As we all know, Tasmania started its European life as a grim penal colony. Unfortunately it would appear that the savage legacy of that period permeates the State’s justice system today. The Tasmanian Department of Justice confirmed yesterday that last week a 10-year-old boy “was held for an hour in an adult prison before being taken to court and bailed.”

What the Department is not saying, is whether or not the boy was accompanied by a parent, welfare worker or guardian or allowed access to a lawyer during that stay. If he wasn’t then it makes this incident even more horrific.

The Hobart Reception Prison, where the boy was detained for an hour before his court appearance, is a grim place. It houses prisoners who are on remand and also some prisoners who are in protection and as a result cannot reside at Tasmania’s major prison, Risdon. It is no place for anyone to spend time in and stay sane, let along a 10-year-old boy.

The treatment of this 10 year old boy amounts to a clear breach of Tasmania’s obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Article 37 of the Convention notes that every “child deprived of liberty shall be treated with humanity and respect for the inherent dignity of the human person, and in a manner which takes into account the needs of persons of his or her age.” It also says that every “child deprived of his or her liberty shall have the right to prompt access to legal and other appropriate assistance.”

Tasmania is not alone when it comes to state and territory governments routinely breaching the human rights of its most vulnerable citizens. Earlier this month the Northern Territory Ombudsman reported that staff at Darwin Hospital had been told to detain and restrain patients against their will. In South Australia, the Rann government’s “rack ‘em, stack ‘em and pack ‘em” approach to prisons has led to chronic overcrowding and a sharp increase in the rate of physical and mental illness among those incarcerated.

The appalling cruelty meted out to a 10-year-old boy in Tasmania is testament to the need for the Rudd government to introduce a national human rights law as soon as possible. Such an act would at least make bureaucrats think twice before they made inhumane decisions and, as the Victorian charter of rights has demonstrated, it would be a powerful weapon for individuals to use against governments that treat them badly.

In any event, detaining children as young as 10 for any period of time ought to be banned in a civilised 21st century society. Children, even those who commit offences, need nurturing and support, not be shunned, locked away and processed as though they were cattle. It is time we had a debate in Australia about abolishing youth and child detention under any circumstances. To not do so is to damage, often permanently, the future of our community.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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