An illustration of a boy being knelt on

Victorian children report facing Don Dale-style abuse in adult prison

Warning: Strong content

Victoria is often referred to as one of Australia’s most progressive states. However, with children as young as 15 being sent to Barwon adult prison – a maximum-security prison for Victoria’s most notorious adult offenders – and allegedly facing abuse, Victoria is failing some of its most vulnerable children.

According to the Human Rights Law Centre, right now at least 10 children, aged 15 to 17 are being held in Barwon prison on the outskirts of Geelong, Victoria. If you think it’s strange for kids to be in an adult prison – it is – and also very much a human rights violation. Despite this, kids have been sent to Barwon since November last year.

Caleb [not his real name], a 17-year old who was sent to Barwon prison for two months, told The Herald Sun what life was like for a child inside an adult prison.

“For me, Barwon was the worst place I have ever been,” he wrote in a letter. “It is an adult prison. Some days I was locked up for more than 23 hours alone in a tiny concrete cell. Sometimes this happened for days.”

“I know people feel scared about kids committing crimes and I get that. But I think putting kids in an adult jail … is just going to make them come out worse.”

What are the allegations of abuse at Barwon?

The allegations of abuse at Barwon prison are reminiscent of those from the NT’s Don Dale youth detention centre we saw on Four Corners last year.

According to the children’s lawyers, some kids have been locked down in their cells for up to 23 hours a day. When some kids are let out of their cells, they are handcuffed. We heard that in the one short hour a child was released from his cell he was forced to butter his toast in handcuffs.

Some children reported that officers deliberately pepper sprayed boys who weren’t involved in any disturbance – just eating dinner.

Others allege guards knelt on children’s backs while others held their face to the floor and incapacitated their arms and legs. The boys have reportedly been left with visible injuries, including bruising after this alleged use of excessive force.

In another alleged incident, guards brought German shepherd dogs into the unit and reportedly into a child’s cell as a form of intimidation.

Police are now investigating allegations that corrections staff assaulted nine children. A human rights lawyer representing the boys said, “At Barwon, children have been isolated for days and even weeks at a time. They are going mad in their cells.”

What needs to happen?

A Victorian court confirmed three months ago that it was against the law for children to be sent to Barwon prison, because the Minister for Youth Affairs, Jenny Mikakos​ did not consider their developmental needs when she sent them there.

The Victorian Government tried to get around this by renaming the Grevillia Unit of the Barwon facility a youth detention centre. However, a name change doesn’t make this an appropriate facility.

The Human Rights Law Centre have launched a fresh challenge against the legality of sending kids to Barwon.

This challenge starts Monday 3 April. But Victoria’s Premier Daniel Andrews doesn’t need to wait to do the right thing. If Victoria wants to maintain its moniker of a ‘progressive state’, Premier Andrews needs to remove children from Barwon’s adult prison immediately.

Kids are some of our most vulnerable members of our society; there is simply no justification for a child’s mistreatment. We need humane, age-appropriate facilities that help these kids to rehabilitate and rejoin their families and communities. Barwon Prison does the opposite.