October 7, 2010
The state has failed to protect its most vulnerable youth.
ADULT offenders are imprisoned, at least in part, for the protection of society. With young offenders it is supposed to be the other way round: they are detained to protect them from harmful influences. As a report presented to Parliament yesterday by state Ombudsman George Brouwer abundantly and distressingly demonstrates, however, that is not how the Melbourne Youth Justice Precinct in Parkville has operated.
The inquiry by Mr Brouwer’s staff, carried out in response to a whistleblower’s allegations earlier this year, prompted further statements by other staff, alleging physical assaults on detainees by colleagues, incitement of detainees to assault each other, and colleagues’ collusion with detainees in bringing various forms of contraband into the precinct, including cigarettes and lighters, improvised sharp objects and illicit drugs.
Staff in the precinct, which houses detainees as young as 10, were found to be inadequately trained and supervised. Nearly 40 per cent of present and former staff had no ”working with children checks”, the mandatory security clearances intended to prevent people who pose a risk to children from working with them, listed on their personnel files. The site itself was found to be overcrowded and poorly maintained: bedrooms, bathrooms and kitchens were often unsanitary, electrical fittings dangerous and a lack of closed-circuit TV surveillance made common areas unsafe. The report is a picture of total failure by the Department of Human Services, which administers the precinct and has rightly accepted all 27 of Mr Brouwer’s recommendations. These include possible replacement of the precinct’s two facilities, the Melbourne Youth Justice Centre and the Melbourne Youth Residential Centre.
The report’s case studies make horrific reading. They tell of a detainee being bashed by others, allegedly with the approval of staff, and of another who twice attempted suicide, the second time by hanging. He was saved by another detainee who had first tried unsuccessfully to summon the staff who were supposed to be nearby. These are the sorts of incidents that most people would associate with Hollywood films of prison life or with the grim jails of Australia’s convict era, not with a modern institution intended to protect young offenders and begin their rehabilitation. The two facilities in the precinct are not, however, the modern institutions Victorians might have imagined them to be. As Mr Brouwer notes, unlike adult jails, they are not subject to oversight and inspection by external bodies such as the Office of Correctional Services Review and the Official Visitors program for Victorian prisoners. In consequence, many detainees in the precinct have been subject to unchecked abuse of their human rights.
Judging conditions in the precinct against the standard of human rights does, however, offer some light amid the gloom. Those who question whether Victoria’s Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities, and Australia’s adherence to external instruments such as the UN Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of their Liberty, are effective safeguards should read Mr Brouwer’s report, which exemplifies how the charter is supposed to work. Conditions and practices in the precinct are measured against its provisions, and the violations and abuses identified by that standard in turn shape the remedies the Ombudsman recommends.
That may seem cold comfort for the young detainees who have already suffered within a system intended to protect them. Complying with the charter, however, will help to prevent future institutions from failing vulnerable young people so abysmally; for it is clear from Mr Brouwer’s report that the existing institutions are not up to the job.