“Every time there’s a knock at the door I think it’s a policeman coming to tell me he’s dead,” a Noongar grandmother of a 15-year-old boy currently being held inside Western Australia’s Casuarina men’s prison tells Guardian Australia.
“It’s beyond worrying now, it’s the expectation.”
The boy, who has been in and out of juvenile detention, foster care and homelessness, is one of a number of mostly Aboriginal boys transferred from Banksia Hill juvenile detention centre to a separate youth wing at Casuarina, south of Perth, over disruptive and damaging behaviour, while upgrades to the juvenile facility are carried out.
He recently attempted suicide for the third time.
It was several days before she was told by the authorities that he had been taken to hospital, where he was treated before being released back to Casuarina prison.
“There’s something going wrong there … for them kids to think dying is the only way to get out of there,” she says.
Across the country, the juvenile justice system is in crisis, according to families of incarcerated young people, lawyers and human rights advocates. There have been calls for urgent reforms in WA, the Northern Territory and Tasmania, while federal, state and territory governments have committed to reducing juvenile detention rates by 30% by 2031.
This week WA’s corrective services minister, Bill Johnston, announced a review into the state’s juvenile justice legislation. He acknowledged the state is facing a “changing youth justice landscape”.
The review will also examine the over-representation of young Aboriginal people in detention, the impact of cognitive impairment disabilities and the separation and isolation of detainees.
In a report released in April, the state’s custodial inspector, Eamon Ryan, found there had been 24 attempted suicides at Banksia Hill between January and November of 2021.
Neil Morgan, who inspected WA’s adult prisons and its sole juvenile detention centre for more than a decade, says conditions at the facility are contributing to declines in the behaviour of young detainees’ mental health, causing them to act out.
“If you weren’t ill before you went there, you would be ill within a very short time of being in that facility,” he says. “This is completely counter-therapeutic and yet that’s where we put young people who are most in need and most at risk.”
Morgan says the transfer of young offenders to the adult prison is a sign the system is buckling under the strain.
“The bottom line is it should never have come to this. We should never have been in the position of having to transfer young people to an adult prison,” he says.
During his time inspecting the state’s prisons, Morgan says more than a dozen of his reports were tabled, along with numerous reviews and inquiries, including into the 2013 decision to transfer youths to Hakea prison.
“My job was to report on custodial facilities to parliament once every three years,” he says. “It tells you a big story that I was reporting on Banskia Hill every year because things were just not right.”
The former inspector and lawyer says while national or state inquiries are costly, too often they fail to provoke meaningful reform.
“It’s inquiry after inquiry. We need some action,” he says. “Now I think the government probably knows what needs to be done, which is to close Banksia Hill and have a plan to move to smaller, more trauma-informed facilities. But it will be expensive upfront and I don’t think they’re prepared to spend that sort of money.”
Banksia Hill is not alone in facing fierce criticism. Other juvenile detention centres, such as Don Dale in the NT and Ashley in Tasmania, have also been criticised as unfit for purpose.
Donna, 69, is an outspoken critic of Don Dale, a former male prison that holds children as young as 10. Her grandson was one of them. The year 5 student had just celebrated his 11th birthday two weeks before he was sent to Don Dale.
“That was pretty horrific for me, to know that my [grandson was] gonna be sleeping in a cell in a cage at a condemned male prison,” says Donna, whose surname has not been published for legal reasons.
Her grandson sought comfort and kinship with young people from similar backgrounds, she says, but run-ins with the law quickly became normalised.
“They speak the same language and they understand one another because of the traumas they faced.”
Don Dale was internationally condemned in 2016 after media revealed children at the facility were teargassed and spit-hooded. Public outcry led to the 2017 royal commission into the detention and protection of children in the Northern Territory.
Donna’s grandson is now out of detention and when Guardian Australia spoke to the family, he was celebrating his 12th birthday.
“He’s back with his dad. He can see some of his friends again now. He’s been doing really well, complying with his bail agreements – so hopefully that continues,” Donna says.
Last year the NT government settled a class action, paying $35m to former Don Dale detainees mistreated between 2006 and 2017. Meanwhile, lawyers in WA are preparing to bring a class action against the state government over the alleged ill-treatment of Banksia Hill detainees.
In Tasmania, the Ashley youth detention centre has been at the centre of harrowing reports of historical allegations of physical and sexual abuse, as well as punitive lockdowns due to staffing shortages.
Amnesty International’s Rodney Dillion says the centre should be “burned to the ground”, after damning allegations surfaced during the state’s inquiry into institutional child sexual abuse.
He says widespread reforms across the juvenile justice system are needed to reduce young people revolving in and out of prisons.
“The system’s broken and not only in Tasmania – this is just the tip of the iceberg,” Dillion says. “I would say these places are not fit for children.
“The detention centres end up being like a kind of apprenticeship to the big prisons, the adult prisons. What’s gonna happen to those kids that come out of that system?”
Holistic and trauma-informed programs and early intervention schemes need to be put in place to divert children at risk of ending up in detention, he says.
“We need ones that are run by Aboriginal people for Aboriginal kids, because they show that when the kids go in those places [the detention centres], they come out worse.”
The state has committed to closing centre by the end of 2023 as a key part of reforming its juvenile justice system, according to a spokesperson for Communities Tasmania.
“The Tasmanian government has also commenced a comprehensive reform of the youth justice system, including development of new facilities to replace the Ashley youth detention centre.
The NT government has committed to closing its detention centres within the same timeframe. It also says it’s committed to overhauling the youth justice system and delivering a “progressive” system, focusing on early diversion and intervention programs.
“The youth justice system we have today is a far cry from that which this government inherited,” a spokesperson for the NT government said in a statement.
“It includes a therapeutic model of care developed with extensive stakeholder input, which is now being rolled out across the system.”
The WA government declined to answer questions on the future of Banksia Hill but said multimillion-dollar upgrades are being carried out to create a more therapeutic environment for young people at risk.
The government said detainees are provided trauma-informed comprehensive support in both Banksia Hill and unit 18 at Casuarina.
“This includes systemic interventions, as well as support from various services available, such as psychologists, mental health workers, Aboriginal youth support officers, aboriginal visitors, family and community supports and mentors.”
The most recent statistics show there are signs of progress in reducing incarceration in all jurisdictions except for the Northern Territory, where youth detention rates are climbing.
The federal minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney, says she was alarmed at reports of children self-harming.
“I am deeply concerned about reports of self-harm and abuse in youth detention facilities and the transfer of young people to an adult maximum security facility,” she says.
Burney says the federal government is committed to reducing the drivers of incarceration by way of justice reinvestment programs around the country to divert at-risk young people away from incarceration.
The federal attorney general’s office said it is working with states and territories to reduce young people’s contact with the justice system, including raising the age of detention and criminal responsibility.
The grandmother of the 15-year-old boy incarcerated at Casuarina says it cannot come soon enough for her and other families like hers.
“We don’t need Band-Aids; we need people that work with kids and put their money into working with them.”
• In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. Other international suicide helplines can be found at befrienders.org