The Queensland government is quietly planning to convert a suburban police watch house into a central holding block for dozens of children on remand, amid fears of a looming “human rights disaster” in the state.
Guardian Australia has discovered the recently built Caboolture watch house, north of Brisbane, is expected to be converted to a child-specific facility by October.
It will be used to detain up to 31 children from across the region held on remand in police custody, while the state’s youth detention centres are beyond capacity.
Last month the Queensland government passed amendments that legalised the extended detention of children in police watch houses – and included an override of the state’s own Human Rights Act.
Young people have been detained for up to 40 days in the police holding cells, which are designed to keep adults for short periods of up to 48 hours.
Youth justice minister, Di Farmer, on Friday confirmed the government’s plans, admitting there were some watchhouses in regional areas “which are really not ideal … it’s really not a good environment”.
“But the Caboolture watchhouse… has been designed so that if young people are in there, it’s the best possible environment you can be,” she said.
Farmer told Guardian Australia the government doesn’t want any children in watchhouses but there are “always young people waiting to go to court”, and the Caboolture centre would “help take the pressure off”.
The police commissioner, Katarina Carroll, on Thursday hinted that she would prefer children be detained in one specialist watch house and agreed there was a “capacity issue” facing youth detention centres.
“The least amount of time a child spends in the watch house, the better,” she said.
“It is my view into the future that if there is a capacity issue with watch houses or with detention centres, that only one watch house is dedicated … and that all services come to that watch house to address the needs of those children.”
The government is already advertising jobs at the Caboolture Watchhouse Education Support Hub and has set aside an additional $462,000 in the state budget for delivering education to young people in watch houses over the next two years.
The chief executive of the Youth Advocacy Centre, Katherine Hayes, said watch houses, even child-specific ones, are not properly set up to provide education and support services.
“It’s just a second-best solution, and it’s still not addressing the real problem of diverting kids in the first place,” she told Guardian Australia.
“Family visits will be tricky to arrange because … a watch house doesn’t have those kinds of auxiliary functions like visiting centres, meeting rooms, treatment rooms, schoolrooms, that kind of stuff that detention centres have.”
Queensland’s urgent move last month to change laws came after advice from the state’s solicitor general suggesting young people may have been illegally detained in watch houses for years.
The acting premier, Steven Miles, insisted on Monday there was no other option and said the legislation was rushed through parliament to “avoid a scenario where young offenders could no longer be held by police.”
But the state’s human rights commissioner, Scott McDougall, said on Thursday there are better options, and that prolonged stays in watch houses can harm children.
“There’s research coming out of the US that proves links between incarcerating children with adults to increased rates of mortality.
“We’re not just talking about the right to humane treatment, we’re now talking about the right to life of these children,” he told reporters.
McDougall said he’s been invited to meet with the premier and will advise the government on urgent actions required to “avoid … a human rights disaster occurring this summer”.
Numbers in youth detention centres have been building up as a result of the government’s harsh new youth crime laws.
The first time the state government overrode the Human Rights Act was in March when it made breach of bail an offence for children, against the advice of experts and human rights organisations.
Hayes said the government should consider more effective options like on-country programs, rehabilitation centres or camps that are provided by community organisations.
“A lot of the kids who end up in watch houses don’t need to be held there,” she said.
“While the detention centres and watch houses are crammed, the kids that are detained are not being rehabilitated and they’re coming out angrier and the community is no safer.”