Keenan Mundine is Principal consultant and owner of Inside Out Aboriginal Justice Consultancy. He travelled to the United Nations with the Human Rights Law Centre, who are in Geneva to hold Australia accountable as a newly elected member of the Human Rights Council.
I can still smell the prison cell I was locked in as a child.
A tiny, cold, concrete cell with nothing in it but a foam mattress and a hospital blanket. My first night in that cell was the loneliest and scariest of my life. I learnt very quickly that not a single person in that razor-wired place truly cared for me.
I have since spent more of my life behind bars than in freedom. Most of my teenage birthdays were spent in prison.
Australia has one of the lowest ages of criminal responsibility in the democratic world – the age at which a child can be charged, hauled before the courts and sentenced to prison.
This week I have travelled to the United Nations in Geneva with the Human Rights Law Centre. I am here to address the Human Rights Council – the world’s most authoritative human rights body.
I am here because I want my two sons to grow up in a country that treats them fairly. And because right now, primary school aged children – children as young as ten – are being locked away in prisons across Australia.
Children should be supported in playgrounds and classrooms, not sent to court rooms and prisons.
Australia must raise the age from 10 to 14 years. This simple change would make an enormous difference.
This year alone, around 600 children under the age of 14 will be taken from their families and communities and forced into prison.
Most of these children are Indigenous – like me.
This month marks the two year anniversary of the shocking Don Dale ABC expose that forced the country to reckon with the cruelty and abuse of children behind bars.
Within 24 hours of seeing those horrific images, our Prime Minister called a Royal Commission. Last November, the Royal Commission made 277 recommendations. One of the most important was the recommendation to raise the age of criminal responsibility.
I know – and research also tells us – that the earlier a child is forced into the criminal justice system, the more likely they are to become entrenched in it.
In other words, once you get stuck– once courts and prison becomes the norm – it’s just so hard to get out. Most of the people I know from my time inside are still there. Some are already dead. Being forced to live on the inside at such a vulnerable, formative age is incredibly damaging – it skews how you see the world, and how you see right from wrong.
The very first thing that happens to a child once the over-sized, iron door of the prison closes, is a humiliating strip search. Two burly guards stand there and demand that you take off every single piece of your clothing until you’re completely, shamefully naked. As a boy, this was utterly terrifying.
Nobody ever talks about their dreams or ambitions in the prison yard – it’s just about survival, not getting hurt and one day getting out. If we want people to reform, then the best place for this to happen is with their families and in their communities. Time behind bars – being locked in a cell for around twelve hours a day – just crushes your soul.
No child should go through this. No child should be hand cuffed, strip searched, or hear the clang of their cell door as it locks them away. No child should have the phone cut out when they’re talking to their mum because twelve minutes is up. No child should have to bury their childhood and vulnerability so as to survive the brutality of prison. Prisons are missing the very things children need most in life: love, support and guidance.
The United Nations has repeatedly called on Australia to raise the age of criminal responsibility – but these and the calls of the Royal Commission’s calls, seem to have fallen on deaf ears.
To date, the only jurisdiction in Australia to publicly support raising the age is the Northern Territory – where 100% of the children behind bars are Indigenous. The ACT, too, seems open. All other jurisdictions don’t appear to see a problem with locking up primary school aged children.
But I am living proof of why this change is so important – why our governments should never give up on children.
When Australia took a seat on the Human Rights Council they promised to uphold human rights, and in particular, to champion Indigenous peoples’ rights. My peoples’ rights.
For as long as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are 25 times more likely to be imprisoned than non-Indigenous children, these will be hollow promises.
For as long as Australian governments thumb their noses at UN recommendations, Royal Commission recommendations, their own government inquiries, and what Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders have been telling them for decades, my people will suffer.
Aboriginal and Torre Strait Islander children deserve what I was denied: equality and freedom. The first step to making this happen is for Australia to raise the age of criminal responsibility.
From that tiny prison cell, I would have never dreamed that I would be addressing the United Nations Human Rights Council. But that’s just it. All children – irrespective of where they’re from or the colour of their skin – should be given the same chance to dream and to thrive.