Locking up children has serious mental health implications and contributes to increased recidivism


This article by Professor Pat Dudgeon of the School of Indigenous Studies, Center of Best Practice in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention, and the Poche Center for Indigenous Health at the University of Western Australia, EE Pin Chang of the University of Western Australia, Jemma Collova from the University of Western Australia and Dr Summer May Finlay from the University of Wollongong first appeared on The Conversation on November 18, 2022.

This article contains information about the violence experienced by First Nations youth in the Australian prison system. There are mentions of racist terms, and this piece also mentions self-harm, trauma, and suicide.

The ABC Four Corners report ‘Locking up Kids’ details the horrific conditions of young Aboriginal people in Western Australia’s juvenile justice system.

The report was nothing new. In 2016, Four Corners detailed the brutalization of Aborigines in the Northern Territory’s Don Dale Youth Detention Centre, in its episode “Australia’s Shame”. Also in 2016, Amnesty International detailed the abuses suffered by children in juvenile detention centers in Queensland.

Children should play, swim, run and explore life. They have no place behind bars. Yet on any given day in 2020-21, an average of 4,695 young people were incarcerated in Australia. Most of the youth incarcerated are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander.

Although Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth in WA make up only 6.7% of the population, they make up over 70% of the youth held in Banksia Hill Juvenile Detention Center in Perth.

The reasons why so many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are detained have to do with the impacts of colonization, such as intergenerational trauma, persistent racism, discrimination and unresolved issues related to self-determination.

The Four Corners documentary alleged that children in detention were exposed to abuse, torture, solitary confinement and other degrading treatment such as ‘folding’, which involves bending a person’s legs behind them before sitting on them – we saw a grown man sitting on a child’s legs like this in the documentary.

The documentary also revealed that Indigenous youth were more likely to be held in solitary confinement, which left them powerless. Racism was also used as a form of abuse, with security calling young inmates apes and monkeys. One of the young men held at Banksia Hill said the treatment he received made him consider suicide.

What is the impact of incarceration on the mental health of young people?

Many young people enter juvenile detention with pre-existing neurocognitive disorders (such as Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder), trauma and poor mental health. More than 80% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth in a Queensland detention center reported mental health issues.

Data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare revealed that more than 30% of young prisoners were survivors of abuse or neglect. Rather than supporting the most vulnerable within our community, the Australian justice system imprisons traumatized and often developmentally compromised young people.

Research has shown that pre-existing mental health issues are likely exacerbated by experiences during incarceration, such as isolation, boredom and victimization.

This inhuman treatment results in re-traumatization of the effects of colonization and racism, with feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness and low self-esteem.

The detention of young people is also associated with an increased risk of suicide, psychiatric disorders and drug and alcohol abuse.

The confinement of young people during their crucial developmental years also has long-term impacts. These include poor emotional development, poor academic performance and poorer mental health in adulthood. As adults, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people after liberation are ten times more likely to die than the general population, with suicide being the leading cause of death.

You don’t have to look far to see the devastating effects of incarceration on mental health. Last year alone, 320 cases of self-harm were reported at Banksia Hill, WA’s only youth detention centre.

Locking up children increases the risk of recidivism

The incarceration of young offenders is also associated with future criminal behavior and continued contact with the justice system.

Without proper post-release rehabilitation and support, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth often return to the same conditions that created the offending patterns in the first place.

Earlier this year, the head of Perth Children’s Court, Judge Hylton Quail, condemned the treatment of a youngster in custody at Banksia Hill, saying:

“When you treat an injured child like an animal, he will behave like an animal. […] When you want to make a monster, that’s how you do it.”

Substantial changes are needed to the way young people who come into contact with the justice system are treated. We need governments to commit, as part of Closing the Gap, to change the whole system by:

1. Rrecognizing children should not be criminalized at age ten. The Raise the Age campaign calls for the minimum age of responsibility to be raised to 14 years. Early approaches to prevention and intervention are needed here. Children at risk of delinquency need to be supported appropriately, to reduce pathways to delinquency.

2. An approach to addressing Why Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth are locked up in such large numbers as is needed, pushed by the respective First Nations communities. This means investing in housing, health, education, transport and other essential services and crucial aspects of a person’s life. An example of this can be found in a pilot program in New South Wales called Redefining Reinvestment, which tackled the social determinants of incarceration using a community-based approach.

3. FFuture solutions must be trauma-informed and led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are not born criminals. They are born into systems that fail them, in a country that too often closes its eyes before locking them up.

The Australian Government must work with First Nations communities to ensure the safety and well-being of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, including our future generations.

If this article has caused you distress, please contact one of these helplines: 13yarn, Lifeline, Headspace.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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