Horror revelations from Barwon Prison show we’re going the wrong way to fix the system

Jesuit Social Services says Victoria’s besieged youth justice system is heading in the direction of the Northern Territory before the Royal Commission was announced, following new revelations from the Human Rights Law Centre about the treatment of young people in the adult Barwon Prison.

“Less than a year ago the nation was rightly horrified by the treatment of vulnerable children in the Northern Territory when we saw footage of abuse and brutalization within Don Dale,” says Jesuit Social Services CEO Julie Edwards.

“It is staggering to know that Victoria’s youth justice system is showing signs of heading in a similar direction. The stories we’ve heard today about young people being sprayed with capsicum spray, being beaten and injured by guards, and the disturbing report of a young person attempting to take his own life, are both horrifying and heartbreaking.

“Three months ago when the Government announced it would transfer a small number of young people to Barwon Prison, we said that children and young people in the youth justice system did not belong in an adult prison and that this move would not solve the well-publicised problems it was experiencing. We now know that’s correct. In fact it looks like it has exacerbated the problem.

“There is no justification for the appalling treatment of these young people, and it is severely jeopardising their chances of rehabilitation and is ultimately threatening community safety.”

Ms Edwards says the Government must look at the evidence of what works with young offenders.

“Everything we know from 40 years of working with young people involved in the justice system demonstrates that we must engage with them at a personal level, supporting and monitoring them to turn their lives around. When custody is necessary they should not be in a large institutional environment that further institutionalises them and compounds the already serious issues they face. Evidence of what works highlights the need for safe, secure settings where they get to face the underlying causes of their offending, learn to take responsibility for their behaviour and develop the skills necessary for further learning, employment and life back in the community. ”

Ms Edwards says that the young people at Barwon remain under the care of the Department of Health and Human Services until April, when responsibility for the system is transferred to the Department of Justice and Regulation, and that the Minister and current Department must provide greater oversight to protect the young people at Barwon.

Media enquiries – Kathryn Kernohan, 0409 901 248 or kathryn.kernohan@jss.org.au