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Evans, Russell; Fraser, Eliabeth --- "The Views and Experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Young People in Queensland's Youth Detention Centres" [2009] IndigLawB 43; (2009) 7(15) Indigenous Law Bulletin 9

The Views and Experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Young People in Queensland’s Youth Detention Centres

Russell Evans and Elizabeth Fraser

Approximately 5,500 young people are detained in Australia’s youth detention centres each year[1] and around half the young people in detention at any point in time are of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander descent.[2]

Ten years ago, the Forde Commission of Inquiry into the Abuse of Children in Queensland Institutions (‘the Forde Inquiry’) demonstrated that young people in detention centres are particularly vulnerable to mistreatment in the absence of independent monitoring and advocacy mechanisms.[3] This landmark inquiry identified serious shortcomings in the operation of Queensland’s youth detention centres that were placing young people at risk of harm and hindering their chances of rehabilitation. It found the state’s youth detention centres had inadequate facilities to meet the needs of young detainees, overly punitive behavioural management systems, limited educational, vocational and recreational programs, and visiting arrangements that did little to help detainees maintain regular family contact.[4]

The Forde Inquiry highlighted the need for urgent change in the way Queensland’s youth detention centres were operating. The years following the inquiry saw the Queensland Government permanently close the two most heavily criticised centres[5] and increase its investment in services and programs for detainees.

In response to the Forde Inquiry’s recommendations, the Government also increased the powers of the then Office of the Children’s Commissioner (now known as the Commission for Children and Young People and Child Guardian) to monitor the welfare of young people in the state’s youth detention centres and to advocate on their behalf.[6] The Commission carries out its monitoring and advocacy functions in youth detention centres in several ways, including regular visits to detention centres to assess the safety and wellbeing of young detainees, operating a confidential telephone complaints service for young people in detention centres and conducting investigations into complaints made by or on behalf of detainees.

The Views of Young People in Detention Centres Survey

In 2007, the Commission added the Views of Young People in Detention Centres Survey (‘the Views Survey’) to its monitoring and advocacy functions for youth detention. The Views Survey gives young detainees the opportunity to share their views about youth detention and the broader youth justice system in a confidential way.

The Views Survey reflects the Commission’s strong belief that asking young people about their experiences is an important part of measuring the performance of the youth justice system and ensuring that current practices are appropriate to young people’s needs. Young people provide a unique perspective that complements administrative performance data and the assessments made by community visitors and departmental inspectors.

The Commission’s most recent Views Survey was conducted in late 2008 and included 110 young people residing in Queensland’s two youth detention centres. This figure amounts to 87% of the young people in detention at the time of the survey.[7] Participants included 36 young people from Townsville’s Cleveland Youth Detention Centre and 74 young people from the Brisbane Youth Detention Centre.

Each participant completed an anonymous 30-item self-report questionnaire that included a mix of select-response and open-ended questions asking about:

• their experience of diversionary programs

• their sense of safety in detention

• the extent to which detention centres promote their development and wellbeing

• their experience with legal representatives and the courts, and

• their transition from detention.

The survey was completed on a single day in each centre, in classrooms with groups of four to six young people. Each classroom had a support team to help participants complete their questionnaires, if they wanted help. The team consisted of at least one teacher, one teacher’s aide and one of the Commission’s community visitors or research staff.

This paper details responses from the 66 young people of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander descent who participated in the survey and then discusses the implications of those responses for detention centres and youth justice policy. The paper focuses on Indigenous young people’s sense of safety in detention, their participation in activities that promote healthy development and wellbeing, and the supports they believe would help them make a successful transition from detention.

Survey Responses

Feeling safe

The safety of young people in state care is of paramount importance to the Commission. Every young person in state care has the right to feel safe at all times, whether they be in foster care, residential care, a youth detention centre or any other form of care. Moreover, it is incumbent on those providing care to young people to take all reasonable steps to see that this fundamental right is protected.

Do you feel safe in the detention centre?

To assess the perceived safety of detainees, participants were asked whether they felt safe in the detention centre. Eight-five per cent of Indigenous young people reported feeling safe in detention, compared to 96% of their non-Indigenous counterparts.[8]

What makes you feel safe? What makes you feel unsafe?

To understand the factors that impact on detainees’ sense of safety, participants were also asked what made them feel safe and unsafe in detention. Two major themes emerged from the responses of Indigenous detainees (see Table 1).

The first major theme concerns the quality of the relationships between detainees and detention centre staff. Indigenous detainees reported feeling safe when they perceived staff to be acting in a protective and supportive way but unsafe when the communication with staff broke down or when staff were perceived to be speaking to detainees in a derogatory way. It is also clear from the responses that having Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff in detention centres is an important part of creating a safe environment for Indigenous young people. As one Aboriginal girl explained,

Indigenous staff make me feel safe but no one else.

The second major theme relates to the amount and quality of contact detainees have with friends and family. Many Indigenous young people commented that they felt safe because they already knew or had been able to make friends with other young people in the centre, while others commented that they felt unsafe when there was conflict between detainees or because they did not have friends in the centre.

Table 1. Factors associated with feeling safe and unsafe in detention and sample comments

What makes you feel safe in detention? (48 participants)
Supportive Staff
I can talk to staff, they look after me, they listen to me.
It’s better because of youth workers.
Knowing that they are here to help.
No one can get hurt, there’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander staff here.
Indigenous staff make me feel safe but no one else.
Contact with family and friends
Having my own space and time with family and friends.
Because I have cousins and friends here.
Having basic needs met
I get food and a bed.
I eat well, sleep well, and youth workers look after me.
Security measures
Being watched 24/7 makes me feel safe.
It’s secure.
Personal attributes
I know how to look after myself.
Keeps you out of trouble.
I’m locked up.
What makes you feel unsafe in detention? (17 participants)
Relationships with staff
Problems communicating with staff.
Staff talking shit to us.
Interactions with other detainees
People pick on you or when they fight.
Not having friends.
I feel unsafe when I go to court.
At night when I can’t see the staff. I have the night light on always.

Note: Comments may be counted in more than one theme

Would you be taken seriously if you told staff you felt unsafe or worried about something?

Ensuring that young people are confident in the complaints handling processes in detention is considered important in reducing the risk of harm.[9] To assess detainees’ confidence in the complaints handling processes in Queensland’s youth detention centres, survey participants were asked if they felt confident that they would be taken seriously if they reported a concern about their safety or wellbeing while in detention.

Almost half (46%) of the Indigenous young people surveyed did not feel confident that they would be taken seriously by detention centre staff if they raised concerns about their safety or wellbeing, similar to the proportion of non-Indigenous detainees (53%).

Participating in Activities that Promote Healthy Development and Wellbeing

In addition to keeping young people safe, youth detention centres have a responsibility to promote young people’s development and wellbeing. This includes providing access to quality education, social and recreational activities, and mental health and other therapeutic services. In 1999, the Forde Inquiry concluded that the programs available to young detainees were ‘extremely limited…resulting in boredom and disaffection’ and that they provided few opportunities for rehabilitation or future employment.[10] To explore detainees’ current access to developmentally appropriate activities and programs, survey participants were asked about the activities they have participated in while in detention and whether they found these activities helpful.

Which detention centre activities have you been involved in? How helpful are the activities you participate in?

The survey findings indicate that, 10 years after the Forde Inquiry, Indigenous young people in Queensland’s youth detention centres are participating in a range of educational, vocational, recreational, cultural and, to a lesser extent, therapeutic activities (see Figure 1). While around nine in ten Indigenous young people reported participating in school, arts or music and sports or gym, only five in ten reported participating in counselling or therapeutic activities. Indigenous detainees were just as likely to participate in each type of activity as non-Indigenous detainees.

Figure 1. Participation in detention centre activities and programs


Note: 65 participants completed this section of the questionnaire

For each activity, 90% of Indigenous participants reported that the activity was ‘helpful’ or ‘very helpful’, with cultural and sporting activities being rated the most helpful of all. The remaining participants rated the activities as ‘not helpful’.

Transitioning from Detention

Young people who enter detention are very likely to reoffend and return to detention following their release.[11] It is considered essential to link young people with appropriate community-based services following release to reduce the likelihood of further offending.[12]

To understand the types of supports Indigenous young people would like to access following their release, they were asked what they believed would help them make a successful transition back to the community.

How helpful would you find these supports when you leave detention?

Indigenous participants were more likely to view practical-type supports as helpful when leaving detention compared to therapeutic-type supports (see Figure 2). That is, Indigenous young people are more likely to believe they will benefit from help with training and employment (88% of participants), help with money (86%), help playing sport (85%) and having someone to seek advice from (83%) when they make their transition to the community than from access to drug and alcohol support services (63%) or counselling services (56%).

Figure 2. Supports Indigenous young people consider helpful for their transition from detention


Note: 65 participants completed this section of the questionnaire

Discussion and policy implications

The Commission’s latest Views Survey points to several areas in the operation of Queensland’s youth detention centres that are largely positive in regard to Indigenous detainees. For instance, most Indigenous young people in detention feel safe, though far from all, and less so than non-Indigenous detainees. The survey also indicates that Indigenous young people are participating in a range of educational, recreational, cultural and therapeutic activities that they find helpful.

However, the survey also points to experiences that have the potential to put Indigenous young people at risk of harm. Chief among these is the finding that around half of Indigenous young people in Queensland’s youth detention do not feel confident that they would be taken seriously if they were to raise concerns about their safety or wellbeing. This lack of confidence in the complaints processes in detention centres is troubling because detainees are less likely to report threats to their safety or wellbeing if they doubt their reports will be acted upon, thereby increasing their risk of harm. While the survey findings do not indicate that detention staff are actually ignoring young people’s concerns, they do indicate a clear need to take steps to improve young people’s confidence in complaints handling processes.

This survey also provides information that can help create youth justice services that are more responsive to the needs of Indigenous young people, both inside and outside the Queensland context. For instance, the findings indicate that improving Indigenous young people’s sense of safety in detention centres may be achieved by encouraging staff to take a more supportive ‘mentoring’ approach, by increasing the proportion of Indigenous staff in the centre, by increasing detainees’ opportunities for contact with friends and family members, by promoting harmonious relationships between detainees, and by eliminating practices that unnecessarily isolate young people from others.

Furthermore, the findings have implications for the design of post-release programs for Indigenous detainees. While therapeutic supports such as interpersonal skills, counselling programs and multi-systemic interventions have been identified as the most effective ways of reducing recidivism among chronic young offenders,[13] the survey findings show that Indigenous young people are more likely to view practical supports as helpful to their transition than therapeutic supports. The implication in these findings is that Indigenous young people may more readily engage in therapeutic post-release programs if those programs also include a significant practical component such as sporting, employment, training and mentoring activities.

The Commission will continue to use the data collected in this survey to promote the rights, interests and wellbeing of young people in youth detention centres. The Commission will do this through its publications, policy submissions, conference papers, and public statements, through meetings with heads of government departments, non-government organisations and other stakeholders, and by encouraging the adoption of data from the Views Surveys in departmental performance reporting.

The Views of Young People in Detention Centres will be repeated in 2010, with the results of the next survey due for publication in the following year. A full report on the latest survey is available at the Commission’s website at <>.

Russell Evans is a Senior Research Officer at the Queensland Commission for Children and Young People and Child Guardian.

Elizabeth Fraser is the Commissioner of the Queensland Commission for Children and Young People and Child Guardian.

[1] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Juvenile Justice in Australia 2006-07 (2008).

[2] Natalie Taylor, Juveniles in Detention in Australia, 1981–2007 (2009).

[3] Queensland, Commission of Inquiry into Abuse of Children in Queensalnd Institutions, Final Report (1999).

[4] Ibid 236-7.

[5] The inquiry was especially critical of facilities at the Sir Leslie Wilson Youth Detention Centre, concluding that the centre ‘is no longer fit for its purpose and staff and detainees are clearly at risk of harm as long as it remains open’ (236). The John Oxley Youth Detention Centre was also criticised for its resemblance to an adult prison and ‘major design faults’ that posed a safety risk to staff and detainees (197). Both centres were closed in early 2001, following the transfer of detainees to the newly constructed Brisbane Youth Detention Centre.

[6] Commission for Children and Young People and Child Guardian Act 2000 (Qld).

[7] Commission for Children and Young People and Child Guardian. Views of Young People in Detention Centres, Queensland, 2009 (2009).

[8] This is not a statistically significant difference.

[9] Commission of Inquiry into Abuse of Children in Queensland Institutions, above n 3 236.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, above n 1; Mark Lynch, Julianne Buckman, Leigh Krenske and Michael Livingstone, Youth Justice: Criminal Trajectories (2003).

[12] United Nations General Assembly,United Nations Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of their Liberty (A/RES/45/113, adopted 14 December 1990); Youth Justice Board for England and Wales, Youth Resettlement: A Framework for Action (2006).

[13] Mark Lipsey and David Wilson, ‘Effective Intervention for Serious Juvenile Offenders: A Synthesis of Research’ in Rolf Loeber and David Farrington (eds), Serious and Violent Juvenile Offenders: Risk Factors and Successful Interventions. (1998), 313-45

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