Alarming numbers of young people being held in adult police cells

Data obtained from South Australia Police (SAPOL) has found children and young people were arrested and detained in police cells 2,030 times in 2020-21, highlighting the need for oversight of places of detention for young people outside the youth justice centre.

As part of our South Australian Dual Involved project (SADI), children and young people told us they were often held at the Adelaide City Watch House after being taken into police custody. Although we were aware that this could happen, we were surprised about its extent and regularity.

Concerned about this apparently common practice of holding minors in an adult custodial facility, Guardian and Training Centre Visitor, Penny Wright and two of her staff organised a visit to get a better understanding of what young people experienced.  SAPOL staff were generous with their time and willingness to host us and respond to our questions.  Our observations confirmed that the Watch House is not a suitable detention environment for children and young people.

Informed by the visit, we requested further information from SAPOL to complete the picture of how many children and young people are routinely detained in adult police facilities and whether these places comply with requirements to provide a safe environment for minors.

We can now share that children and young people were arrested and held in 20 different adult police custodial facilities across South Australia 2,030 times in 2020-21. Out of these 2,030 separate admissions, 890 (43.8%) were for Aboriginal children and young people. In some regional and remote locations, all, or almost all children arrested and detained were Aboriginal.

SAPOL was unable to advise how many individual children and young people were represented by this number of arrests and periods of detention. SAPOL was also not able to provide further critical information to help us understand what is going on and enable adequate systemic responses across agency and policy areas. 

As a result, we (and the police) simply do not know –

  • the age breakdown (for example, how many 10-13 year olds)
  • the gender breakdown
  • how many were ‘in care’ under State guardianship orders; or
  • how many had a disability

We are deeply concerned by this. One risk is that police who run the custodial facilities (who more often than not are sensitive to their special responsibilities for those in their care) may not be properly supported to deal with the implications of such diversity.

We are also worried that children and young people are subjected to inappropriate, intrusive, and traumatic strip searching, appear to have limited access to immediate medical oversight, and may be kept in isolation. We are seeking more information about such matters.

It is important to note that South Australia currently has no independent oversight in place for police detention facilities, generally, and neither the Guardian nor Training Centre Visitor responsibilities  extend to the circumstances of children and young people detained in police cells.

In 2017, Australia signed up to ‘OPCAT’, the ‘Optional Protocol to the (United Nations) Convention Against Torture’, the purpose of which is to ensure independent inspections of all places of detention.  For those places where children and young people are detained, oversight must be undertaken by specialists in that area as is the case, for example, for secure mental health facilities. 

The Training Centre Visitor (TCV) role is proposed to be the independent oversight body for youth justice detention within South Australia. However, the current OPCAT implementation bill only allows the TCV to monitor children and young people within the Kurlana Tapa Youth Justice Centre, and not in other areas where young people are detained (eg the City Watch House).

The implementation bill (which our office has provided feedback on) is currently before the SA parliament to put arrangements in place to commence necessary oversight by the deadline of January 2022.

The clock is ticking.

The SADI project is wrapping up at the end of the year, but the work looking into the growing number of children and young people under guardianship orders who are also caught up in the youth justice system will carry on as our office will continue to advocate for the ‘dual involved’.

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We acknowledge and respect Aboriginal People as the traditional owners
and custodians of the land we live and work on, their living culture and their unique role in the life of South Australia.