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Shocking details of alleged abuse in WA youth detention revealed in 57 letters from Aboriginal Legal Service

Giovanni Torre -

Almost 60 complaints from children detained at Banksia Hill Detention Centre and Unit 18 at Casuarina Prison revealing shocking details of alleged abuse have been tabled in Western Australian parliament.

Late on Thursday evening Greens MP Dr Brad Pettitt delivered a Member Statement and tabled 58 letters written by the Aboriginal Legal Service of WA in the Upper House.

These letters include 57 complaint letters on behalf of children detained at Banksia Hill Detention Centre and Unit 18, and 1 letter from ALSWA chief executive, Wayne Nannup, to Deputy Commissioner for Women and Young People, Christine Ginbey.

The letters have been redacted to remove identifiable details of young people. Extracts from the letters are below:

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"Two male YCOs ... picked up chairs and hit [the child] on the left and right sides of her head at the same time with the two chairs. She had lumps on her head as a result. She was then placed in handcuffs and her legs were folded up behind her into a 'hog tie' or 'folding up' position. She was then dragged along the floor whilst restrained."

"During her most recent admission in BHDC, [the child] asked [officer] to open her cell door. He moaned inappropriately (sexually) at her which made her scared. If [the child] screams, [officer] will often say things such as 'I love it when you scream.'"

"The recreation YCO ... stares at [the child] and the other girls which makes them feel uncomfortable. When they are playing sports [child's name redacted] has seen him looking at their buttocks. Approximately two weeks ago [the officer] was present at the gym when the girls were playing cricket. [The child] saw M**** looking at another girls' buttocks when she was 'batting.' [The child] has witnessed YCO M**** touch his 'front part' or 'crotch' area as he is looking at the girls. This makes [the child] feel scared."

"[The child] threatened to hurt himself and YCOs ripped his clothes off and left him naked in the cell with a rip proof gown, which in his distress [the child] did not put on … [The child] was left naked in the cell from about 2:30pm on 30 January 2023 until his visit with [his lawyer] the following morning ... His mattress was covered in OC Spray and was 'itchy'. As such, he slept in the shower and he had only a rip proof pillow and no bedding. He was very cold all night."

"[The child] is often left in the same clothes for days without being provided fresh ones. In around mid-January 2023, [the child] spent two weeks in the same clothes, being denied fresh clothing by the staff."

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ALS WA said that since February 2022 the legal service has sent 57 complaint letters on behalf of more than 51 young people about the conditions at Banksia Hill and Unit 18.

"The young people have raised extremely concerning instructions including: Extensive recent lockdowns (including no time out at all); Sexually inappropriate behaviour by officers; Excessive use of force; Young people sleeping in wet clothes/bedding; Clothes and cells being extremely dirty, with rubbish left in cells for days; Officers using degrading and unprofessional language; and Children in distress and experiencing thoughts of self-harm and powerlessness," ALSWA said in a statement.

The legal service said it has received "no substantive responses" in relation to the systemic and administrative issues, apart from some Professional Standards correspondence relating to individual staff.

Mr Nannup said on Thursday evening that the "comprehensive failure to properly respond to these complaint letters is disgraceful but entirely in keeping with a government which has no answers to the crisis confronting juvenile detention and which seeks to deflect blame by demonising young people in its care".

"ALSWA is greatly concerned about the conditions these children are being subjected to, and the impact on their mental health and wellbeing," he said.

"All kids deserve to be safe and healthy. We are supposed to be rehabilitating these children, not inflicting ongoing solitary confinement on them."

Mr Nannup noted that in a WA Supreme Court hearing last Thursday Justice Tottle heard that three young ALSWA clients had spent more than 170 days combined in unlawful confinement.

"Anyone with a modicum of intelligence and compassion would realise that locking up young people in tiny cells for hours and days on end is cruel and barbaric," he said.

"These practices must cease immediately. The government must also stop using young people in its care as pawns in a game to gain electoral advantage and start to act responsibly in arriving at meaningful solutions aimed at fixing problems which are entirely of its own making."

The ALS WA chief executive said it was appalling that "even after so many complaints and two actions in the Supreme Court", the McGowan government is still failing to prioritise properly running BHDC and closing Unit 18. These concerns continue to be raised by the Children's Court, with one Magistrate on Wednesday 17 May referring to the conditions in Unit 18 as "excessively long periods of deprivation".

Dr Pettitt said the letters highlight "extremely serious violations and concerns about what children at Banksia Hill and Unit 18 are being subjected to".

"The fact that the ALSWA has never received a response from Corrective Services is unacceptable," he said.

"These complaints show that WA's youth detention system has reached a boiling point. To be frank, if the State Government continues with business as usual at Banksia Hill and Unit 18, it will only be a matter of time before there is a tragic and entirely avoidable death of a child in custody.

"There is no scenario where any responsible politician - but especially not one who is a Premier and leader - should be dismissing well-documented and researched neurocognitive disabilities like FASD 'an excuse' or labeling predominantly Aboriginal children as 'terrorists' when they are enduring worse conditions than most farm animals in this state."

The tabling of the letters came one day after it was revealed a new class action has been launched against the Western Australian government over its alleged unlawful treatment of juvenile detainees in Unit 18, the stand-alone youth facility at Casuarina - a maximum security adult prison.

The class action, filed and accepted by the court last week, is being led by the Levitt Robinson, the law firm representing current and former Banksia Hill Detention Centre juvenile detainees in a separate class action commenced in December last year.

One of the principal lawyers, Dana Levitt, said the WA government's lack of accountability left the applicants no choice but to take matters to court. "We're forced to litigate because there's nothing else anyone has been able to do to ameliorate or improve the circumstances under which youth in WA are detained," Ms Levitt said.

Corrective Services Minister Bill Johnston told National Indigenous Times that "if anyone has allegations of unprofessional conduct within the Department of Justice, then it should be referred to the Department's Professional Standards Directorate".

"Alternatively if anyone has any evidence of illegal actions by a youth custodial officer, it should be referred to a relevant authority such as WA Police or the Corruption and Crime Commission," he said.

A spokesperson for the WA Department of Justice told National Indigenous Times that when there are claims of staff misconduct, the Department of Justice's People, Culture and Standards division "always contacts complainants either by phone, email or letter advising receipt of the complaint and arrangements are made to speak to the young person involved".

"If complaints are upheld, disciplinary action may be taken and/or the matter referred to an external authority. The outcomes of complaints are provided to the complainant and the reasons for the decision explained if requested," she said.

"Since 1 January 2023 the Aboriginal Legal Service of WA has raised with the Department 42 allegations of misconduct by staff at Banksia Hill Detention Centre and the Unit 18 detention facility... The Department has closed 30 of those cases, finding that in 29 there were no disciplinary breaches. In one case an officer was counselled following an adverse finding. Ten have been allocated for further investigation and two are being assessed."

The spokesperson said the Executive Director of People, Culture and Standards "meets regularly with representatives of the ALSWA and provides progress updates about complaints".

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