Shortly after Louie turned 15, he was standing in front of a shop window late at night with his friend Joe, who was holding a stolen hammer.
For weeks they had been sleeping on the streets of Perth. At night they would fall asleep sitting in front of hot air vents to keep warm, using a rolled-up jumper for a pillow, lying against each other, Louie’s head on Joe’s shoulder.
“We was doing it hard,” Louie says. Louie is not his real name; Guardian Australia has changed it to protect his privacy.
They argued about who would break the window but then – crack! – they were in.
Louie grabbed as much food as he could carry – confectionery, chips, chocolate, pies – and rolled it into his shirt. He ducked into an alleyway and sat down, trying to eat as much as he could before the police arrived.
“I just put my hands up,” Louie says.
Louie became one of the 949 children behind bars on any given night in Australia. More than half of the children in custody are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, even though they make up only 6% of all 10- to 17-year-olds in Australia.
Aboriginal and Islander children are jailed at 22 times the rate of non-Indigenous young people and they are jailed younger.
When he got to the Western Australia’s youth detention centre, Banksia Hill, on the outskirts of Perth, Louie told youth workers he was glad to be locked up so he could get a change of clothes and a rest.
As a young Indigenous man, Louie has been in and out of Banksia Hill detention centre for most of his young adult life.
When he was 14, living in care, his father died suddenly. He spent the following year between youth detention and homelessness until his mother was released from jail. He went to stay with her. But less than a year later she too died unexpectedly, and Louie was back on the street.
His younger brother, who is 14, has also been in and out of Banksia Hill.
At 19, Louie is now his carer, juggling the trauma of his own childhood in detention and the responsibilities of adulthood.
“We’re jailing kids who are homeless … who are fighting to survive,” says Gerry Georgatos, coordinator of the National Suicide Prevention and Trauma Recovery Project. The organisation supports people living in poverty and struggling with mental health.
Last year Louie, his partner and his brother walked into Georgatos’s office looking for help. They had been sleeping rough in a park. Their story shocked him.
“Child protection failed them, the Department of Corrective Services failed them,” Georgatos says. “We need some systemic repair.”
Louie is one of eight siblings who ended up in different homes across three states.
He was first taken into care when he was eight. He doesn’t know why. One day he was pulled out of school, went on a holiday to a farm and, when he came back, his parents weren’t there any more. He was told he would be living with another family member. Then he moved interstate, away from many of his siblings.
He felt the absence of his parents more as he grew older. Mother’s Day at school was particularly hard.
“I was just out of place my whole life,” he says. “I started questioning: why don’t I have a life like everyone else? I just hated it! I hated everything.”
As a teenager he started hanging out on the streets and fell in with a crowd of kids who would go out at night, drink, throw rocks at houses, and sometimes break in. Eventually he got caught.
He says his lawyer told him he could be facing up to a year in detention on remand before his case came back to court, and advised him to plead guilty.
“They told me straight out, you’re going to Banksia Hill.”
On the way there he felt nervous. He had only seen the inside of prison on TV. On arrival, he was placed in a holding cell with two other boys – one 12, the other 11. Louie sat down next to the youngest boy.
“The size of his legs was like the size of my wrist,” Louie says. “He was a small skinny boy. Just a really little squeaky voice … no facial hair, nothing.”
Louie was taken to a cell and locked in for the night. He had a toilet, a shower, a bed and a TV covered with a protective plastic screen so heavily scratched he couldn’t see anything.
“I was like hell scared,” he says. “I was in the corner rocking back and forth. My throat was hurting, it was hard to swallow. My chest felt like it was caved in … I cried for like the whole night.”
After a few days he was given bail, on condition that he went to school and attended every class.
Only a few weeks later, Louie got the news that his father had died. Struggling with grief, Louie got into trouble at school and breached his bail condition.
He was sent back to Banksia on a two-month sentence.
“I cried the whole way, I was angry the whole time,” he says. “I had no control over my own life, that’s what it felt like.”
Louie met six cousins in the centre. In his unit of 30 boys, he says there was only one non-Indigenous kid. On average, three-quarters of the 100 to 150 kids in Banksia Hill are Aboriginal.
“There’s really a problem of systemic racism in the justice system that we’re not tackling,” says Hannah McGlade, a human rights lawyer and Noongar woman who is a member of the UN permanent forum for Indigenous peoples.
“We really are traumatising young people and we’re setting them up for a life of institutionalisation, which is a shocking abdication of our duty to Aboriginal youth.”
The worst part about life in Banksia was Louie’s time in solitary confinement. After getting in trouble for fighting, he says he was placed in a small, windowless cell the size of a parking space for about 14 days. This area is called the intensive support unit or ISU, but the boys had a different name for it.
“It’s called the ‘back’ or the ‘hole’,” Louie says. “It’s like sitting in the back of a police van. I could touch both sides.”
On any given day there’s an average of 13 young people in the ISU. Louie says he was kept inside for up to 23 hours a day, with no TV, no school, no human interaction whatsoever.
“You know how, you put a dog in a cage and stop it from going to the outside world and it triggers something in their brain that makes them really violent? And they get hell vicious? Pretty much exactly the same.”
Louie says he was only allowed out for two phone calls a day, with 10 minutes afterwards to exercise by himself in a caged outdoor area with a basketball. When he called his family, they rarely answered.
“When you get a call from Banksia it will say, ‘You have received the call from the detainee in Banksia detention centre, if you would like to receive this call stay on the line, if not please hang up,’” he says. “Every time I rang up, they just hung up on me.”
But Louie would pretend to be on the phone, talking to his family, just to stay out of the hole.
“That treatment would constitute torture under human rights law,” McGlade says. “It is absolutely shocking, and it is prohibited, and is being used frequently in this state.”
According the UN, any period of solitary confinement for juveniles constitutes torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and should be prohibited.
In 2018 the West Australian inspector of custodial services described the ISU as “a highly inappropriate and counter-therapeutic environment to house young people who are, or had been, acutely mentally unwell”. An investigation by the inspector found that two teenagers had been held in solitary confinement for 10 days in 2017. He recommended a review of the Young Offenders Act 1995 to ensure children were given a minimum of two hours outside the cell each day in accordance with international law.
The WA Department of Justice told Guardian Australia that this review has not yet been carried out. In response to questions about the conditions in the unit, the department said: “Young people held in the ISU on average spend 10 hours out of their cell and have access to all services provided at Banksia Hill.”
Louie says he was kept in the hole for about 14 days but it’s hard to remember. His younger brother claims that he’s been kept in the hole for “months”. Louie’s friend Joe, whose name the Guardian has changed for privacy reason, is now serving a sentence in Banksia. He told Louie that he’s been in and out of the hole for the past six months. He calls often, in distress.
“He rang me, upset, saying, ‘I want to kill myself; this is getting to me, I can’t sit in this place no more,’” Louie says.
The department said it “cannot comment on specific allegations about individuals in care” and that Banksia Hill had introduced a new “trauma-informed model of care” with the intention of “reducing recidivism rates”.
Looking back at his treatment in the justice system, Louie believes “harder consequences” didn’t work. He just needed a safe place to go. He also wishes someone had listened to him. Nobody asked about his parents or how he felt about losing them.
“They never ever actually said, ‘How do you feel about everything?’ Or, ‘What’s going through your head?’ They never ever did that once.
“I just wanted to say what I was thinking. Well, I never got the chance.”
Louie’s connections to the world are fragile. He has trouble reading and writing, he doesn’t have any form of identification and he’s fighting to keep his little brother out of detention. Louie hasn’t been detained for the past two years but he’s worried that some unpaid fines might land him back inside – this time in an adult prison.
With the assistance of the National Suicide Prevention and Trauma Recovery Project and the First Nations Homelessness project, he has found housing.
“I want a job,” he says. “I want to drive a big car and I want a big house. They said I was gonna be nothing.”
After being out of place his whole life, he wants to belong.
The Childhood in custody series is supported by the Barlow foundation. Read more about how the Guardian funds some content here.