Queensland urged to appoint independent justice inspector after minors locked down

The Queensland Human Rights Commission has called for the state to urgently appoint an independent inspector to oversee its prisons and youth detention centres, as detainees, including teenagers, have been locked down and largely confined to their cells.

Guardian Australia can also reveal the Ipswich police watch house is being used to house children and teenagers placed on remand for an indefinite period, after a coronavirus outbreak was linked to several guards at the Brisbane Youth Detention Centre.

The placement of minors in police watch houses has been a controversial practice in Queensland, after revelations children were being held for long periods and concerns about their treatment. The state government had promised to stop using police cells to accommodate young people in the youth detention system.

For those who remain in the Brisbane Youth Detention Centre, some are understood to be in effective solitary confinement. Their advocates are growing increasingly concerned that the restriction on visitors means a lack of oversight.

Scott McDougall, the Queensland human rights commissioner, told the Guardian the commission had a longstanding concern about the holding of children in watch houses.

“I remain worried about the potential for serious harm to be caused to children through their prolonged confinement in watch house holding pens,” he said.

“We acknowledge that the Department of Youth Justice faces extraordinary challenges in responding to the Covid-19 pandemic – they have done an excellent job so far to prevent a major outbreak in youth detention centres, particularly given the challenges caused by the centre of the latest cluster.

“However, the use of adult watch houses to detain children for lengthy periods of time does deny them some of their special human rights as children, and in particular their right to humane treatment when deprived of liberty.

“Action is needed now to remove these children from watch houses as soon as possible and to ensure alternative arrangements are put in place to help deal with future outbreaks or times of risk.”

McDougall said there was an “urgent need” for the state to establish an independent inspector for prisons and youth detention centres, with proactive and preventative powers.

“The challenges posed by Covid-19 demand it, as do the international human rights agreements Australia has signed up to, including the Optional Protocol on the Convention Against Torture. Greater transparency and oversight of places of detention is important for both detainee and worker safety, and to enhance community confidence.”

The Department of Youth Justice says it has not moved any detainees at the Brisbane centre to watch houses, but that the Ipswich watch house is being temporarily used “as a child-only facility” for young people placed on remand by the courts.

“The facility is being supported by experienced youth justice staff,” a department spokeswoman said.

“The facility is providing wrap around physical and mental health, education and other support services as would be provided in a youth detention centre. The Queensland Family and Child Commission inspected the Ipswich watch house facilities prior to the admission of young people.”

In response to concerns that young people have been largely restricted to their cells in the Brisbane Youth Detention Centre, the department said all young people in the centre have been able to leave their rooms for structured activities “where safe to do so”, and that they have access to fresh air, sunlight and modified educational programs.

“Caseworkers and psychology team staff have been visiting and supporting young people in their sections. Further support has been provided by health professionals.”

However, concern remains that the restricted environment within the centre leaves children in vulnerable circumstances.

Prisoner advocate Debbie Kilroy, from the group Sisters Inside, told the Guardian last week she had been unable to gain permission to enter the Brisbane Youth Detention Centre.

Kilroy and Amnesty International have called for the release of young people in detention into safe, appropriate accommodation.

Joel Clark, a campaigner for Amnesty, said solitary confinement for youths was a breach of international law.

Clark said the Queensland government had initially promised reform of youth justice, in response to revelations about the use of watch houses. But with an election looming, the Palaszczuk government has pivoted to a “tough on crime” stance that risks placing more young people in detention.

Campaigners are concerned that any tough-line approach to youth detention would disproportionately affect Indigenous youth. In 2018-19, Indigenous children accounted for 72% of the youth detention population in Queensland, despite Indigenous Australians only making up 4% of the state’s population.

“At the end of the day we want fewer kids in detention,” Clark said. “With the government backflipping, they missed an opportunity to be that. Kids should not be in prison. They should be in programs that address the source of their behaviour.

“They’ve now had to resort to putting kids back into watch houses because of that mismanagement.”