31,000 Qld Children Were Put Into Solitary Confinement Last Year — 84% Of Them Were Indigenous


Advocates are once again calling to overhaul Queensland’s youth justice system after new figures revealed almost 31,000 children in the state’s youth detention centres were placed into solitary confinement in the past 12 months, 84 per cent of which were First Nations.

Between June 2021 and June 2022, 30,857 separations (the Queensland Government’s term for placing a person into isolation) were carried out. 25,800 separations involved First Nations children aged 10 to 17, and 2,863 involved children under the age of 14.

The vast majority of separations lasted between six and 12 hours, but 83 lasted multiple days.

“It makes me feel sick,” Gunggari person and Amnesty International Australia campaigner Maggie Munn told PEDESTRIAN.TV. 

“The system is so harmful to children and Indigenous kids. Then add in the complexity of having a pre-existing condition, trauma or being Blak in this system, and then add the fact that you’re going to spend hours and hours in solitary confinement for no clear reason, it’s disgusting.”

Separation is taking a child from their regular group or setting and placing them into a separate, isolated cell where they are deprived of interaction and their regular rights like yard time.

Separation lasts however long the corrections officers deem is appropriate.

The two most common reasons a child is separated are because they are at risk of, or are, causing harm to others or themself. 

But Munn said using isolation as a response to threats of self-harm or suicide actually caused more damage.

“While it may seem like the best outcome for a child who is hurting themself, it is the worst possible thing for a mentally unwell person’s psychological safety,” they said.

There is absolutely no need to put a child with complex mental health, complex trauma, complex needs — behavioural, physical or otherwise — in a situation that is only going to exacerbate that.”

Solitary confinement as punishment has been common practice in prisons around the world and dates back to the 1830s. But the psychological detriments of isolation on children are well-documented and accepted.

A 2014 Washington University study found the psychological effects of youth solitary confinement were far more dramatic than on adults and commonly resulted in depression, anger, obsessive thoughts, paranoia and psychosis, or suicide.

The American Civil Liberties Union reported in 2017 youth solitary confinement was especially dangerous due to children’s brain development.

“Because their brains are still developing, children are highly susceptible to the prolonged psychological stress that comes from being isolated in prisons and jails. This stress can inhibit development of parts of the brain — such as the pre-frontal cortex which governs impulse control — causing irreparable damage,” the report read.

The practice is illegal under international human rights law, and 23 states in the US have enacted statutes that limit or prohibit its use. In Australia, some states are taking steps to outlaw juvenile isolation. Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass conducted research of incarcerated 18 to 24-year-olds in 2019 and found “youth justice systems are being damaged rather than rehabilitated through excessive use of isolation”.

Solitary confinement is cruel to everyone, Munn said, but for a First Nations child as young as 10 it could have worse effects.

“There is so much that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have experienced and the pain of that lives on in all of us,” they said. 

“There’s the trauma they’re experiencing at an intergenerational level, they may have complex needs, they’ve probably been experienced to stuff you wouldn’t want kiddies exposed to — whether that’s a loved one also going through the system, over-policing or police brutality or just being Blak in Australia — and those things set so many of us up for pain and trauma.” 

But five years after the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory following human rights abuses at Don Dale Detention Centre, and 31 years after the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths In Custody, not much has changed. In fact, First Nations children are being incarcerated at an increasing rate in 2022 and the age of incarceration remains at 10 nationwide — one of the youngest in the world — despite years of fierce campaigning.

The shocking new Queensland figures were read in parliament last month by Leanne Linard, Minister for Children and Youth Justice and Minister for Multicultural Affairs, in response to questioning from Greens MP Michael Berkman.

“It’s incredibly alarming that Queensland youth prisons are routinely putting primary school-aged children in isolation,” Berkman told PEDESTRIAN.TV.

“This is yet another example of how systemic racism taints every corner of our so-called justice system here in Queensland. First Nations kids are disproportionately locked up younger, for longer periods, and in worse conditions, including in adult watch houses and isolation rooms.”

Under Australia’s Human Rights Act children have a right to be with their family, access education and practise their culture or religion. Advocates say the Queensland government continues to violate those rights.

“I’m genuinely terrified that the next death in custody is going to be one of our kids and if that happens every single government, state, territory and federal, will have blood on their hands — they already do,” Munn said. 

Whether they’re 17 or 10, they’re children. They deserve to be in school not in these positions. 

“I don’t know what more it’s going to take for people to take us seriously and get our kids out of these places.” 

Help is available. 

If you need mental health support, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or chat online.

Under 25? You can reach Kids Helpline at 1800 55 1800 or chat online.

You can also reach the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467 or chat online.

If you require immediate assistance, please call 000.