Anger over transfer of 14-year-old boy from Banksia Hill Youth Detention Center to Casuarina Prison

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A prominent Perth solicitor has expressed outrage that a client aged just 14 is currently being held in Casuarina Prison, saying he has not been given any reason why the boy was transferred to the adult prison at maximum security.

Criminal barrister Seamus Rafferty said he was due to see the boy at Banksia Hill Juvenile Detention Center later this week, but received an email on Monday saying the teenager was being moved to “the 18” unit.

Unit 18 was established at Casuarina Prison in July to initially house a small cohort of teenagers due to what authorities called their “extreme behavior” inside Banksia Hill.

The behavior at the time included inmates threatening and assaulting staff, self-harming and damaging cells to such an extent that many were rendered unusable.

Banksia Hill cells were extensively damaged by inmates in July.(Provided: Department of Justice)

Displacement “totally inappropriate”

Mr Rafferty said the email his company received gave no reason why his client had been transferred from Banksia Hill.

“We are in negotiations which we believe will lead to the finalization of this deal next week, but we have no idea why he was transferred to Casuarina,” he said.

An outdoor basketball court on a cloudy day surrounded by a high fence
Authorities said inmates at Banksia Hill in Casuarina would be held in separate areas from adult inmates.(Provided)

It is understood the boy is from regional Western Australia and Mr Rafferty described Casuarina Prison as a ‘totally inappropriate environment’ for him.

“There were a number of findings that he lacked the capacity to comprehend the wrongfulness of his past conduct,” Mr Rafferty said.

“He comes from a very difficult family situation…he’s had absolutely no opportunities and has a number of issues, and I just don’t understand why a child of this very young age would be put in such a toxic environment as Casuarina prison.

“It defies all understanding and it’s so inappropriate.”

Transfer follows ‘strict assessment’

A Department of Justice spokesman said there are currently 12 youths in Unit 18, down from the 17 who were originally sent there in July.

“Each transfer of a youngster to Unit 18 follows a strict assessment by a multi-disciplinary team based on a range of factors,” the spokesperson said.

“The assessment takes into consideration the safety and security of this youngster, as well as other inmates and staff at Banksia Hill.”

When a young person is transferred to the unit, their adult or carer is notified, as well as their lawyer, the spokesperson said.

Young inmates in the unit have no contact with adult inmates.

“All young people in Unit 18 are screened regularly to determine the most appropriate placement and transferred to Banksia Hill if their behavior is assessed as safe and appropriate to manage in that environment,” the spokesperson said.

“The operation of Unit 18 has reduced the frequency of lockdowns at Banksia Hill, allowing a return to normal operations in which the majority of inmates at Banksia Hill can fully participate in education and programs that meet their needs. “

Concerns for a ‘small and fragile’ boy

Mr Rafferty said he would seek bail for his client as soon as possible, but in the meantime he remained concerned for his welfare.

He generally has a strict policy of not speaking publicly about his clients, but said he was so outraged by what happened that he felt he had to put his concerns on the record.

A man looking down walks outside in Perth's CBD wearing a suit and glasses and carrying documents.
Seamus Rafferty says the boy has “a number of issues” and should not be kept at Casuarina.(ABC News: Nicolas Perpitch)

“He’s a very small young boy, very small, very fragile and not very mature…he looks younger than his age,” he said.

“It is simply not appropriate for a child to be in the facility near maximum security adult inmates under any circumstances.”

Mr Rafferty’s comments come after a top WA judge called the state’s youth justice system ‘broken’ and a ‘hopeless case’.

Retired judge Denis Reynolds, who was president of Western Australia’s Children’s Court for 14 years, said the recent transfer of teenagers from Banksia Hill to adult prison was ‘appalling’ and ‘the result persistent incompetence”.

The comments echoed the sentiment of current President of the Children’s Court, Hylton Quail, who warned earlier this year “when you treat an injured child like an animal, they will behave like an animal”.

The remarks about conditions at Banksia Hill were made during the sentencing of a 15-year-old boy who assaulted guards at the facility.

Figures paint a grim picture of inmate mental health

New figures provided to the WA Legislative Council reveal that from the start of August until Monday this week there have been 10 attempted suicides and 60 incidents of mostly minor self-harm in the unit 18.

This compares to no suicide attempts and 31 incidents of self-harm at Banksia Hill Institution.

Corrections Minister Bill Johnston said he did not consider those numbers acceptable, but defended moving a small cohort to Unit 18.

“I think it’s terrible, and we’re doing what we can to provide the psychological services to this small cohort. [in unit 18]“, he told ABC Radio Perth.

“The important point here is Banksia Hill Institution, where the overwhelming majority of inmates are, they now receive all the services they need.

“Before [the move]every time there was a violent incident of this small cohort, they were denied the services they deserved, and I don’t think anyone in the community thinks a small cohort should disrupt the benefits of this larger great cohort.”

Mr Johnston also described the detention of the teenagers in Unit 18 as ‘completely sub-optimal’, adding that ‘no one likes the situation’.

“I have visited it, I know how hard the youth caretakers work to try and provide a therapeutic environment,” he said.

“But it’s almost impossible when every time they let a group of inmates get together, there’s violence. It’s very, very difficult.”

Prison transfers spark outcry

The WA government described the transfer of “young violent offenders” from WA’s only youth detention center to Casuarina as a success, saying it meant Banksia Hill was running more smoothly.

But the move sparked an uproar among state and country advocates.

WA’s Commissioner for Children and Young People, Jacqueline McGowan-Jones, said the transfer of young inmates to an adult facility was “the result of the Government’s successive failure in social justice policies”.

Upon inspection of the Casuarina wing where children as young as 14 were moved, she concluded that it was “in no way a suitable environment”.

She said completely separating the groups was not logistically possible and called it a concern.

A spacious hall with several long tables and benches with a green floor.
The dining room at Casuarina Prison where Banksia Hill inmates receive their meals. (Provided)

Ms. McGowan-Jones also called for greater emphasis on prevention, diversion and rehabilitation programs and more restorative justice approaches.

“We need to look beyond the facilities options and start tackling the root cause of social disadvantage,” she said.

“The vast majority of young people in the youth justice system have experienced significant trauma in their lives resulting in criminal behavior and may have cognitive impairments and other psychosocial disabilities.

“This means that every decision made about them and every response to their behavior must be aimed at rehabilitation.

Call for a new approach

Ms McGowan-Jones’ sentiments were echoed by Australia’s National Children’s Commissioner, Anne Hollonds, who said after a recent visit to Banksia Hill that the crisis at the facility was ‘just the high point of the ‘long-term failure of child welfare policy and systems in this country’.

The Australian Human Rights Commission has also criticized the practice, saying it stemmed from the “cruel and degrading” conditions at Banksia Hill and that it was time for the Australian government to change its approach.

An aerial photo showing a cluster of buildings and a grassy oval.
There have been many reviews of the conditions inside Banksia Hill.(ABC News: Manny Tesconi)

“The current punitive approach is not keeping our communities safe, with evidence showing it leads to higher recidivism rates. It is not an efficient use of taxpayers’ money and it does not protect children’s rights,” the Commission said.

WA’s youth detention crisis continues, with WA Police last week admitting they held two minors at the adult Perth Watch House due to ‘exceptional circumstances’.

Officers said they had no choice but to hold them there for about three hours one evening after Banksia Hill staff told them they could not receive inmates.

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