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National spotlight shines on Western Australia's youth justice shame

Giovanni Torre -

The humanitarian crisis in Western Australia's youth justice system is on the national stage with more and more voices calling for urgent reforms.

The West Australian and Seven News published footage on Sunday showing a 14 year-old Indigenous boy in Banksia Hill Detention Centre wearing only a white gown having his hands cuffed behind his back while being pinned to the floor by three guards.

An officer shifts the boy's legs until they're crossed behind him and then sits on them, a hog tie-like position known as "folding up", which was banned in Queensland youth detention centres after a review found it posed a risk of suffocation and death.

The ABC's Four Corners program also broadcast footage from within Banksia Hill and detailed restraining practices used on children in the facility.

The boy in the video told the ABC he could feel his muscles "burning and aching".

He said he had been stuck in his cell all day and had not had a chance to shower.

The boy told the ABC that when an officer arrived with an evening meal, he tossed a piece of bread to the floor, a gesture that drove the boy to want to finally get out of his cell.

"They chucked that out on the ground like I was an animal. And personally, me, I wouldn't let that go," he said of the incident before he tried to leave his cell.

The footage comes days after a scathing letter from the Telethon Kids Institute condemned the state government's handling of youth justice, and in the wake of former Children's Court president Denis Reynolds and former Inspector of Custodial Services Neil Morgan renewing their condemnation of Banksia Hill and Professor Morgan calling for it to be closed down.

A WA parliamentary committee headed by MP Libby Mettam has also pushed for an inquiry into the youth detention system.

Advocates including Noongar law academic Associate Professor Hannah McGlade have previously urged Federal intervention in the crisis, noting that Western Australia has the highest rate of Indigenous youth incarceration in the country.

Four Corners, which exposed the brutal treatment of young detainees inside in the Northern Territory's Don Dale facility six years ago, broadcast serious allegations of excessive force in Banksia Hill, including the regular use of the "fold up" position.

The program broadcast video of a second incident involving the same 14 year-old after he allegedly struck a guard with a mop, recorded by body-worn cameras showing five officers restraining him face down on his bed using the same folding-up technique as he begs them repeatedly to ease the pressure.

"I can't breathe, I can't breathe motherfuckers," he cries out.

"Stop resisting!" an officer responds.

In April WA Inspector of Custodial Services Eamon Ryan slammed Banksia Hill in a report describing the facility as "not fit for purpose" and conditions within it as "cruel, inhuman and degrading".

Justice advocates including Megan Krakouer said the report vindicated the class action that has collected testimonies from hundreds of current and former detainees at the centre.

In July, some of the detainees at Banksia Hill were shifted to a "stand alone" unit, Unit 18, at the maximum security adult prison Casuarina.

In August, questions in parliament from Greens MP Brad Pettitt revealed that July had seen 36 self-harm incidents and one attempted suicide in Banksia Hill, and at Unit 18 there had been 13 self-harm incidents and three attempted suicides in less than three weeks from 20 July to 8 August.

Later that month Supreme Court Justice Paul Tottle ruled the state government had breached the Youth Offenders Act 1994 by locking a 14-year-old boy in a Banksia Hill cell for at least 20 hours per day 26 times in the first half of 2022.

In the wake of that case, Aboriginal Legal Service WA legal services director Peter Collins called for the Corrective Services minister to be sacked.

In October the current WA Children's Court president, Hylton Quail, warned the state government it could be found in contempt of court for continuing to detain children in an adult prison.

Writing in last Tuesday's West Australian, Professor Morgan, together with Justice Reynolds, blamed the government for the "morally bankrupt" situation.

"A prolonged lack of political and departmental leadership with a disregard for the law and loss of a moral compass" was the root cause, they wrote.

Professor Morgan noted that keeping young people at Banksia Hill cost over half a million dollars per inmate per year but delivered young people locked in their cell for 23 hours a day and a re-offending rate of 70 per cent.

Opposition justice spokesman Peter Collier told the ABC last week that he agreed with Professor Morgan and Justice Reynolds, and said the government's approach was punitive, rather than rehabilitative.

"(They are treated as) less than human... If we really want to make a difference in the lives of these children, we've got to provide meaningful rehabilitation facilities. Banksia Hill does not do that," Mr Collier said.

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