The WA government is under fire for its response to the attempted suicide of a teenager in a controversial youth detention unit inside an adult prison, as the boy continues to fight for his life.
WARNING: This story discusses incidents of self-harm.
The 16-year-old boy was rushed to hospital in the early hours of Thursday after staff found him unresponsive in his cell at Unit 18 inside the maximum-security Casuarina Prison.
He remains in a critical but stable condition.
In a media conference about the distressing incident, WA Premier Roger Cook admitted Unit 18 did not meet an acceptable standard for care and safety.
- The boy tried to take his own life in Unit 18 at Casuarina Prison
- The premier described the unit as a “necessary evil”
- His comment has been criticised by lawyers and advocates
But Mr Cook described it as a “necessary evil” while changes were being implemented across youth detention, including an infrastructure review to determine what kinds of facilities the state needed to build.
Corrective Services Minister Paul Papalia also said the high number of prior suicide attempts at the facility was due to the affected “cohort” of children, and not the centre’s conditions.
A ‘despicable’ comment
Dana Levitt, who is leading a class-action against the government on behalf of Unit 18 detainees, said the government’s response was despicable.
“All they’ve done is continue to peddle this policy of containment,” she told the ABC.
“And containment of these children inside their cells for, you know, 23 hours a day – which is torture by any international legal standard – this [incident] is a very, very foreseeable result of that treatment.”
Ms Levitt said the boy had been at Unit 18 since May and had been “deteriorating significantly” since being moved there from the Banksia Hill Juvenile Detention Centre in Perth.
“This was a matter of time,” she said.
“Sadly, the department had not responded to the warning signs.”
Family distressed, horrified
Suicide prevention advocate Megan Krakouer was with the boy’s family as they spent Thursday evening by his bedside.
“They are absolutely distressed and horrified, and they are so hurt,” Ms Krakouer said.
The Menang woman also criticised Mr Cook’s response.
“What’s it going to take for the premier of this state to listen and stop demonising children?” she said.
“He’s had a lot to do with First Nations people but the way he’s handling the situation … he’s got blood on his hands.
“To call [Unit 18] a necessary evil is outlandish. It is wrong, it is disgraceful.
“It is a disgusting comment, and he should be ashamed of himself. We’re talking about a 16-year-old boy.”
‘A severe violation of human rights’
Noongar human rights academic at Curtin University, Hannah McGlade, said she and other Indigenous leaders would be calling for a meeting with the premier in light of Thursday’s incident.
“We want to tell him that this is not a necessary evil. This is an absolute severe violation of human rights,” Dr McGlade said.
“We believe that a commissioner for youth justice [should] be established with a direct line of report to the minister,” she said.
“The Department of Justice has shown that it is incapable of delivering reform of Banksia [Hill], critical reform that’s needed to ensure children are safe.
“Solitary confinement, children in adult prisons, this can never happen. It should never be happening. It’s never justifiable.
“The premier has been a friend of Aboriginal people. Meet with us now, be brave, make the changes that need to happen with us.”
WA’s Children’s Commissioner said regardless of the government’s reasons for moving some young detainees to Unit 18, the focus needed to be on giving them the support they needed, particularly regarding mental health.
“If you locked up a dog in a cage for 20 hours a day, the RSPCA will turn up at your house and remove it,” Jacqueline McGowan-Jones told ABC Radio Perth.
“But we think it’s reasonable to lock troubled, traumatised young people into a cell for 20 hours a day and … expect that their behaviour will improve and … expect that they won’t suffer mental health issues.
“Both of those premises are flawed.”
Ms McGowan-Jones said a greater focus needed to be placed on keeping young people out of detention, and accelerating the delivery of planned improvements.
Detainees rarely seeing daylight
In recent weeks, the department has insisted progress has been made, including the creation of an Aboriginal Services Unit at Banksia Hill.
Figures presented to state parliament on Thursday evening, in response to questions from Greens MP Brad Pettitt, showed the situation at Banksia Hill had been improving, but the same could not be said for Unit 18.
Detainees in that isolated part of Casuarina Prison got an average of just 1.77 hours outside of their cells each day in September, the lowest since at least July 2022.
The number of times detainees spent more than 20 hours in their cell also reached a high of 497 – equating to nearly every detainee being subjected to that treatment every day.
By comparison, Banksia Hill’s average out of cell hours reached its highest since mid-last year at 9.25 hours, with just 84 occasions of detainees being locked up for more than 20 hours a day, down from a high of 1,284 in May.
Mr Cook’s office was contacted for comment.