Human rights abuses against kids
in the Brisbane City Police Watch House

Content Warning: contains descriptions of suicide, sexual harassment,
mistreatment and violence against children.

20 minute read

Amnesty International has analysed hundreds of official government documents obtained through multiple Right To Information applications. These documents revealed 2,655 breaches of international standards, Queensland regulations and the Queensland Police Operational Procedures Manual against children as young as 10 in the Brisbane City Watch House.

This information helped inform ABC’s Four Corners episode, Inside the Watch House: Kids behind bars.

As of 10 May 2019, there were 89 children in the Brisbane City Watch House, a facility designed to hold adults. At least half of these children are Indigenous and at least three were just ten years of age. One of the boys had been there for 43 days, despite Queensland law dictating no child may stay even one night in the Brisbane watch house. Four young girls were being held in isolation to protect them from other inmates.

Watch houses are built to hold adults for short periods of time after they are arrested, while they wait for their court hearing. They are staffed by police officers, and are generally attached to and run by police stations. They are not places children were ever meant to be kept in for even one night, let alone days, weeks or months.

The cells of the Brisbane City Watch House are very small. There is no direct sunlight. All a child has inside their cell is a wafer-thin mattress, and often no pillow. Each cell is designed for one person, but overcrowding means that kids are often locked up with another person, sometimes much older than them.

The documents Amnesty International gained tell stories of cell doors malfunctioning, closing on and, in one case, severing a child’s finger. Water fountains are covered in a green calcified substance, making them undrinkable. The design of the watch house means that children are sometimes kept in the eye-line of adult inmates, causing many children immense anxiety.

Why are children being held in
watch houses?

Watch houses are being used as a stop-gap to compensate for an at-capacity youth prison system and Queensland’s notoriously backlogged Children’s Court.

Of the children in Queensland prisons, approximately 86 per cent are currently ‘on remand’ — this means they are locked up even though they have not been found guilty or sentenced. And the situation is worse for Indigenous kids. They spend an average of 71 days in detention on remand, compared with 50 days for non-Indigenous children.

Kids were never meant to be in watch houses. Watch houses like Brisbane City are not properly resourced or regulated to care for children. While youth prisons in Queensland are held to account by the Youth Justice Act, the same laws do not apply to watch houses. For example, while a child in a youth prison may only be subjected to a half-and-half strip-search, the very same child may be completely strip searched by watch house police.

The government’s excuse for this lack of accountability is that children should only be held in watch houses temporarily, and never overnight, so those rights are not required — but we know from our investigation this is not the case.


Holding kids for extended periods in watch houses that are not equipped to care for them has led to a serious human rights crisis.

Amnesty’s investigation uncovered 2,655 breaches of domestic and international law, including keeping children in watch houses for illegal durations; failing to provide children with adequate clean clothes, underwear and personal hygiene products; the institutional use of violence; the use of isolation as a form of punishment; failure to provide adequate health and mental health care; and failure to provide access to adequate education.

While the human rights violations detailed below come only from the Brisbane City Watch House, Amnesty has reports from organisations, children and families which confirm that the same things are happening to children in many of Queensland’s 326 other watch houses.

Children held for illegal durations without proper care

Amnesty obtained evidence of children being held in the Brisbane City Watch House for days, weeks and even months. We also uncovered evidence of poor resourcing, including not providing adequate clean clothes, underwear, shampoo and conditioner, and an instance of police telling a child to choose between clean clothes and a phone call to family.

On 14 November 2018, Jake* spoke to a Community Visitor about his stay at the Brisbane City Watch House (*his name has been redacted to protect his identity). At that point, he had been held in the watch house for 20 days. During his stay, he was not given fresh clothing (a common complaint from children in watch houses) and had very little fresh air in his cell. Jake was yet to access any education services, while his classmates continued to learn and play outside the watch house. Despite not being due in court until 9 December 2018, he did not know when he would be released or transferred to the Brisbane Youth Detention Centre.

Amnesty received proof of the complaint the Community Visitor made after speaking with Jake. Community Visitors are independent representatives who speak to children in the care of the state to ensure that their welfare is properly protected.

Unfortunately, Jake’s experience is not uncommon for children in Brisbane’s watch house.


Children subject to institutional violence

Amnesty found evidence of institutional violence in watch houses. Where children must be incarcerated, they must also be protected from any violence, especially by police officers and other inmates. Even one instance of police brutality against a child should be cause for serious alarm.


Children kept in damaging isolation

Amnesty uncovered what appears to be common use of isolation as a disciplinary method. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture has been very clear on the isolation of children: it should be banned.

Read more

Limited access to health care and mental health support

Many of the children who enter watch houses like Brisbane’s suffer from intergenerational and childhood trauma and consequently poor mental health. Many find that their health continues to suffer once in their cell.

Amnesty’s investigation uncovered that, in the last 12 months, there were at least three suicide attempts made by children in the Brisbane watch house, and several more children such as Sam were put on suicide-watch. The suicide safety gowns they are forced to wear are degrading and cannot be worn with underwear.

Amnesty also uncovered stories of children suffering as a result of not having the correct medication. During a child’s stay, the police officers at the watch house and the supporting medical officers are solely responsible for the proper delivery of medication.

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Limited access to education

Amnesty obtained emails between the Queensland Department of Education and teachers working with incarcerated children that show Brisbane City Watch House is failing to enforce children’s right to education.

The Queensland’s Youth Justice Act (not enforceable in watch houses) mandates that all incarcerated children be given proper education, so that their incarceration assists their rehabilitation, rather than obstructing it. This is supported by the ‘Havana Rules’, which set out international standards for the treatment of incarcerated children.

Sarah*, a teacher, made a complaint to the Department of Education regarding the quality of education being delivered in the watch house. Having been unable to meet with her student once she was at the watch house, she emailed the Department, explaining her broader frustration with the program.

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The impact of trauma on kids development

What is the effect of all these human rights violations on the children that endure them?

Amnesty International’s Sky Is The Limit report details the compounding negative impact prison has on a child’s brain development:

Read more

The impact of Amnesty’s investigation so far

Following the results of our investigation, on 26 February 2019 Amnesty wrote to Queensland’s Minister for Child Safety, Di Farmer. In the letter, the National Director of Amnesty International, Claire Mallinson, outlined the human rights breaches being committed by the Brisbane City Watch House, and called for an end to the violations. We gave specific directions for what changes the Queensland Government must make to protect incarcerated children. These were :

  1. immediately release all children on remand back into the community and/or with family, where safe to do so, and work with the Department of Child Safety, Youth and Women, to find accommodation for those who need it;
  2. significantly expand Supervised Bail Accommodation Services in Queensland as soon as possible, to reduce the significant remand rates causing overcrowding at detention centres;
  3. legislate to uphold Appendix 16.8 of the Queensland Police Operational Procedures Manual as soon as possible; and
  4. legislate to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility to at least fourteen years of age.

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Keeping children in watch houses, or any form of incarceration, starves them of a childhood. It deprives them of community-based rehabilitative initiatives proven to be more effective at caring for children.

Tammy Solonec, a Nigena woman, lawyer, and the Indigenous Rights Lead at Amnesty International, explains why Indigenous-led solutions are so crucial in reforming the justice system.

Neither watch houses, nor youth prisons are places for a child to spend their childhood — they deserve to be in a classroom, with their friends, family, and community.

We must support community-led solutions to keep children out of incarceration. However, we also need governments to do their part and enact institutional reforms.

Read more

Take Action Now

Children do not belong in police watch houses or youth prisons. They need to be with their families and communities so that they have the best start to life possible. Sign the petition to help pressure the Queensland Government to remove children from its watch houses.

Sign the petition

Have your own story about watch houses from anywhere in Australia? We need you to help us hold governments to account so that every child can grow up in safety, surrounded by family, friends and community.

Please contact us at – we will keep your information confidential, but may be in touch for further information.


Amnesty International would like to thank the many Amnesty International staff, activists, caseworkers and interns who contributed to the research behind this campaign to get children out of watch houses. For their many hours of Right To Information research and analysis, thank you to: Belinda Lowe, Mary Morrison Roth, Sehar Ashar, Zoe Neill, Meg McLellan, Valentine Dubois, Chloé Tremblay-Goyette, Cailey Campbell, Morgan Somerville and Sam Radford. For his outstanding effort to turn our research and legal analysis into an important and powerful story, thank you to Liam Thorne. For sharing their stories and experiences, thank you to the many children and families who spoke to us.

Artwork created by Emma Hollingsworth, a proud Kaanju woman and contemporary Indigenous artist. Find her as Mulganai on Instagram.