Locking up kids has serious mental health impacts and contributes to further reoffending

This article contains information on violence experienced by First Nations young people in the Australian carceral system. There are mentions of racist terms, and this piece also mentions self harm, trauma and suicide.

The ABC Four Corners report “Locking up Kids” detailed the horrific conditions for young Aboriginal people in the juvenile justice system in Western Australia.

The report was nothing new. In 2016, Four Corners detailed the brutalisation of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory’s Don Dale Youth Detention Centre, in its episode “Australia’s Shame”. Also in 2016, Amnesty International detailed the abuse children were receiving in Queensland’s juvenile detention facilities.

Children should be playing, swimming, running and exploring life. They do not belong behind bars. Yet, on any given day in 2020-21, an average of 4,695 young people were incarcerated in Australia. Most of the young people incarcerated are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander.

Despite Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people in WA making up just 6.7% of the population, they account for more than 70% of youth locked up in Perth’s Banksia Hill Juvenile Detention Centre.

The reasons so many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are detained are linked to the impacts of colonisation, such as intergenerational trauma, ongoing racism, discrimination, and unresolved issues related to self-determination.

Read more: Raising the age of criminal responsibility is only a first step. First Nations kids need cultural solutions

The Four Corners documentary alleged children in detention were exposed to abuse, torture, solitary confinement and other degrading treatment such as “folding”, which involves bending a person’s legs behind them before sitting on them – we saw a grown man sitting on a child’s legs in this way in the documentary.

The documentary also found Aboriginal young people were more likely to be held in solitary confinement, leading to the young people feeling helpless. Racism was also used as a form of abuse, with security calling the young detainees apes and monkeys. One of the young men detained at Banksia Hill expressed the treatment he received made him consider taking his own life.

How does incarceration impact young people’s mental health?

Many young people enter youth detention with pre-existing neurocognitive impairments (such as foetal alcohol spectrum disorder), trauma, and poor mental health. More than 80% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people in a Queensland detention centre reported mental health problems.

Data from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare revealed that more than 30% of young people in detention were survivors of abuse or neglect. Rather than supporting the most vulnerable within our community, the Australian justice system is imprisoning traumatised and often developmentally compromised young people.

Research has shown pre-existing mental health problems are likely exacerbated by experiences during incarceration, such as isolation, boredom and victimisation.

This inhumane treatment brings about retraumatisation of the effects of colonisation and racism, with feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness and low self-esteem.

Youth detention is also associated with an increased risk of suicide, psychiatric disorders, and drug and alcohol abuse.

Locking young people up during their crucial years of development also has long-term impacts. These include poor emotional development, poor education outcomes, and worse mental health in adulthood. As adults, post-release Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are ten times more likely to die than the general population, with suicide the leading cause of death.

You don’t have to look far to see the devastating impacts of incarceration on mental health. Just last year, there were 320 reports of self-harm at Banksia Hill, WA’s only youth detention centre.

Read more: Reunifying First Nations families: the only way to reduce the overrepresentation of children in out-of-home care

Locking up kids increases the likelihood of reoffending

Imprisoning young offenders is also associated with future offending behaviours and continued contact with the justice system.

Without proper rehabilitation and support post-release, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young peoples often return to the same conditions that created the patterns of offending in the first place.

Earlier this year, the head of Perth Children’s Court, Judge Hylton Quail condemned the treatment of a young person in detention at Banksia Hill, stating:

When you treat a damaged child like an animal, they will behave like an animal […] When you want to make a monster, this is how you do it.

What needs to be done?

There needs to be substantive change in how young people who come in contact with the justice system are treated. We need governments to commit, under Closing the Gap, to whole-of-system change through:

  1. recognising children should not be criminalised at ten years old. The Raise the Age campaign is calling for the minimum age of responsibility to be raised to 14. Early prevention and intervention approaches are necessary here. Children who are at risk of offending should be appropriately supported, to reduce pathways to offending.

  2. an approach addressing why young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are locked up in such great numbers is required, driven by respective First Nations communities. This means investing in housing, health, education, transport and other essential services and crucial aspects of a person’s life. An example of this is found in a pilot program in New South Wales called Redefining Reinvestment, which tackled the social determinants of incarceration using a community approach.

  3. future solutions must be trauma-informed and led by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Read more: The criminal legal system does not deliver justice for First Nations people, says a new book

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are not born criminals. They are born into systems that fail them, in a country that all too often turns a blind eye before locking them up.

The Australian government needs to work with First Nations communities to ensure the safety and wellbeing of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, including our future generations.

If this article has caused distress, please contact one of these helplines: 13yarn, Lifeline, Headspace

This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: Summer May Finlay, University of Wollongong; Ee Pin Chang, The University of Western Australia; Jemma Collova, The University of Western Australia, and Pat Dudgeon, The University of Western Australia.

Read more:

Summer May Finlay receives funding from the National Health and Medical Research Council. She is also a member of the Labor party, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies and the Public Health Association of Australia. Sumer is the Deputy Chair of Thirilli and Co-chair of the Aboriginal Health and Medical Research Council of NSW.

Ee Pin Chang receives funding from Suicide Prevention Australia, and Western Australian Office of Crime Statistics and Research at the WA Department of Justice.

Jemma Collova receives funding from the Australian Department of Health.

Pat Dudgeon receives funding from the Australian Department of Health. She is the Director of the Centre of Best Practice in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Suicide Prevention and lead Chief Investigator on a NHMRC Million Minds Mission Grant. She is the chair and member of the Australian Indigenous Psychologist’s Association, and sits on the board of Gayaa Dhuwi (Proud Spirit) Australia.