Children were held in solitary confinement in New South Wales juvenile centres 13 times in the last two years, the state’s minister for corrections, David Elliott, has told a parliamentary committee.
The minister also revealed under questioning that he had never heard of key international standards governing the treatment of prisoners, known as the the Mandela Rules.
Elliott said he would take the question of his understanding of the UN’s protocol “on notice” and said he hadn’t received a briefing on the standards.
The admission was made in the course of a NSW estimates hearing and follows renewed attention on the treatment of juveniles in detention across Australia after Four Corners investigation into the Northern Territory’s youth justice system.
The Greens MP David Shoebridge focused questioning in the committee on the use of solitary confinement of juveniles, which eventually led Elliott and the most senior correctional officer, the director of juvenile justice Melanie Hawyes, to concede there were 13 instances in the last two years that detainees under the age of 18 had been held in solitary confinement.
Elliott told the committee: “The advice I have is that there were 13 instances of confinement for a period of greater than 24 hours. But I think you need to appreciate that 50% of the young people that were put in confinement it was for under two hours.
“If you are basing your questions on what you have seen on television, please do not liken this jurisdiction with the Northern Territory. I think what we are doing here is a lot more effective.”
But when asked about the Mandela Rules, which state that solitary confinement “shall be used only in exceptional cases as a last resort, for as short a time as possible and subject to independent review, and only pursuant to the authorisation by a competent authority”, both the minister and Hawyes said they were unaware of the United Nations rules.
Elliott said: “I am not familiar with that. I will ask the executive director if she is familiar with them.”
Hawyes said: “I am not.” Elliott intervened to outline that Hawyes had “just arrived to run that organisation”.
Elliott took on notice a question from Shoebridge about the proportion of Indigenous children in juvenile detention that had been held in solitary but said 54% of the total juvenile population in NSW were Indigenous.
Shoebridge said the government’s lack of understanding of the United Nations rules was extraordinary.
“Children should never be held in solitary confinement as a form of punishment, ever,” he told Guardian Australia. “Given the abuses we have seen in other jurisdictions there needs to be a united call to end this practice immediately in NSW juvenile detention facilities. International law prohibits the practice, equating it with psychological torture.”
The government was initially slow to acknowledge that children were placed in confinement at all. Hawyes initially denied that children were held in isolation or confinement in NSW juvenile facilities. She said “at all times a young person has access to key workers, health professionals, the ombudsman if they wish and visitors”.
Shoebridge persisted with his line of questioning and Hawkes acknowledged that children do spend time in prison cells without other inmates around them as part of a punishment in response to misbehaviour.
Hawyes said 72% of solitary confinement was under six hours for juveniles, with 28% exceeding this time limit and going up to 24 hours.
Some children were held for longer periods, with the approval of what was described as a “executive level endorsement” – described by Hawyes as “regional directors and centre managers”.
“Confinement is highly regulated,” she said. “There are limits to the length of confinement and anything exceeding 24 hours must be approved by an executive and there is a flag that goes to the ombudsman automatically of that.”
The treatment of children in detention across the country is under renewed scrutiny since the revelations at Don Dale. A royal commission into events there is set to get under way soon.