Former inmates of the Banksia Hill Juvenile Detention Centre are planning a class action lawsuit over conditions at the centre that observers say condemn children as young as 11 to a life of trauma and disadvantage.

Solicitor Stewart Levitt is the lead lawyer on the case and said the alleged treatment of children at the centre is a failure of the State Government’s duty of care to vulnerable children.

“Most of the children are intellectually challenged. They’re disproportionately Indigenous, many have conditions like Foetal Alcohol Syndrome and Attention Deficit Syndrome and are otherwise intellectually disadvantaged,” he said.

“They’ve come from families which, in many instances, haven’t been able to gain sufficient support for all sorts of institutional reasons.

“And [the] State, rather than support them, has condemned them.”

Levitt said though he hopes to achieve compensation for the complainants, ultimately he wants to change the system.

“The best-case outcome is a complete rethink by the Western Australian Government of its obligations and responsibilities to children who are effectively its wards.”

A 2017 report by Amnesty International on Banksia Hill claimed the conditions experienced by two juvenile detainees in the solitary confinement unit at the facility were tantamount to torture.

An independent review in 2018 by the Office of the Inspector of Custodial Services (OICS) upheld some claims made in the Amnesty report but rejected the more serious allegations of torture.

In their report, OICS said education at the centre had been “substandard for all detainees for too long” and that inmates “might well have benefitted from greater access to programs, services and psychological counselling”.

The report criticised inadequate record-keeping for the use of restraints, and said the failure meant the Department of Justice “could not show that their use of restraints was justified”.

The report called for a comprehensive review of the Young Offenders Act 1994 (WA) and the Young Offenders Regulations 1995 (WA) that govern confinement.

It called the laws “obsolete, outdated, and inconsistent” and that they fail to meet international standards.

The laws, the review said, allow for regimes more onerous than solitary confinement if they are enacted under a different name.

The Act and the Regulations have not been substantially updated since the OICS’s report was released in 2018.

Gerry Georgatos of the National Suicide Prevention and Trauma Recovery Project spent eight weeks working intensively with young people in Banksia Hill during 2020.

He said in his experience, the children coming out of Banksia Hill are worse off than when they entered.

“The reality is … they’ll be incarcerated multiple times and are set up for a life of cyclical disadvantage,” he said.

“[Banksia Hill] is Dickensian, it’s like a children’s poorhouse.”

“The services on the inside are substandard, the provision of education is such low quality and low calibre it leaves them far behind.”

Georgatos believes legal action is justified.

“In the end, class actions are the way to go and I hope there’s many more,” he said.

“We’re going to actually improve institutions and bring them to account. It may galvanise the governments to invest more and make use of proper restorative facilities.”

Rodney Dillon, Amnesty International Australia‘s Indigenous Rights Advisor, says the organisation has concerns about the treatment of inmates at Banksia Hill.

“Amnesty International Australia is still concerned about conditions at Banksia Hill — not least because there hasn’t been an Office of the Inspector of Custodial Services inspection since our report in 2018, so we have to rely on the experiences and stories of the affected children to know if anything has changed,” Dillon said.

Dillon says the organisation is particularly concerned about the over-reliance on handcuffs and the centre’s female inmates.

“Because there are so few girls held there, and in youth detention in general, they are also effectively held in solitary confinement-like conditions because there is not suitable accommodation for them,” he said.

“More than this though, we know that putting kids as young as 10 into detention condemns them to the quicksand of the youth justice system — all the international experts agree that the minimum age of criminal responsibility should be at least 14.”

The WA Department of Justice declined to comment on the lawsuit, which is expected to commence before the end of the year.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Stephen Dawson and Corrective Services Minister Bill Johnston have been contacted for comment.

By Sarah Smit