Australian governments must address the crisis in youth detention, according to the country’s human rights commissioners, warning the lives of young people are being placed at serious risk.
The call comes after the ABC’s Four Corners program on Monday showed images of incarcerated children being forcibly restrained at Perth’s Banksia Hill detention centre using so-called four point restraints and detailed wider concerns about the youth justice system, including the use of prolonged lockdowns, solitary confinement and self-harm and suicide attempts.
The federal attorney general, Mark Dreyfus, described the program as “deeply disturbing, though, frustratingly all too familiar”.
“We have to do better when it comes to the treatment of children and young people in detention,” he said.
In a joint statement, the Australian Human Rights Commission said it was clear “the current approach of tougher sentencing and bail laws, punitive conditions, building more children’s prisons for increasing numbers and incarcerating children as young as 10 years old is not working to keep the community safe”.
Commissioners June Oscar, Anne Hollonds, Chin Tan and Lorraine Finlay said children’s rights were being routinely violated.
“The human rights of children in detention continue to be violated routinely, and their lives placed at serious risk. Last night’s Four Corners program showed examples of serious abuse, systemic failures, institutional racism, and neglect,” the statement said.
There were 46 complaints of excessive force against youth detention staff at Banskia Hill investigated over the 12-month period to 30 September 2022.
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According to figures provided by the WA corrections minister’s office, 10 staff were under investigation over complaints of excessive use of force, with two of the completed complaints being “sustained”.
The Department of Justice has been contacted to clarify whether two complaints being “sustained” means any further action will be taken.
In a response to Guardian Australia’s questions, a spokesperson for Western Australia’s corrective services minister, Bill Johnston, said the use of restraints was a “last resort”, and guards were trained to restrain young people safely.
“They are also trained to recognise and ensure that a restraint technique does not inhibit a person’s breathing,” the statement said.
WA’s prisons inspector, Eamon Ryan, is set to meet with the premier, Mark McGowan, the corrections minister and WA’s children’s commissioner, Jacqueline McGowan-Jones, to discuss youth justice amid ongoing reports of self-harm, suicide attempts and the suitability of the recent transfer of some children from Banksia Hill to a separate wing within Casuarina men’s prison, a maximum security facility.
A date for the meeting is yet to be confirmed.
Ryan told Guardian Australia Banksia Hill had proven to be a failure.
“All of [the reports] are saying the same thing: the excessive lockdowns, critical incidents, self-harms, staff, assaults, staff shortages, all leading to crisis,” he said.
“I’m very concerned and anxious that the situation could deteriorate to the point where one of these many self-harm attempts could result in a tragic outcome.”
Ryan said the allegations of mistreatment or excessive use of force must be fully investigated through the review and complaint processes.
“One complaint or allegation is one too many.”
Doreen Carroll, an Arrente woman and member of the Strong Grandmothers group in central Australia, said the Four Corners episode, which also looked at ongoing problems at the Northern Territory’s Don Dale facility, was confronting and traumatising to watch.
“It’s been talked about for a long time, at least 11 years,” she said.
“It’s just sickening to see this continuing and the mistreatment of children in that institution … I can feel their pain, they are just children.”
A class action against the state government by hundreds of former and current Banksia Hill detainees is being prepared, with a court action expected to be taken within months.
The WA state government said the detention of young people was a last resort, with the majority of people aged 10-17 serving community orders.
“There were 1,278 young people serving orders in the community, compared with 92 in detention,” a spokesperson said.
The justice department said all complaints were thoroughly investigated by an internal review process.
“All complaints involving employees are referred to [the] people, culture and standards division in the Department of Justice which assess and, if required, conduct further investigations under the provisions of the Public Sector Management Act 1994.
“Presently, a number of complaints have been received regarding young people at Banksia Hill detention centre. Where allegations involve criminality they are referred to WA police.”
The department said it had received allegations of employees using racist slurs towards young people but “at present no allegations have been substantiated”.
The WA government did not answer questions about the future of Banksia Hill but said updates to the facility were being carried out with the youth unit at Casuarina prison expected to be closed by the end of June 2023.