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Leaked emails expose mental health crisis in youth prison, WA Law Society slams "unlawful" treatment of detainees

Giovanni Torre -

Warning: this article contains details of a suicide attempt.


A boy inside Western Australia's Unit 18 juvenile detention facility at Casuarina adult prison tried to bite his wrists open days after psychologist appointments there were repeatedly cancelled, The Australian has revealed.

In an exclusive, the newspaper reported that the boy, understood to be a ward of the state, was classified as requiring level-one psychological care and constant observation in the days leading up to his self-harm.

The Australian obtained internal emails showing psychological appointments for the boy and the other most mentally vulnerable juvenile offenders inside Unit 18 had been repeatedly cancelled, with psychologists advised the cancellations were because of staffing shortages and a lack of private areas within the maximum security adult prison.

Indigenous children are drastically over-represented in the youth detention system in Western Australia.

In August last year questions from Brad Pettitt, Member for South Metropolitan in Western Australia's upper house, revealed a shocking rate of self-harm and suicide attempts in both Unit 18 and Banksia Hill Detention Centre, the youth prison from which the Unit 18 cohort was transferred in July.

The response from a representative for Corrective Services Minister Bill Johnston showed that between July 20 and August 8, there had been 13 self-harm incidents and three attempted suicides at Unit 18. Parliament also heard July had seen 36 self-harm incidents and one attempted suicide in Banksia Hill, and an additional three self-harm incidents in the first week of August.

Dr Pettitt said at the time that the figures proved detainees were not getting the support they needed.

"It does look like there is a lack of proper care and rehabilitation... They said this (moving the group to Unit 18) would make the situation better, the evidence is it has made it worse," he said.

The emails published by The Australian late on Monday showed that staff within the facilities have told psychologists there was "basically no point" in trying to attend the scheduled appointments.

Current and former Children's Court presidents, the former Inspector of Custodial Services, justice advocacy groups and health experts have been highly critical of the use of Unit 18 and conditions in the facility.

Tensions within the unit have been rising and in April a riot saw several guards injured.

The Australian reported that last Wednesday psychologists were informed appointments had been cancelled because of "insufficient operational staffing and lack of access to confidential psych space".

The emails also show detainees in Unit 18 have been told that seeing a psychologist will count out-of-cell time, which has discouraged them from taking up the appointments, particularly given the use of prolonged lockdowns in the facility due to staff shortages.

On April 20, the psychologists were told that there was "basically no point" in going to Unit 18, The Australian reported.

On Monday the Law Society of Western Australia renewed its call for reforms, noting that it "had and continues to raise its concerns in relation to the manner in which the McGowan government and the Department of Justice are managing children and young people in detention centres at Banksia Hill and Unit 18, Casuarina".

In a statement, the Law Society said the government was "unlawfully": implementing 'rolling lockdowns' when no confinement order exists, resulting in the solitary confinement of detainees in their cell for more than 20 hours a day across the whole or much of Banksia Hill and Unit 18; making confinement orders because of staff shortages under the guise of the Young Offenders Act 1994 (the Act) and the Young Offenders Regulations 1995 (the Regulations); and using Behavioural Management policies, procedures and programs, that allow for the solitary confinement of detainees, and which circumvent and breach express provisions in the Act and Regulations on confinement.

In August Supreme Court of WA justice Paul Tottle ruled the lockdown of a 14-year-old boy in a cell for at least 20 hours per day on 26 occasions in Banksia Hill Detention Centre was unlawful.

The Aboriginal Legal Service has since been fighting in court to stop the use of lockdowns in the youth detention system.

A spokesperson for the Department of Justice told The Australian that Unit 18 was appropriately staffed, there was a confidential psychological services room available for use during consultations, and that time spent with psychologists and other services providers, he said, did not subtract from the detainees' out-of-cell hours.

A state government spokesperson told National Indigenous Times that because "young people in detention – who present with complex and in some instances at-risk behaviours - require direct supervision by staff, the Department of Justice schedules daily programs aimed at maximising time out of cell for all detainees".

"However, good management of the facility, safety and security considerations including incident and emergency management and medical advice can impact those times."

The spokesperson noted the recent appointment of former mental health commissioner and under treasurer Tim Marney, who will "implement a newly developed model of care at the Banksia Hill Detention Centre".

"Mr Marney will work with the Department of Justice to execute a comprehensive change management plan at Banksia Hill aimed at giving detainees the care and services they need," they said.

"The model is founded on best practice in youth justice in Australia and overseas, focusing on rehabilitation and reducing reoffending behaviour through a trauma-informed, therapeutic approach, in turn enabling the safety of all staff.

"The model of care will benefit from nearly $90 million in State Government funding of Banksia Hill announced last year that includes building a Crisis Care Unit, creation of an Aboriginal Services Unit and expansion of mental health and support services."


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