- The boy was found unresponsive in his cell during routine checks
- He was inside a youth unit located in the adult Casuarina Prison
- The teenager remains in hospital in a critical condition
A 16-year-old boy is in a critical condition after trying to take his own life at Western Australia’s controversy-plagued specialist youth detention unit inside an adult prison.
The state opposition said it was the latest of more than 500 incidents of young people attempting suicide or self-harm in WA’s juvenile detention centre over the past two years.
The ABC understands a “code red” was called at Casuarina Prison’s Unit 18 last night.
WA Premier Roger Cook said during routine checks about 2:00am on Thursday, the teenager was found unresponsive in his cell.
Mr Cook said staff began resuscitation and the child was taken to hospital where he remained in a critical condition.
Corrective Services Minister Paul Papalia said the boy had earlier contacted officers via an intercom from his cell.
“They were able to successfully regain a pulse,” he said.
He said there were “incidents” last night in the unit, and the boy had been talking to staff over his intercom.
Mr Papalia said he did not want to go into more detail as the incident would be subject to an inquiry.
He denied the incident was a sign Unit 18, where the boy was being held, was not working.
WA Opposition Corrective Services spokesperson Peter Collier said the latest incident must serve as a “line in the sand”.
“It’s been an extraordinarily difficult time for him obviously, in life, and to get to a point where he feels his only option is to take his life, is a sad reflection of where we are at as a society,” he said.
“It is time for the government to stop talking tough, to stop talking about making changes … take some action and ensure we are not into a situation where one of these young men or these young women do in fact take their lives.”
‘We need to do better’: PM
The prime minister was in Perth to campaign ahead of the referendum and was asked what the incident indicated about the state of youth detention in WA and the need for a Voice.
“What is says is that we need to do better,” Anthony Albanese said.
“We know tragically that if you’re Indigenous, you are twice as likely to take your own life, you have an eight-year life expectancy gap, you’re more likely to go to jail than to go to university, and you are far more likely to be subject to juvenile detention.
“I know that the Cook government have indicated that the facilities there are simply not good enough and are working on that, but a Voice is needed to listen to Indigenous communities about matters that affect them.”
“We can’t just keep doing the same things in the same way and expect different outcomes, and that’s why the opportunity to be listened to is the request of indigenous Australians.”
Unit 18 to remain indefinitely
Unit 18 was initially created mid-last year at Casuarina, a maximum security male prison in Perth’s south, as a “short-term” solution after damage to Banksia Hill Detention Centre, WA’s only other youth detention facility.
The government at the time said it was designed to move the more disruptive children out of Banksia Hill so repairs could be made.
Unit 18 had been due to close in the first half of this year, but Mr Papalia said it would remain open while the government reviewed its infrastructure plans.
He said the review would “hopefully” identify the need for a purpose-built facility for “this particular cohort”.
WA’s Inspector of Custodial Services Eamon Ryan said he hoped the incident involving the boy would generate a strong reaction from the government.
“I’ve been concerned about self-harm incidents at Unit 18 and Banksia for a long time now,” he told the ABC.
“I’m absolutely hoping for a positive outcome in this case.
“But I hope that this is the catalyst that encourages the [Justice] Department to do whatever they can to improve the situation [at Unit 18 and Banksia Hill].”
‘Shuffling’ of detainees stopped
The minister said they had recently stopped “shuffling” juveniles between Unit 18 and Banksia Hill.
“They’d go to Unit 18, they’d improve their behaviour for a little while, they’d go back and disrupt, and it would just be a vicious cycle,” Mr Papalia said.
“We all know Banksia Hill has vastly improved when the premier and I announced our response to juvenile detention.
“We have made Banksia Hill safe, hours out of cell at Banksia Hill are vastly improved, the juvenile detainees there are going to school, they’re receiving good intervention, they’re having sport.
“Banksia Hill is a far better place and we all know that is because we have housed the most challenging, complex and often dangerous juveniles at Unit 18.
“When the last riot occurred sadly, 25 per cent of the buildings at Banksia Hill were burnt down, [there was] $30 million worth of damage, and we are left with the only option.”
He said the review would hopefully identify the need for a purpose-designed facility for “this particular cohort”.
Unit a ‘necessary evil’: premier
Detainees held in Unit 18 spend much less time outside of their cells than those held at Banksia Hill, averaging just 1.5 hours per day, according to figures tabled in parliament earlier this year.
There have been 20 suicide attempts at Unit 18 since it opened in July 2022.
Mr Papalia claimed this was due to the “cohort” of children and not the conditions at the facility.
“The problem we confront is this particular cohort of young people regularly self-harmed wherever they were,” he said.
“It wasn’t something that is directly associated with Unit 18.”
But Mr Papalia conceded Unit 18 was not “ideal”.
“We must really design a place better than Unit 18, but right now that’s what we have,” he said.
The premier described the unit as a “necessary evil”.
“I acknowledge that it’s a difficult situation. It’s a situation that’s born from the damage that we’ve seen from Banksia Hill,” Mr Cook said.
“We don’t accept that Unit 18 meets our standards for care and safety, but it’s a necessary evil at the moment while we continue to go about developing the plans for the new infrastructure and reconfiguring the services and the model of care.”
Advocacy body Social Reinvestment WA, which aims to reform the justice system and tackle the over-representation of Indigenous people in jail, said the government had been warned about the dangers of Unit 18.
“Children being locked alone in cells for 20-plus hours a day is inhumane. It is unlawful. It is causing immense harm,” a spokesperson said.
“The WA government needs to close Unit 18 and take responsibility for the children and young people in their care.”
Legal action over youth justice tactics
WA’s youth justice system is currently the subject of a class action by current and former detainees alleging physical abuse, restriction, inappropriate use of restraints and breaches of the Disability Discrimination Act.
It includes a case of a 13-year-old girl with autism who was allegedly locked in solitary confinement for months and only allowed out for one hour a day, with her legs remaining shackled.
The Aboriginal Legal Service has also launched action against the state government over what it says is the “illegal and inhumane” detention of children.
That case alleges the rolling lockdown of children for up to 23 hours a day in their cells has contributed to poor mental health and led to suicide and self-harm attempts.