- The teenager is fighting for his life in hospital
- The ALS raised concerns about his welfare two weeks ago
- However, there was ‘no substantive response’ from authorities
WARNING: This story discusses incidents of self-harm.
It’s been revealed the WA government was warned about the wellbeing of a 16-year-old boy two weeks before he attempted to take his life while on remand in youth detention.
The teenager was discovered unresponsive in his cell in Unit 18 youth wing inside the adult Casuarina Prison in the early hours of Thursday morning.
He was revived by staff before being rushed to hospital where he remains in a critical but stable condition.
The ABC can reveal the Aboriginal Legal Service wrote an urgent letter to the Deputy Corrective Services Commissioner responsible for youth detention on 28 September — two weeks ago.
The letter explains that conditions in Unit 18 “are negatively impacting his wellbeing” and requested an “urgent transfer” back to Banksia Hill, the state’s sole youth facility.
It says the boy told his lawyer “he has generally not received more than one hour out of his cell per day, and on some days no time out of his cell at all.”
“He instructs that on most days he usually tries to sleep through the day in his cell,” the letter reads.
It explained he received “cold dinners” on a number of days while in Unit 18, and “generally has not been able to access programs or education”.
“Though he has received one or two programs since arriving, these have only been for one hour each day and were the only time he was allowed out of his cell on those days,” the letter said.
Deep mental health concerns
ALS Director of Legal Services Peter Collins said the message was sent because the service was “deeply concerned about his mental health deteriorating as a consequence of him remaining at Unit 18”.
“The Department acknowledged they’d received the letter, but that was it,” he said.
“So in between 28 September and the events of yesterday, we’ve received no substantive response to our request from the department.
“Which … is entirely predictable because that’s been their approach to pretty well all of the 80 or so letters of complaint that the ALS has sent to the department over the last couple of years in relation to conditions in both Unit 18 and Banksia Hill Detention Centre.
“It’s hard not to think that Unit 18 is used as a mechanism to punish young people and by locking them up for these inordinate periods of time, designed to crush them and extinguish their humanity.
“It’s just an awful state of affairs that shouldn’t be occurring in a place like Western Australia in 2023 when we’ve got a referendum vote tomorrow. It’s mind boggling.”
Mr Collins said the 16-year-old’s father had given permission for the ALS to speak publicly about his son.
‘No reasonable basis’ to keep Unit 18
Premier Roger Cook yesterday described conditions at Unit 18 as not ideal but a “necessary evil” while broader changes were being implemented across youth detention, prompting sharp criticism from justice advocates.
Mr Collins disagreed, calling on the government to close the facility immediately because of the damage it was doing to children detained there.
Figures given to parliament yesterday showed average out of cell hours in Unit 18 were the worst they’ve been since it opened, dropping to just under two hours last month.
“The issue for the government is if it’s going to treat these overwhelmingly disadvantaged young Aboriginal people worse than you treat an animal, common sense and human experience tells you that’s going to eventually be reflected back into the community … when they’re released, for the worse,” he said.
“There is just no basis, proper, reasonable, fair basis for Unit 18 to remain open.
“There’s not a lot of children, young people, in Unit 18 as we speak, and from where I sit, there’s no reason why they can’t be appropriately accommodated at Banksia Hill.”
The Department of Justice has struggled to improve out of cell hours at Unit 18
He suggested “stubbornness” or “resentfulness” towards detainees who have been involved in riots could explain why Unit 18 had not been closed.
“If the government is not prepared to listen to and act upon royal commissions, decisions of Supreme Court judges, remarks made by the President of the Children’s Court of Western Australia, who will they listen to?” Mr Collins said.
“Because they certainly don’t listen meaningfully and deeply to Aboriginal voices.
“How would you feel if it was your child?
“The bottom line is, no matter how poorly these children may or may not have behaved, at the end of the day they’re human beings. None of them are inherently evil or bad.
“If the system treated them a bit more humanely with some kindness, some compassion, empathy and support it might be getting different outcomes, and they’d be better.”
Banksia Hill conditions ‘improved’, says minister
Corrective Services Minister Paul Papalia released a statement on Saturday morning, saying Unit 18 detainees were provided with “a range of assessment and intervention services”.
“Circumstances surrounding Thursday’s tragic incident and the events prior are under investigation,” Mr Papalia said.
“Unit 18 is currently the only location available to house the state’s most challenging, complex and often dangerous youth detainees.
“Returning Unit 18 detainees to Banksia Hill would be disruptive and unsafe for staff and other young people in youth detention.
“Conditions at Banksia Hill Detention Centre have dramatically improved since we announced a range of measures to enhance safety and welfare in June.
“Detainees are spending more time out of cell, accessing education and other services.”
Mr Papalia said nurses were available 24 hours a day at Unit 18, while “psychologists, Aboriginal Youth Support officers and mentors are rostered Monday to Friday and are on-call over weekend”.
Teenager waiting for court date
The boy was set to stand trial in early December on aggravated burglary and stealing charges.
He had been remanded in custody since May and has spent the past three months at Unit 18.
The ABC understands the teenager has a developmental language disorder (DLD).
Children who have DLD have trouble with communication, following instructions and processing linguistic information.
The Department of Justice was contacted and said it does not “comment publicly on legal correspondence regarding individuals”.