The Difficulties Associated With The Incarceration Of Children
Australia’s harsh juvenile detention regime was in the spotlight again last week, with a report from the Banksia Hill juvenile facility in Perth, showing that about 100 of the cells were damaged so badly, they cannot be used.
The centre has a capacity for about 250 inmates – almost half of the centre is not able to be used. And so again, we’re faced with a round of parliamentary and media debates about why these juveniles are locked in detention and are not having their (very complex in many cases) needs met.
Youth advocates say that the damage being done inside Banksia Hill is simply an expression of the pressure these young people are under.
Vandalism, broken toilets, smashed walls
Beds, toilets, communications equipment and even walls between cells have been pulled apart, torn down, graffitied on, or destroyed. A 14-year-old boy who played a leading role in a riot at the facility last year was charged with criminal damage after he climbed onto the roof in protest and allegedly proceeded to damage air conditioners, windows and aerial antennas.
However, the court heard that the young man had spent 23 hours a day in the ISU (Intensive Support Unit) during his five month stint at Banksia Hill and the confinement had taken its toll. In this context, the young man’s actions are not difficult to understand.
The entire WA youth justice system is coming under mounting pressure, with recent figures showing that youth crime rates are rising. More than three hundred juvenile offenders were arrested in the region in 2021 and 163 already arrested so far this year.
Children as young as 10years old are locked up
Australia already has one of the highest rates of juvenile incarceration in the world because in most states children as young as 10 years old are held responsible for their crimes.
Figures also show that the highest proportion of juvenile offenders in detention are indigenous. Often they are youths who come from seriously disadvantaged backgrounds, and suffer from intergenerational poverty, substance abuse, little to no education, and often undiagnosed learning or mental health disorders.
While criminal offending isn’t acceptable and young people who break the law should be held accountable, locking youths up is not always the answer.
Most psychologists agree that if given the right tools, resources, psychological assistance and nurturing, young people who break the law do have a good chance to turn their lives around and that locking them up, away from family, friends and the community does more harm than good.
Did we learn anything from Don Dale?
All of these issues were highlighted by abuses conducted at the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in the Northern Territory. Footage from the detention centre, and which was eventually aired on national television, showed teenage boys being tear-gassed, hooded, threatened, restrained and held in solitary confinement for more than a fortnight.
The systemic mistreatment of young people at the facility led to a Royal Commission into the protection and detention of children in the Northern Territory. The Royal Commission report recommended a move towards prevention, diversion and rehabilitation, and the raising of the age of criminal responsibility, and at the time, a good number of politicians, commentators, and youth advocates suggested that these recommendations be implemented across the nation, in order to stop the institutionalisation and abuse of young people.
Again, little has been done. In fact, in the case of the Don Dale juvenile facility, no criminal charges have been laid against any adults who engaged in misconduct against the youths, and despite a commitment from the NT Government to shut down the centre after the publication of the findings of the in 2017, to this day, the facility remains operational.
Why do we keep locking up kids when we know better?
Most other states have not fully committed to diversional programs and other rehabilitation initiatives either. Instead, children continue to be locked up in the same way adult offenders are.
More thorough assessment and consideration is needed for their mental and emotional wellbeing and further commitment is required to ensuring that they are given the full opportunity to choose to take a different path.
Otherwise these young people grow up being instutionalised and, knowing very little about how to cope in society, where they continue to re-offend.
The entire system sets them up to be lifetime criminals – a significant burden on society – and yet we have the research and the know-how to do better. We also know that long-term cost analysis shows it is more expensive not to help people to get out of the justice system.
Currently, one Western Australian youth advocacy group is sponsoring a class action lawsuit, against Banksia Hill alleging mistreatment at the facility over the excessive use of solitary confinement.
Earlier this year, the President of the Perth Children's Court His Honour Judge Hylton Quail condemned the treatment of a teenage detainee at Banksia Hill, saying: "if you want to make a monster, this is the way you do it". (View source)
Only days later, staff at the facility raised concerns, warning increasing violence was putting staff and detainees at high risk.
Another recent report by the Prisons watchdog – the Office of the Inspector of Custodial Services – found "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment" of detainees at Banksia Hill.
How many warning signs do we need? The facility is a pressure cooker that’s damaging some of our most vulnerable Australians.
Banksia Hill has been undergoing some upgrades over the past few years, although these have been hampered somewhat by constant repair work. The facility itself is one matter, the treatment of inmates is another matter entirely.
According to a statement from the WA Government, “a new operating philosophy and service model is being developed that will better enable the delivery of services to young people using trauma-informed principles in line with child safe practices” …. including "new or refined assessment and intervention frameworks, a "redeveloped therapeutic culture that supports positive behaviour management", individualised case planning and the promotion of cultural responsibility.” (View source)
It all sounds very positive. We can only hope that the Western Australian Government demonstrates more progressive action than its other Australian counterparts and actually delivers on a system that will focus on rehabilitation, rather than neglect and mistreatment and that it does so, sooner, rather than later.
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