• Abby Zappa

Australia's Incarceration of Indigenous Children

Updated: Sep 3

In the spirit of reconciliation I, and on behalf Respond Australia, acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of country throughout Australia and their connections to land, sea and community. We pay our respect to their Elders past and present and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples today.


I understand that I am coming into this space from a position of power and privilege, gained through unjust systems that marginalise and oppress Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.



Don Dale Youth Detention Centre, Northern Territory

Credit: APP/NEDA VANOVAC


As this blog is released, Australia is holding approximately 949 young Australians in detention. Of these 949 children, approximately 87% are aged between 10-17, 63% being unsentenced and 53% being Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.


These aren’t merely statistics, they are children deprived of their childhood and their freedom. The following statistics demonstrate the overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in Australia's criminal justice system. A system that continues to marginalise the people of the oldest, continuing living culture in the world.


According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), while the amount of sentenced youths in detention declined between 2015-19, the amount who were being detained without any formal charges increased. This can be seen in the AIHW report released in February this year, which outlines the decline of sentenced youth detainees from 42% in the September quarter of 2018, to 35% in the March quarter of 2019. Meanwhile, the aggregate of young people in unsentenced detention escalated from 430 children in the former quarter to 619 in the latter.


From this perspective, we can observe the unfair treatment of children who have not yet been found guilty of any form of criminal offence; in other words they are ‘on remand’.



Black Lives Matter protest, Melbourne CBD, 2020


According to Amnesty International; of the children in Queensland prisons, approximately 86% are currently on remand. In which the situation is worse for Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander children, who spend an average of 71 days in detention on remand, compared to 50 days for non-Indigenous children.


According to Corrections Victoria, "remanding an offender in custody ensures that the alleged offender attends their trial". However, for many children, remand can mean a lot more than just awaiting trial. For instance, Amnesty International released a report on May 12, 2019 uncovering the happenings of the Brisbane City Watch House -- a facility designed to hold adults for short periods of time after they are arrested. Amnesty International stated that "watch houses are being used as a stop-gap to compensate for an at-capacity youth prison system and Queensland's notoriously backlogged Children's Court. As of 10 May 2019, there were 89 children in the Brisbane City Watch House... At least half of these children are Indigenous and at least three were just ten years of age. One of the boys had been there for 43 days, despite the Queensland law dictating no child may even stay one night in the Brisbane Watch House."


If this doesn't already portray the extent to which detention centres are abusing the rights of children, the above report went on to state the discovery of "2,655 breaches of domestic and international law" within this watch house. As displayed below.


Breaches of law within the Brisbane City Watch House.

Credit: Amnesty International


The true extent of this issue was also uncovered in the Four Corners documentary "Australia's Shame", released in July 2016. The episode focuses on the inhumane treatment of young people in the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in the Northern Territory. This report unveiled the reality of "a prison system that locks up 10 year olds and places children as young as 13 in solitary confinement." This broadcast triggered the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory.


However, since this Royal Commission, youth incarceration rates, according to the AIHW have increased. Climbing from"just over 900 young people in detention on an average night in the June quarter 2016", to the aforementioned 949 young Australians in detention, recorded by the AIHW during 2019.




One of the organisations working to combat Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander incarceration is the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS). VALS are on call 24/7, through Client Service Officers, who "act as a bridge between the legal system and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community." VALS has supported 3574 clients to date.


Both the youth incarceration age and the standards of so called detention centres must be lifted. As stated by Dr Howard Bath, former NT Children's Commissioner, in the Four Corners documentary; "this is barbarism, this is inhumane, this is child abuse."


If we are to achieve a more just world, the inhumane treatment of these children must end. We can be a part of making this a reality. Here are a few ways to take action against this issue:

- Sign the #RaiseTheAge petition to join the call in raising the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14: https://www.raisetheage.org.au/#petition

- Sign Amnesty International's petition "stop locking up 10 year olds in prison": https://action.amnesty.org.au/act-now/raise-the-age

- Amnesty International's petition to call on the Prime Minister:

https://action.amnesty.org.au/act-now/cie-national-plan-of-action-kids-in-detention

- Make the pledge through ANTaR to "change the record": https://antar.org.au/antar.org.au/changetherecord?qt-news_media_events=2





Further information & references:

https://www.abc.net.au/4corners/australias-shame-promo/7649462

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UCJYlFHvlYU

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xWOppPEoqDM

https://www.amnesty.org.au/watch-houses/

https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/youth-justice/youth-detention-population-in-australia-2019/contents/table-of-contents

https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/youth-justice/youth-detention-population-in-australia-2016/contents/table-of-contents

https://www.amnesty.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/Amnesty_International__Australia_Report_2015_16.pdf

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-07-29/juvenile-inmates-say-constant-strip-searches-bad-mental-health/11354752

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-09-05/ombudsmans-scathing-review-of-youth-detention/11481000

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-08-21/coronavirus-queensland-wacol-youth-detention-centre-in-lockdown/12564750

https://www.aihw.gov.au/getmedia/43d09313-dd45-4e75-ab0a-2120bced776f/jjia05-06-x01.pdf.aspx#:~:text=The%20Court%20must%20not%20order,than%2015%20years%20of%20age.&text=If%20the%20Supreme%20Court%20remits,the%20offence%20in%20that%20Court.

https://humanrights.gov.au/our-work/education/aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islanders-australias-first-peoples












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