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Kids need support and hope, not a new prison

Closing, replacing or even bulldozing the Don Dale facility in the Northern Territory won't solve the problem of child abuse in detention.

Wednesday July 27, 2016

Man in prison
'The fastest way to turn young people into hardened criminals is to put them behind bars.'

The problem is not the building itself - it's the distorted culture of a system that allows young kids to be locked up, further abused and damaged and then released back into the community where the cycle starts again.

The fastest way to turn young people into hardened criminals is to put them behind bars. The current 'tough on crime' approach simply isn't working. It's doing more harm than good. This week's expose of the treatment of young people at Don Dale would have to be one of the most appalling examples, but it would not be the only one.  

We need a radical reform of our entire prison system.  

We have to shift the focus away from locking kids up towards a system that aims to keep vulnerable youth out of jail. We need to redirect funds to programs that help kids stay out of trouble in the first place, and invest in early intervention and community programs that are proven to work.  

Look at the successful Step Out program in South Australia. Young offenders in detention are linked to dedicated mentors. After their release, these mentors continue to help them transition back into the community.    

In Nowra, NSW, Red Cross has been working with young people to reduce prison rates through a driver mentorship program. Trained Red Cross volunteers help young Aboriginal people - especially those referred by the court system - get a driver's licence. It's such as simple thing but it makes an incredible difference to their lives. Not only does it mean they won't get locked up for traffic offences for driving without a licence, it can help them find jobs for the long-term and help their communities. So far 32 people have their p-plates, licences and better job prospects as a result of that program.  

We can also look overseas. In Ireland, Red Cross has been running an award-winning program where prisoners volunteer to improve the health, wellbeing and safety of their fellow prisoners. Red Cross has trained groups of select prisoners to promote basic health, safety, and leadership measures . The empowered prisoners have often gone onto addressing serious safety issues such as having an amnesty on makeshift weapons.  

Empowering prisoners to take charge of their own wellbeing is a simple measure that has shown impressive results. An incredible four out of five prison volunteers do not return to jail. Assaults with weapons have gone from 97% to less than 6% and there was a 50% reduction in assaults overall.  

Australia currently spends $3.4 billion a year on prisons. If we just reduced the jail rate by 2% a year we would save almost $2.3 billion over five years. This money could be reinvested in addressing the underlying causes of crime. Education, mental health support, drug and alcohol treatment and parenting programs need the same kind of investment that now goes into building and maintaining jails.  

We have a choice to make: continue to up the ante in the law-and-order bidding war or, exercise our humanity and take care of children before they commit crimes in the first place.

Kerry McGrath is Director of Community Programs, Australian Red Cross.

Published in the Herald Sun, 28 July 2016

More about our approach  to rethinking justice.