Children locked in cells and security footage taped over at youth detention centre

In a damning report, Western Australia’s inspector of custodial service finds conditions at Perth centre similar to those at Don Dale

Children in the toughest unit of Western Australia’s Banksia Hill detention centre were denied hot meals and locked in their cells as a form of “behavioural management”, a damning independent report has found.

The report by the WA inspector of custodial services, Neil Morgan, found conditions at Banksia Hill similar to those that sparked a royal commission into the Northern Territory’s Don Dale detention centre, including the increased use of armed guards from the prison’s special operations group to control “incidents”.

It found evidence the Department of Corrective Services had taped over security footage requested by Morgan to assess how long children were locked in cells.

It also found that the use of sliding-pin locks that allow cells to be locked by the detainee on the inside were linked to physical and, in at least one reported instance, a sexual assault.

On 31 December 2016, special operations group guards carried firearms containing beanbag rounds, which were “aimed at three young people but not discharged”, the report found.

On three other occasions in 2016 guards used “chemical agent and distraction devices” to subdue young people. On 4 and 5 May this year, distraction devices were again used.

None of the guards wore body cameras, which Morgan said was a “concern”.

“These are high-risk situations and need a high level of accountability which is currently not sufficient,” Morgan said.

The report, released on Monday, also detailed an event when female detainees were “abruptly moved” to the male-only Harding unit “without clear rationale”, causing them to become “unstable” and leading to a rise in self-harm.

Girls who were placed under observation after threatening self-harm were placed in observation cells alongside boys, with temporary screens providing a visual barrier but nothing to block male detainees from talking to females.

“This was inappropriate and confronting for young women in distress and potentially created trauma,” the report said. “In one case, the situation was allegedly so dire for one young female that after 72 hours in an observation cell, and finding her soaked in her own urine, staff took her to a holding cell in the centre’s admissions area.”

The report found that detainees were held in cells without being allowed an hour-long break every six hours, which is legally required. One child, referred to as “Young Person X”, was recorded as spending only three and a half hours outside a cell between 1 and 9 January this year.

Morgan said his office had heard “credible claims that some electronic records were deliberately being entered incorrectly to meet legislative requirements”, and that the department refused to provide CCTV security footage to verify its lockdown records.

“[The department] then advised that the footage had been recorded over after we had requested it,” the report said. “That was true even of recent footage. This raised serious issues of whether the department had breached our legislation in relation to access to information.

“We are dealing with this matter separately. As there is no evidence to dispute the credible advice we received, we have concluded that records were altered to make it appear that the legislated requirement for exercise had been met.”

The report said the department was not able to provide a satisfactory reason why food to the Harding unit was restricted or changed. One reason given was deterrence, with the department saying: “We make no apology for doing what is necessary to stop young people coming into Harding.”

Another was that sugar caused bad behaviour, and that cutlery was removed to prevent self-harm. None of those explanations stood up, the report said, and reducing food as a form of punishment was contrary to WA prison codes.

“Staff advised us that some young people self-reported weight loss, were hungry, and were denied fruit upon request,” the report said.

Psychologists employed by the detention centre said the lack of food led to lethargy and poor behaviour by some children, who “lacked energy to engage in coping strategies”.

“For one young person with a trauma history of starvation, this culminated in him assaulting a staff member because he was hungry.”

The use of spit hoods was banned in Banksia Hill after the Four Corners report on Don Dale in August 2016, but the report heard one instance where a T-shirt was placed over a young person’s head as a “makeshift spit hood”.

WA’s acting corrections minister, Paul Papalia, said the abuses were the result of previous government’s decision to close Rangeview detention centre and amalgamate it with Banksia Hill in 2012.

He said the government had asked the department to begin work on one of the report’s 17 recommendations, that the “one-stop shop” detention centre model be replaced by several smaller centres around the state.

All but one of those recommendations have been accepted by the department.

“The department has been asked to find alternative accommodation for the girls and young boys and is looking at options, bearing in mind the state’s limited resources,” Papalia said.

“The McGowan Labor government is also in talks with Indigenous not-for-profit and community organisations to find alternatives to keep young people in the justice system on country instead of sending them to Perth.”

Amnesty International said the report showed the abuse of young people in detention centres in Australia was a “national crisis”.

“The brutal abuses of children in WA detention are as bad as those reported in Don Dale, Cleveland and Reiby,” said an Amnesty Indigenous rights campaigner, Roxanne Moore.

““How much suffering should children endure across Australia before prime minister Turnbull admits this is a national crisis?”

The Aboriginal Legal Service of Western Australia called for Banksia Hill to be included in a national royal commission into youth detention after the Don Dale revelations last year.

The Northern Territory royal commission’s report is due next month.


Calla Wahlquist

The GuardianTramp

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