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Why Are Indigenous Australian Kids Doing Time in Adult Prisons?

A Freedom of Information Report revealed that in Western Australia, children as young as 12 are being held in adult prison cells.

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This post originally appeared on VICE Australia.

This week a Freedom of Information Report obtained by the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) revealed children as young as 12 are being held in adult prison cells in Western Australia. The report showed that in the past three years, 197 children in Kimberley had spent up to two nights in regional prisons cells.

The children were detained in Broome and Kununurra while awaiting transfer to the Banksia Hill Detention Center in Perth. Banksia Hill is the only juvenile center statewide for offenders aged ten to 17, but immediate transfers can be difficult to arrange. This and the lack of housing facilities for offenders means the only option police have is to detain the children temporarily in holding cells.

WA Police defended their decisions in a statement that noted children are left in prison for "short periods" because of WA's lack of juvenile detention centers in the area: "As there are no juvenile detention facilities in regional WA, detainees are held in police station lockups, until transport can be arranged at the earliest possible opportunity."

The WA's Department of Corrective Services told VICE that—according to the Young Offenders Act 1994—children were only to be held in custody as a "last resort." However, in the same clause, the act states children in custody must be in a facility "suitable for young people," and unexposed to "any adult." This is concerning considering these lockout cells fall outside of the jurisdiction of WA's Inspector of Custodial Services Neil Morgan. The inspector can only inspect them at request of the police station—which after doing so in 2013, he described some as degrading.

West Australian Minister Helen Morton said that it was for the children's own safety and protection that they were held in adult cells. "It is a pragmatic solution to a very difficult problem," she commented to the ABC, "You've got very small numbers of children for very short periods of time, who are at high risk to themselves and others."

Whether they're held in adult prisons or not, concerns have been raised over children being detained for minor charges. In WA, any minor arrested can only be bailed out by a person deemed to be a responsible guardian. If one cannot be found, the child must be transferred to Banksia Hill in Perth to await trial.

While there is a support system in the Youth Bail Options Program to provide minors without guardianship a secure home, the program only operates outside Kimberley in Armadale, Kalgoorie, Geralton and Port Hedland. This means children arrested in other towns, without responsible guardians, must be detained temporarily in prison cells.

It's a difficult predicament for the police in other areas, who have to choose between sending a minor into a possibly unsafe environment at home, and holding them in an unsuitable one at an adult prison. According to Amnesty's Indigenous People's Rights Manager Tammy Solonec, this has compounded the incarceration of indigenous youths in detention. "The result is young offenders being transferred miles away from their community. There they wait in limbo alongside real criminals," she said.

According to the Youth Detention Population in Australia 2014 report, an average 47 to 65 indigenous offenders were awaiting trial on a typical night. The number is so high because many indigenous youths in WA are in juvenile detention for negligible crimes.

In a phone call with VICE, the CEO of the Aboriginal Legal Service of Western Australia, Dennis Eggington, insisted change is needed in Western Australia to prevent their youth from ending up in juvenile detention. "I'm not pretending there aren't young people committing serious crimes," he said. "But often we have children, mostly Indigenous, going to jail for stealing an ice-cream or for accepting a Freddo-Frog."

Eggington said that because of the triviality of most crimes, it was common for Indigenous youths at Banksia Hill to be charged with only a fine. "What that means is that the time our children spend in detention was for nothing," he added.

However critics of the system are not calling for more juvenile detentions centers. Both Tammy Solonec and Dennis Eggington claim that would cost billions. Rather they want to see money put into early intervention and diversionary programs.

Eggington goes on to suggests that Western Australia needs more alternatives for children awaiting bail. "We need facilities such as bail hostels, run by local Indigenous communities," he said. "Most of these Indigenous children should just be returned to their elders, where they can be punished in their own way."

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