Western Australian youth detainees set fire to prison after suffering abuse

22 January 2023
Erin Russell

Prisoners inside Western Australia’s only youth detention centre, Banksia Hill, heralded the new year with an act of resistance—burning a building to the ground and climbing to the top of the prison’s perimeter fence. A look into the daily conditions faced by these young people, many of them Indigenous, shows why they would want to fight back against this horrendous institution.

Last November, the ABC’s Four Corners program put a spotlight on the mistreatment of inmates at Banksia Hill. It showed disturbing footage of guards brutalising children, holding them face down and bending their legs backwards in a position known as hog-tying or “folding up”. This practice has been banned in other states because it carries the risk of suffocation and death. In one recording, a boy can be heard crying out “I can’t breathe” while being forcefully held down by five officers.

Children at Banksia Hill are regularly placed in solitary confinement. A recent Supreme Court ruling against the WA government found that on 26 occasions a boy was unlawfully confined to his cell for more than twenty hours a day.

One ex-detainee spoke to Four Corners about his torturous experience. Children who misbehave or try to harm themselves are sent to what is preposterously called the “intensive support unit”. He described hearing other inmates crying out “I want to kill myself” and getting no response. “You got no one to talk to, basically looking at four walls and after a while it will slowly get to you. The support for boys trying to harm themselves is the lowest it could be.”

There had been 32 suicide attempts within the year at the time of the report’s release.

Another ex-detainee talked about the blatant racism shown by guards, who called Indigenous inmates “b**ngs, black c***s, apes and monkeys”. Sixty three percent of inmates are Indigenous, despite making up only 3.3 percent of the Western Australian population. A 2018 study by the Telethon Institute found that 89 percent of youth detainees in WA had a severe cognitive impairment, and the rate of foetal alcohol spectrum disorder was the highest of any prison environment in the world.

The whole system is designed to target the most disadvantaged children in society, punish them for lashing out and then traumatise them further.

“The children of Banksia are our most impoverished, most traumatised children”, writes trauma recovery advocate Gerry Georgatos in an opinion piece for Independent Australia. “The majority were without a chance at a good life from the beginning—born into multiple disadvantages and cruel unfairness.” He describes Banksia Hill as “a corral of human misery”.

How has the Western Australian Labor government responded to the conditions in the centre? When riots occurred last year (a signal that detainees were suffering) the Department of Corrective Services sent the “worst offenders” to a maximum security adult prison. The government has continued to defend the decision despite widespread criticism.

When Four Corners reporter Grace Tobin asked Corrective Services Minister Bill Johnston if he knew what folding up was, he denied any knowledge of the practice and distanced himself from the mistreatment of kids in detention, arguing: “I’m the minister. I don’t personally work in the custodial estate, I’m not a youth custodial officer. Of course it’s not reasonable for me to know the specific details of any allegations that might be made by a young offender”.

The government has come under increased fire since the Four Corners program aired. In an effort to neutralise the growing criticism, 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. The announcement was criticised by Aboriginal community leaders and human rights advocates, with the co-chair of Social Reinvestment WA and CEO of the Wungening Aboriginal Corporation, Daniel Morrison, dismissing it as 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”.

The events of new year’s eve confirm that the conditions have not changed. Where there are riots, there is suffering and desperation. Banksia Hill is a racist disgrace where the systematic torture of vulnerable kids takes place. Justice won’t be served until the whole facility is destroyed and those who run it are charged with child abuse.

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