The scandal of Indigenous children in detention

4 December 2022
Kim Bullimore

Six years after exposing the appalling treatment of Indigenous children in the Northern Territory’s Dondale prison, ABC’s Four Corners has revealed similarly terrible conditions in Western Australia’s Banksia Hill Juvenile Detention Centre.

The report, which aired on 14 November, opens with disturbing images of children held in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day being held down by prison officers, who “fold” the children into positions which carry a risk of suffocation and death. Reporter Grace Tobin outlines that “state governments are ignoring the evidence from the experts and their own departments. Politicians know that detaining children as young as 10 [and] traumatising them makes them more likely to reoffend”.

Between 2020 and 2021, around 4,695 children aged between 10 and 17 years were incarcerated in youth detention facilities nationally per day, according to a March 2022 Australian Institute for Health and Welfare report. Over the course of the year, a total of 9,352 children spent time in detention. Of the children incarcerated, nearly half (49 percent) were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, despite Indigenous kids making up just 5.8 percent of the total child population in Australia. Nearly three-quarters of children in detention were “unsentenced”, according to the report.

The number of Indigenous children in prison has increased dramatically over the last decade. Speaking with the NT News on 2 November, acting NT Children’s Commissioner Nicole Hucks said her office had recorded a 233 percent increase in the number of children incarcerated. In 2018, it was revealed that every single incarcerated child in the territory was Indigenous, and today the figure is 99 percent. The increase in numbers was primarily due to the 2021 Youth Justice Legislation Amendment introduced by the NT ALP government and passed with bipartisan support in May 2021. At the time, David Woodroffe from the Northern Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency condemned the law, telling the National Indigenous Times the legislation would “put more children behind bars and make them more likely to reoffend”.

In Queensland, Indigenous children now make up 63 percent of all children in detention and account for 84 percent of all youth placed in solitary confinement. In Western Australia, Aboriginal children make up 60 percent of all children in detention, and are being jailed at 21 times the rate of non-Aboriginal kids.

In February 2022, the president of the Perth Children’s Court, Judge Hylton Quail, highlighted the dehumanising conditions in Banksia Hill when he slammed the treatment of a 15-year-old Aboriginal boy kept in solitary confinement for 33 days. Quail noted the causal link between the treatment of the child and his aggressive behaviour against prison guards, saying the boy—who had been diagnosed with foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, attention deficit disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder—had been subject to “prolonged, systematic dehumanisation”.

A month after Quail’s comments, the WA Custodial Services inspector issued a report stating the majority of the children in detention at Banksia Hill had serious cognitive impairments and needed specialised, trauma-informed care. This was not news; high levels of cognitive impairment had been documented four years earlier in a 2018 medical study examining the prevalence of foetal alcohol spectrum disorder among 99 minors—74 percent of whom were Aboriginal—in youth detention at Banksia Hill. The study found that more than one-third (36 percent) of the children had been diagnosed with the disorder. In addition, the study found 88 of 99 children who had participated in the study “had at least one domain of severe neurodevelopmental impairment”. The study further noted that previous studies on youth incarceration had also identified a “high prevalence of intellectual disability and poor mental health” among young people in detention across Australia.

The Custodial Services inspector report also revealed that 24 suicide attempts had occurred in Banksia Hill between January and November 2021. According to the report, children locked up at the detention centre had a “poor quality of life” and had been subject to inhuman conditions, with their rights repeatedly violated. Many had been subject to weeks or months of solitary confinement, spending less than one hour a day outside of their cells, which were small and “in a poor state”. These conditions “typically lead detainees to act out”, an increasing number of children engaging in self-harm. The report also noted that several of the children who had been subject to prolonged solitary confinement had formed a “suicide pact”.

None of this information, however, was included in a 5 July media release issued by the WA Department of Justice and Corrective Services announcing the transfer of 20 youth from Banksia Hill Detention Centre to Casuarina Prison, an adult maximum-security prison. While the media release obliquely referred to the “complex needs” of the children, the primary emphasis was on their “significant offending histories” and track record of “destroying infrastructure, assaulting staff and harming themselves”.

Responding to the announced transfer, the Australian Human Rights Commission issued a statement saying that they were “deeply concerned” for “the safety and wellbeing” of the teenagers as “this was not a safe or suitable option for these young people, many of whom have experienced cruel and degrading conditions in their treatment at Banksia Hill, including long periods in isolation and inadequate care for their complex needs”.

In an effort to stymie the growing criticism of his government, on 27 November, Western Australian Premier Mark McGowan announced a $63 million funding boost for Banksia Hill, half of which would go towards infrastructure upgrades, including the strengthening of security to control “high risk and difficult” detainees. Of that, $22 million would go towards hiring more staff, including prison guards, while only $10 million would be spent on mental health services.

The announcement was criticised by Aboriginal community leaders, as well as health and human rights advocates, who attended an emergency “summit” called by McGowan. The co-chair of Social Reinvestment WA and CEO of the Wungening Aboriginal Corporation, Daniel Morrison, dismissed the move as little more than a media stunt, telling the Guardian that if the premier “put half as much energy into actually fixing the issues, we would all be in a better place, including the children without a voice”.

Repression and incarceration, rather than investment in improved living conditions, health care and measures to address social inequality, will only make racism, and the suffering it causes, worse.

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