Justice Reform Initiative Media Release, 11 May 2023
The riot at Banksia Hill Detention Centre overnight, involving almost 50 detainees, highlights the ongoing failure of Western Australia’s broken youth justice system, and the need for immediate evidence-based reform to quell the crisis.
The Justice Reform Initiative’s Executive Director Dr Mindy Sotiri said the incident on Wednesday showed once again that the existing punitive approach to youth justice is failing.
“Another riot at Banksia Hill is evidence of a terribly broken system. It is a facility in crisis. We cannot wait for more riots, more injuries, and more self-harm to recognise that the current approach to youth justice is simply not working,” she said.
Dr Sotiri said that regardless of the reasons that children come into custody; regardless of what crimes they have been charged with or committed; if they do not receive adequate support and fair treatment when they are imprisoned, they are much more likely to reoffend on release, and much more likely to exhibit behaviours like those seen overnight and in previous riots at Banksia Hill.
“When children are subject to punitive treatment, including long periods of isolation in cells, and are highly distressed, disruptive behaviours escalate. This is what we are seeing inside Banksia Hill at the moment,” she said.
“We know that rolling lockdowns are an ongoing issue. We also know that these lockdowns are not in response to children’s behaviour, but a response to ongoing staff shortages.”
“It is clear that jailing is failing these children, it is failing the people who are paid to supervise them, it is failing all West Australians, and it needs to change.”
An internal review commissioned by the WA Government recently recommended a new trauma-informed operating philosophy for Banksia Hill. While this is welcomed and the Department of Justice is working on implementation of the new operating philosophy and service model, Dr Sotiri said it would have limited effectiveness inside a system in crisis with significant and ongoing staff shortages.
“A new model of care cannot simply be dropped into a system that is clearly in crisis,” she said.
“We need to first consider the existing prison-like architecture and culture of a detention centre that has such a long history of causing harm to the children who are incarcerated there.”
The Justice Reform Initiative recommended the WA Government take these immediate steps to address the current and escalating crisis at Banksia Hill:
- The Department of Justice and BHDC partner with community sector organisations, particularly with ACCOs, to get a non-custodial workforce into BHDC immediately to address the ongoing staffing shortages and prevent further lockdowns.
- Ensure children on remand and children who are sentenced are separated and provide appropriate supports to both cohorts. This necessarily includes increasing bail support options in the community to reduce reliance on remand.
- Develop a crisis recovery plan by implementing an immediate mediation process with children and their families, staff and relevant community sector and First Nations led organisations.
Dr Sotiri further urged the WA Government to follow the example of the Ashley Youth Detention Centre in Tasmania, which is to be shut down by 2024 following years of ill-treatment and harm of the children incarcerated there and replaced by two small purpose-built facilities.
“There is a need for parliaments across Australia to take a clear-eyed look at what the evidence says actually works when it comes to safe and effective prison environments and reducing reoffending. The decision made by the Tasmanian Government recognised the strong body of evidence noting the failure of the existing system, as well as the evidence outlining the need for both trauma informed models of care, and smaller therapeutic centres that would genuinely provide incarcerated children with the opportunities required to address the drivers of incarceration.”
The Justice Reform Initiative is a multi-partisan alliance supported by more than 120 of our most eminent Australians, including two former Governors-General, former Members of Parliament from all sides of politics, academics, respected Aboriginal leaders, senior former judges, including High Court judges, and others who have added their voices to end Australia’s dangerously high reliance on jails.
The Initiative is calling for governments around Australia to move away from an entrenched reliance on incarceration as the mainstay of the criminal justice system and adopt an evidence-based approach to deliver better results for taxpayers, communities and people in the criminal justice system.
For more information and a list of patrons of the Justice Reform Initiative visit https://www.justicereforminitiative.org.au/.
Media contact: Amy Price 0437 027 156
The Initiative respectfully acknowledges and supports the current and longstanding efforts of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to reduce the numbers of Indigenous people incarcerated in Australia and, importantly, the leadership role which Indigenous-led organisations continue to play on this issue. We also acknowledge the work of many other individuals and organisations seeking change, such as those focused on the rate of imprisonment for women, people with mental health issues, people with disability and others.