A Melbourne-based not-for-profit has welcomed a court ruling that last week found the detention of children in an adult maximum security prison unlawful.
The Human Rights Law Centre (HRLC) brought a legal action against the Victorian government in February, after a group of alleged child offenders had been transferred to Barwon maximum security prison. Some of the child inmates were as young as 15 years old and the majority of the 20 detainees were being held on remand in pre-trial detention.
At the time the HRLC commenced the action, HRLC executive director Hugh de Kretser said that community safety was ultimately at risk by keeping child offenders in such conditions.
The treatment of children who were detained in Barwon’s adult facilities included the authorised use by guards of control measures such as tear gas, capsicum spray and expandable batons. Mr de Kretser said that subjecting children to such actions damaged their prospects of rehabilitation.
The HRLC also alleged that child offenders were kept in “ongoing solitary confinement”, handcuffed for extensive periods of time and denied a proper education.
“At a time when governments around the country are improving youth justice systems after seeing the horrors of Don Dale, the Andrews government is headed in the opposite direction. Using Barwon prison to lock up children is bad for the children and bad for community safety,” Mr de Kretser said.
“At Barwon prison we’re seeing […] the use of capsicum spray by adult prison staff and the hospitalisation of a 16-year-old boy after the government ignored our warnings to transfer him. We know at least two boys have self-harmed,” he said.
The court’s latest decision prohibits the government from using Barwon as a “youth justice facility”.
Last week’s decision follows an earlier decision made by the Supreme Court last year, which found the Victorian government did not properly consider the human rights of children in detention or other important issues concerning the wellbeing of youth offenders.
The Victorian government responded to the earlier court ruling by choosing to proceed with the detention of youths at Barwon and reclassifying a unit at the prison as a “youth justice facility”. According to the HRLC, the government’s decision to continue with the same youth dentition arrangements was announced on 29 December 2016.
The Supreme Court ruled last week that the reclassification of Barwon’s Grevillea Unit as a “youth justice facility” was unlawful.
HRLC lawyer Alina Leikin described the decision as an important win for children’s rights and Human Rights Charter of Victoria.
“The government must now do the right thing and immediately get all kids out of Barwon and into lawful, humane, age-appropriate youth facilities. The focus must be on showing these kids that better options exist and giving them pathways to become productive members of our community,” said Ms Leikin.
“It was always a terrible mistake to send them there, it’s now been confirmed yet again that it was unlawful,” she said.
Barristers Brian Walters QC, Matthew Albert, Sarala Fitzgerald and Adam McBeth led the legal team representing the HRLC.