The first time I went to boys' prison I was in my early twenties. Back then I didn't know that kids as young as 10 were in prisons just a few suburbs away, but like many once-shocking facts of life, I just got used to the idea as reality in some part of my brain that's capable of accepting new facts.
I would meet up on Saturdays with other random people, use $50 to buy some food at Coles to make burritos or some other easy thing, and then we'd go to the prison. We'd go through the big barbed wire fences and a few heavy doors, and then play ping pong, make salads, cook chicken, and try to find things to talk to the boys about that weren't "So, why are you in here?"
It was a weird volunteer program, and I don't know if it did much good, but I guess it was the start of an eye-opener to a different world. For the boys, into the lives of some random strangers; for me, into the life of little kids and teenagers behind bars.
The next times going to prison were as a visitor. My friend's nephew had started getting left at a house with random people while his mum was in hospital for drug-related health reasons. He was left without much to do, hardly going to school, without anything in the fridge or pantry most of the time. Later it turned out the "random people" were bikies, but I didn't know that then.
We would try and take him to the movies, play footy, play UNO, do anything to try and make things a bit normal for a 13 year old boy, because that's how old he was. But it was normal for him for things to be like that. He'd hurt himself by jumping over things or playing rough games on his own and no-one would cover the wounds. He'd get given random drugs by the random strangers, one night falling asleep all the way through Inception at Hoyts and not just because it was boring, but because he'd been given "some pill" by the bikie before we left.
The walls at the house had punch holes through them. The mum's bikie housemates would eat all his food, after we'd go together, him carefully planning out what to buy with the $50 voucher from DCP that I'd helped him wrangle from them. It was so embarrassing. One day we did all the shopping, after going through his beautifully written list, and got to the counter and the voucher didn't work. It was very very hard to stop him breaking things, abusing the people at the supermarket, dying internally because of being very fucking hungry and very very ashamed.
Anyway, eventually his mum introduced him to "gear", and the bikies took him on a robbery rampage, ending it with a car chase and him, quite proudly getting put into a paddy wagon, pulling the bird at the tv cameras. This boy was 13, he had a life most of you actually can't imagine - I only told you a few tiny things - and then what happens instead of him getting wrapped for years in loving cotton wool, being fed care, attention, love, kindness, actual food, is he gets locked up in jail. People might not even have imagined that kids go to jail here, but they do, from the age of ten. And they're locked in there, with no-one much to notice a lot of the time, or care if they're beaten, abused, neglected - because these things do happen - and there are no powerful people to say on their behalf that anything's wrong.
The thing is, kids don't wake up one morning in Cottesloe and decide to commit armed robbery. Well, maybe one kid does once in a blue moon, or it's Ben Cousins and people think drugs and crime happen like that, just a thrill seeking meathead taking things too far, but mainly it's just hurt kids, pushed down and into a particular life by systematic injustice, making one tiny decision at the end of a million decisions that are not theirs, leading to this moment they do something that lands them behind barbed wire. And then when they're there the systematic injustice continues, because they just aren't the kids of rich and powerful or even suburban middle class parents who have the ability to say, when they're kept in lockdown for days on end because the prison is understaffed, THIS IS NOT ACCEPTABLE. It's not acceptable in the first place for kids to go to jail, because, I dare you to say otherwise, it's not their choices that send them there.
What makes a kid end up in jail, with a hood over his head, shackles on his hands and feet? It's either systematic injustice, racism, mental illness, or a combination of these things. None of these are the fault of a child, but when a child is at the end of that trail he or she is made to pay for it.
Maybe you wonder why he went to prison instead of a nice foster home with fresh sheets on the beds, food in the fridge that's not going to get stolen, no needles on offer. Well, are you going to be that nice foster home? Some of my friends took him for a while to live with them, but a whole life of one way of living can't be "fixed" in a few months of people being kind.
Sometimes it feels easier for kids to be in prison where they're with people they're used to, then in a clean home with soft music piping through the walls and a whole way of being that's alien to them, while they remember a thousand trauma memories on loop. But the loving foster homes hardly even exist anyway, and how can they compete with family, or actual equity, justice and an end to racism?
Did you know there were riots in WA young peoples' prisons? Did you know some of our prisons are run by private for-profit companies? There's a helpful fact sheet here http://youthlegalserviceinc.com.au/wpress/pdf/factsheets/FactSheet_YLS_WhatAgeCanI_GoToPrison.pdf, called "What age can I? Go to prison." The helpful answer is this: "You are criminally responsible at age 10. This means that if you commit an offence from this age, you can be charged and, depending on the seriousness, you can get a sentence of detention. Juvenile detention in Western Australia is served at Banksia Hill Detention Centre. You will not be sent to an adult prison until you are aged 18 or over. However, a young person can apply to go to an adult prison at 16 if they are serving a sentence of detention."
These are hurt, abused, neglected children, behind barbed wire fences, with hardly anyone to say anything on their behalf. That's why they can get hooded, shackled, sprayed with tear gas while they're playing cards, and nobody does anything for a few years or ever. That's why indigenous and poor kids are the ones who end up behind bars.
Our laws might say children are criminally responsible at age 10, but we know something/someone/somesystems else are responsible. And who is responsible for them?