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I celebrated my tenth birthday behind bars

Image source: Pexels - Brett Sayles

IN August 1962, I turned ten in the isolation ward at Melbourne’s Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital.

It wasn’t jail, but it felt like it was; I was alone, scared and hadn’t seen my mum for three weeks.

Yesterday, when I read about the #RaiseThe Age campaign calling on governments to raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to at least 14, all my memories came flooding back.

I was admitted to the hospital in July that year, having been diagnosed with whooping cough.

I could not join the other kids in the children’s ward because my two younger siblings were at home suffering from chickenpox, and I might be contagious.

Therefore, I spent almost five months in quarantine.

Viewed through my 10-year-old eyes, the 1800’s architecture of the hospital was reminiscent of Pentridge Jail, the bluestone penitentiary in Coburg.

I wasn’t allowed to go home, and it was a long, arduous journey for my mum and dad, who didn’t own a car to visit.

My mum left my nine-year-old sister and five-year-old brother home on their own and walked almost a mile (in those days) down our street to the bus to take her to Bentleigh station, change trains at Flinders Street for Fairfield, then walk another half a mile to the hospital.

It was a three-hour journey each way.

I cried with happiness every time she arrived after that trek.

The thought of this country’s governments, state and federal incarcerating kids the same age as I was then is terrifying and abhorrent to me.

I urge you to sign the petition to raise the age of criminal responsibility to at least 14 years.

A coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations, medical and human rights legal experts launched the #RaiseTheAge campaign calling on all Australian governments to change laws that can lead to the imprisonment of 10-year-old kids.

I agreed wholeheartedly with Public Health Association Australia CEO Terry Slevin when he said, “criminalising the behaviour of children as young as ten might in itself be considered a systemic crime.”

“It helps no one…it leads to devastating and lifelong health impacts via years of involvement with the criminal justice system,” he said.

“We must do better; we need to support these children and their families, to get them back to school, not expose them to the trauma of being locked up.

“Public health is all about prevention, and the best way to prevent lifelong harms to a child is to recognise and support their needs.

“Raising the age of criminal responsibility to 14 is a vitally important way to do so.”

I was a voracious reader. My sister and I had been making a weekly bus journey by ourselves to the Bentleigh Library since I was nine, and she was eight.

I was so excited when my mum brought a book to the hospital for the first time; I finished it two hours later.

Victorians have experienced lockdown due to the Corona Virus.

We have had to contend with not leaving our homes and no visitors.

We have suffered the anxieties of mental health due to separation and loneliness.

Imagine going through all of that at age ten, locked in jail under suspicion of committing a crime.

Change the Record Co-Chair Cheryl Axleby is right when she said, “Locking children up can cause lifelong harm.”

“The medical evidence is clear – kids are still developing at 10, 12 and 13 years old and need to be in school, at home and with their peers, not behind bars,” she said.

In just one year across Australia close to 600 children aged 10 to 13 years were locked up, and thousands more were hauled through the criminal legal system.

The current law excessively affects Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, who make up 65 per cent of youngsters locked up in prison.

Ms Axelby points out that Aboriginal children are being taken from their families and thrown into detention centres at far higher rates than the rest of the population.

“If governments are being honest when they say they want to end the overrepresentation of Aboriginal people in prisons and end deaths in custody, then they must raise the age of criminal responsibility to 14 and stop the criminalisation of our kids,” she said.

Looking back, I recognise my mum’s courage and fortitude, and I acknowledge the pain my dad felt being able only to visit me once.

I marvel at my self-determination to amuse myself as best I could.

I wasn’t in jail, but I do not wish this isolating experience on anyone at ten years of age.

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Carol Saffer

Carol Saffer is an award-winning journalist enthusiastic about creating copy that engages audiences. She is curious by nature, possesses a growth mindset and thrives on new and unusual challenges. Carol has experience as a reporter for various regional Victorian newspapers and writing for Business Day in The Age. Her previous career was in the fashion industry, and she holds post-graduate degrees in business and journalism.

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