrutiny and accountability leads to the human rights breaches, and that in turn jeopardises community safety.

“If people want people in jail to have every chance to rehabilitate, then conditions need to be humane. And certainly not to help someone live a crime free life on release if they’ve spent months and months in solitary confinement, which on any view, causes extreme mental distress.

“There’s been a recent report highlighting the mental distress that solitary confinement causes on people.”

He said it’s not just about the humane treatment as a moral imperative. “It’s also vital to community safety. It’s in everyone’s interest that we get this right.

“At the moment there’s a body set up to monitor the corrections system, but it’s an internal unit within the Department of Justice and we’ve had repeated criticisms of that body.

“So what there needs to be is a proper independent body, well resourced with expertise, to ensure that there is proper accountability and scrutiny and human conditions in prisons in Victoria, and across Australia.”