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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Nino Bucci

‘Dying is normal in this jail’: teenager held in Port Phillip prison for four months

DJ was held in youth detention for two years after his arrest, but transferred to adult prison after he was sentenced.
DJ was held in youth detention for two years after his arrest, but transferred to adult prison after he was sentenced. Photograph: Jonny Weeks/The Guardian

A Victorian teenager has been held in a maximum security adult prison for almost four months despite a supreme court judge warning authorities that if the boy were not put in youth detention and given a chance at rehabilitation it could mean his “life would become a disaster”.

The teen, known as DJ, turned 17 late last month while being held in Port Phillip prison. He said he has routinely been held in isolation and confined to his cell for 23 hours a day.

In August, an Aboriginal man being held opposite him died after a fire started in his cell.DJ, who also identifies as Aboriginal, said he saw the man being taken out by guards.

“I found out later that he died,” he told Guardian Australia in a statement sent by his lawyers.

“It made me feel like people dying is normal in this jail.”

DJ said he had been forced to wait three months before being granted a visit with his mum, which occurred on his 17th birthday. The visit lasted 30 minutes and he was handcuffed and separated from her in a box. Every phone call to his mother costs $7, he said.

He said his age meant he was unable to participate in rehabilitation programs, prison activities, or prison work.

“Port Phillip [prison] isn’t set up to give proper support to kids,” he said.

“I want to be somewhere that I can do my school work and go to therapy with other kids my age.”

DJ murdered a man when he was 14 and was sentenced to 14 years in prison in June this year after pleading guilty. Hewill be eligible for parole in 2029.

He was held in youth detention for two years after his arrest, but transferred to adult prison after he was sentenced. As a youth offender, he could apply to be transferred back to youth detention until he turned 21.

The sentencing judge, Lex Lasry, found DJ’s life had been extremely difficult. The court heard his early childhood was characterised by poverty, homelessness and exposure to alcoholism, drug abuse and violence, and that he had dropped out of school by the time of the murder.

DJ’s prospects of rehabilitation were “something to be cautious about”, Lasry said, as he did not appear to fully understand the magnitude of the murder, nor have significant remorse, but the judge added that this was perhaps not surprising given DJ’s age.

“The authorities should clearly understand that unless they put some significant effort into your rehabilitation now, you will be lost in the system and your life will become a disaster,” Lasry said.

“It would be desirable if sentencing judges had the authority to give some form of direction as to how young offenders like you are to be treated in custody, with a view to improving their chances of rehabilitation.

“However, I have no such authority … you may be an appropriate candidate for transfer to a youth justice centre until you reach the age of 21 years. As I understand it, that is a matter for the Adult Parole Board to determine, but I would strongly recommend that that occur.”

While the Adult Parole Board rules on applications for offenders aged under 21 to be transferred to youth detention, lawyers for DJ say his application was unsuccessful after it had been opposed by the Department of Youth Justice, the government department responsible for youth offenders.

Youth Justice did not confirm that it had opposed the application, nor comment on why DJ was being held in an adult prison. The board do not comment on individual cases.

Sarah Schwartz, the principal lawyer at the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service’s Wirraway specialist practice, said teenagers and young adults were denied procedural fairness when making such applications.

“The government needs to take immediate steps to support DJ’s transfer back to a youth justice centre and ensure they end their practice of putting children in adult prisons,” she said.

“DJ has his whole life ahead of him. But instead of being supported, he has spent multiple periods locked in a concrete cell for up to 23 hours a day in a maximum-security adult prison.”

Victoria’s commissioner for children and young people, Liana Buchanan, said in a statement that while she could not comment on the decisions of the Adult Parole Board, she agreed with concerns about how these decisions were made.

“It is unfortunate the legislation places significant weight on youth justice’s views as to the child’s ‘suitability’ for youth justice, without requiring the Adult Parole Board to be informed by an independent assessment or hearing from the child themselves,” she said.

“I also think the legislation should require the Board to be informed by Corrections Victoria about how, and under what conditions, the child will be managed in the adult system.”

Buchanan says the commission monitors the treatment of all children held in adult prison, including by meeting with them weekly, receiving daily reports on their treatment from the prison, and meeting with senior Corrections Victoria representatives.

She said that while Corrections Victoria had been responsive when the commission argued for a different approach to managing children, adult prisons were governed by laws, policies and rules designed for adult offenders which created extremely restrictive and difficult periods in custody for children.

“Sending children to adult prison is inconsistent with the Convention on the Rights of the Child and is only ever going to entrench criminal behaviour and cause more harm – both to the children themselves and to community safety,” she said.

“Separate youth justice facilities are critical because children and young people under 18 are more vulnerable than adults, more susceptible to peer pressure and have greater prospects of rehabilitation.

“At least 50% of children sentenced to custody have experienced abuse or neglect. These factors mean children in the adult prison system are at significant risk and simply cannot have their needs met.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Justice and Community Safety did not answer questions regarding DJ’s case.

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