Who is minding the children? The invisibility of incarceration

In this post, Dr Grace O’Brien discusses some of the hidden implications of the COVID-19 crisis on children and young people who are in juvenile detention centres, including those who identify as Indigenous.


Imagine being locked up in prison without any connection to your family and knowing that there is a pandemic that is resulting in many deaths within the community. Now, imagine if you were just 10, 12, or 14 years of age and you were locked up in a juvenile detention centre, waiting to go to court, not yet charged and away from your parents and families while this crisis is developing.

In Australia, three out of every five children now in this situation are unsentenced and awaiting an outcome of their court matter. The longer young children are separated from their families at this time, the worse the mental health problems and trauma will be.

Juvenile detention centres: A potential COVID-19 hotspot

Juvenile detention centres are places where outbreaks and medical emergencies such as COVID-19 may not be able to be managed or contained urgently or effectively. While there is no known published research on the impact of pandemics in juvenile detention centres, modelling suggests that like influenza outbreaks in prisons, the “attack rate” of COVID-19 in a juvenile detention centre is likely to be steep and rapid.

If COVID-19 should spread among children in juvenile detention centres, there are also likely to be more children infected and more deaths than in the general population. NBC News reported in the United States this week that there have already been detected cases of COVID-19 among youth detention centre staff in at least three US states. One teenager has also been diagnosed with COVID-19 and is in quarantine. Other children are so panicked and fearful of contracting the disease that they are refusing to leave their cells. In Queensland, all face-to-face visits have ceased in youth detention centres, meaning children and young people can only have contact with their family, friends and community via phone and video calls.

In Australia, more than half of the children who are incarcerated in juvenile detention centres identify as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples also face a much higher risk from COVID-19, due to higher rates of diabetes and existing respiratory vulnerabilities. A Queensland Government website states that those at risk of serious infection if they contract COVID-19 include (i) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and (ii), people in detention facilities.

Immediate discussion surrounding the safety of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander children and young people in juvenile detention centres is paramount.

What are governments doing?

Discussion about the impact of COVID-19 on prisons and youth detention centres in Australia has been limited to date. However, early indications are that governments are starting to act to protect this vulnerable population. In some Australian states, including NSW, emergency legislation has been passed to give the government the power to release prisoners, as part of broader COVID-19 control measures.

While it is not yet known if children and young people in juvenile detention centres may be released as part of this process, there are a number of factors that need to be considered to ensure the safety of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander children and young people, their families and communities.

Already some remote areas have implemented restricted access measures to safeguard remote and at-risk communities. But, with a limited supply of COVID-19 testing kits in Australia and strict criteria surrounding who is tested, how can we ensure the safety of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander children and young people in juvenile detention centres?

And if children and young people are released, how can we be sure that they do not unknowingly spread COVID-19 among their family members and community?


  1. All community services must come together and advocate to support the early release of children from youth detention centres and allow them to go home, whether it be to a metropolitan, regional or remote area.
  2. COVID-19 testing criteria need to be extended to allow testing for Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander children and young people who are candidates for early release from juvenile detention centres. Negative test results must be confirmed before the child can return to their home, whether it be in a metropolitan, regional or remote area.
  3. Support services must be provided for families of children who are released from juvenile detention centres, so that both families and children feel safe within the community.
  4. There must be a clear and cohesive plan of action and it must be carried out in collaboration with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations that provide health and mental well-being, housing, transport and financial services to the Community.

In the face of an international emergency, we must take action to ensure that all members of our community are protected. This is imperative for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people who are in juvenile detention centres, as well as their families and the broader community.


Dr Grace O’Brien has worked in partnership with First Nations communities throughout Queensland for many years and wishes to thank the Moreton Bay Murri Network who were supportive in the completion of her PhD research. This research addressed the need for urgent educational reform to prevent exclusion of young First Nations males from school and prevent their over-representation in the juvenile justice system. Working across all education sectors to support an understanding and inclusion of First Nations perspectives and Knowledges within the education curriculum, Grace is a Program co-Leader in the Indigenous Education Research Program in The Centre for Inclusive Education.

One Comment

  • Chris McCann

    Grace you got right to the heart of the problem facing us right now. Someone needs to act for the ‘Forgotten Ones’. So often they are left to suffer alone, but now they don’t even have the comfort of a possible visit! Imagine how they must feel?!

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