Nelson Mandela said: “It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”
Based upon the details provided by the Labor Government, it would be very easy for the general public to judge the 20 juveniles who they have decided to transfer from Banksia Hill Detention Centre to the adult Casuarina Prison. The images of the damage done to the facilities at BHDC by these juveniles were quite confronting and made for enticing viewing on the 6pm news bulletins, just what the minister and Labor Government had wanted. How could you possibly disagree with the Government? Surely these juveniles got exactly what they deserved? Or did they?
It is a sad reflection of our society if the only solution to this issue is to send these juveniles to a facility for hardened adult prisoners.
Of course, the issue itself is not as simple as the Labor Government would like us to believe. The stark reality is that most of the juveniles housed at BHDC have extremely challenging and complex lives. From birth, many of them are from dysfunctional families and are subject to multiple levels of abuse. They are often averse to mainstream schooling and have limited support and coping strategies as they enter their teenage years. Inevitably, they delve into anti-social behaviour and ultimately crime.
If they are aged between 10 and 17 years, and are convicted of a crime, they will almost certainly be sent to BHDC. Here, according to the Department’s annual report, they will be offered “a range of programs and services to address their health and wellbeing, with the aim of reducing reoffending rates”. This equates with the notion that these juveniles will be provided with rehabilitation programs to assist them when they return to the community. That all sounds nice however, this is where we have a significant disconnect with reality.
According to a scathing report by the Inspector of Custodial Services in March 2022, “BHDC is not fit for purpose as a youth detention centre. It looks like, and in many respects runs like, an adult prison”.
Even more confronting is the fact that 315 juveniles engaged in self harm at BHDC in 2021, up from 145 in 2019. There are evidently systemic issues at BHDC which are not conducive to providing an environment for meaningful rehabilitation.
Other than transferring the problem from one facility to another, there is every chance that this move will further entrench a mindset of despair within these juveniles. The symbolism of being locked in an adult maximum security prison for most of these juveniles would be profoundly negative and counterproductive to developing a positive mindset.
The most effective solution would be for the Labor Government to delve into its $5.7 billion surplus and resolve the staffing issues at BHDC and significantly enhance the rehabilitation programs at the facility. This would ultimately assist these juveniles in improving their learning and employment skills, thereby developing their resilience and self esteem.
The alternative for these juveniles is entrenched incarceration at BHDC which inevitably leads to more permanent time at Casuarina when they reach the age of 18 — a never-ending cycle of despair.
This approach may not be a vote winner, but it will certainly assist some of our most marginalised youth. So, rather than portraying these juveniles as delinquents to make a political point, the Labor Government should appreciate that they desperately require empathy and meaningful support.
Peter Collier is shadow police minister.