West Australian Premier Mark McGowan has been taken to task after describing a riot at the beleaguered Banksia Hill Detention Centre as a “form of terrorism” and saying serious medical conditions such as fetal alcohol spectrum disorder were used as “an excuse” for inmates’ actions.
Lawyer Stewart Levitt, who is leading a class action lawsuit against the state government, said McGowan’s comments on Wednesday were racially driven, noting FASD was 138 times more prevalent in Indigenous children than in the general population.
“[McGowan] then describes these children … as terrorists. What an extraordinary line that is,” Levitt said.
Social justice advocate Megan Krakouer said up to 90 per cent of incidents happening at the centre never came to light, and lashed McGowan’s comments as “absolutely atrocious”.
“It’s demeaning. It’s causing more harm than good, it’s making them feel less than human,” she said.
“They are being detained [up to] 22 hours a day, and this is absolutely frustrating … life is at stake here.
“These children, they will eventually come out of the system. That’s the reality. Do we want these children tocome out worse off, or do we want them to come out and thrive in our community?”
Krakouer’s comments echoed the sentiment of Children’s Court President Hylton Quail, who has repeatedlylabelled conditions at the centre as unlawful, after inmates were locked in their cells for 20 hours or more eachday, missing out on recreational activities and vital reform programs.
Krakouer called for an independent inquiry into Banksia Hill.
“All the footage from Banksia Hill and Unit 18 [at the adult Casuarina Prison] also needs to be given to anindependent person to go through it. The atrocities, the violations, the hurt that has been inflicted upon thesechildren, you will see that first-hand,” she said.
“If the West Australian government have nothing to hide whatsoever, if Banksia Hill have nothing to hide whatsoever, they will hand it over.”
Levitt said there had been a “grossly excessive use of force”, including pointing guns at children’s heads, and that no other detention centre dealt with riots on a similar scale – indicating a problem with the system, not the detainees.
“Rehabilitation can’t possibly work with a 10-year-old or 11-year-old child who has never had anything in his life except deprivation and misery and struggle,” he said.
“They have no prospect of ever taking their place as contributing members of society, first of all because they’re totally alienated from society.”
Justice Reform Initiative executive director Dr Mindy Sotiri said the riot highlighted the ongoing failure of WA’s broken youth justice system.
“It is a facility in crisis. We cannot wait for more riots, more injuries, and more self-harm to recognise that the current approach to youth justice is simply not working,” she said.
“When children are subject to punitive treatment, including long periods of isolation in cells, and are highly distressed, disruptive behaviours escalate. This is what we are seeing inside Banksia Hill at the moment.
“We know that rolling lockdowns are an ongoing issue. We also know that these lockdowns are not in response to children’s behaviour, but a response to ongoing staff shortages.
“It is clear that jailing is failing these children, it is failing the people who are paid to supervise them, it is failing all West Australians, and it needs to change.”
Amnesty International’s Indigenous rights advisor, Rodney Dillon, said every Australian should be shocked and appalled by the “violence and extreme force used by prison staff against some of the most vulnerable children in the country”.
“It is unconscionable that Premier Mark McGowan would describe property damage by traumatised, antagonised children as a ‘form of terrorism’ while his department sends in special forces to point guns at children,” he said.
“By keeping the dangerous Banksia Hill facility running, the WA Labor government oversees a regiment of human rights violations against these children.”