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Demonising Banksia Hill kids a ploy to shift focus from crisis

By Kimberley Wilde, The West Australian, 16 May 2023

The latest riot at Banksia Hill Detention Centre was an inevitable result of long-term dysfunction and escalating tension at the facility, and clear evidence that jailing is failing in WA’s youth justice system.

When children do not receive adequate support and fair treatment while imprisoned, they are much more likely to behave as we saw last week and in past riots and disturbances at both Banksia Hill and Casuarina Unit 18.  Looking ahead, they are much more likely to reoffend on release.

Premier McGowan is quick to demonise the children at Banksia Hill by telling us all the reasons they may have come into custody. This is an attempt to deflect focus from the appalling conditions for both children and staff there.

Regardless of the events that led to their incarceration, we cannot push aside the question of how children are treated when they are in youth detention. The more punitive the regime in Banksia Hill becomes, the more we can expect problematic behaviour to escalate.

For many months now, Banksia Hill has been operating unlawfully. Despite a Supreme Court ruling that confining children to cells for more than 20 hours a day is unlawful, this practice has continued.

Children at Banksia Hill are regularly confined to cells for unbearably long periods of time, not because of misbehaviour while they are detained but because of chronic staff shortages.

Banksia Hill is being locked down frequently and for extended times, with children confined to cells, and programs, visits, and appointments cancelled. The children there have no power to negotiate these conditions, so of course they want to resist.

It's clear the Department of Justice recognises the dire and overdue need for significant change. The recent appointment of Tim Marney to steer implementation of the new operating philosophy and service model at Banksia Hill is a welcome step, but his task will be impossible unless the persistent and escalating crisis caused by staffing shortages and rolling lockdowns is addressed.

To remedy chronic staffing shortages, the government must partner with community and community services, particularly with First Nations peoples, to immediately establish an appropriately sized and skilled non-custodial workforce in Banksia Hill.

While the current priority is to boost staff numbers, in the longer term there must be balance of a permanent internal workforce with support from external services staff. Children at Banksia Hill need continuity of care to develop trust and facilitate rehabilitation, and this will be best achieved with a stable, skilled, and supported internal workforce.

An immediate response must also include mediation with the children, their families, and staff to collaboratively develop a crisis recovery plan.

Children at Banksia Hill have been completely disempowered to the point of explosion. Involving them in a collaborative process of recovery planning can generate a sense of ownership and buy-in that is arguably necessary to move beyond crisis and pave the way for implementation of the new operating philosophy.

Children who are sentenced and children who are on remand must be accommodated separately, with trauma-informed and culturally and developmentally appropriate interventions and supports provided to both cohorts. This can swiftly be achieved under the one roof, and recognises that the population of children who are sentenced tends to be more stable while those on remand are more transient and less settled.

Finally, we also need to consider the physical environment of our youth justice facilities. Prison-like architecture and culture hinders children’s prospects for rehabilitation. Even when the issues of staffing shortages and regular confinements are finally resolved, and even if children access incredible programs during the day, they are still accommodated in a prison-like setting – sending them a clear message at a formative time in their lives that they are criminals who must be excluded from our community.

Banksia Hill has failed as a youth justice facility.

The Justice Reform Initiative is calling on the McGowan Government to follow the example of the Tasmanian Government’s commitment to close Ashley Youth Detention Centre and establish purpose-built, smaller, therapeutic facilities.

For the sake of these children and the community we are seeking to protect, Western Australia needs to commit to a timeline to close Banksia Hill and transition to using smaller, localised residential facilities that are designed and built with the trauma-informed operating philosophy and service model in mind.


Kimberley Wilde is WA Advocacy and Campaign Coordinator for the Justice Reform Initiative.

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