- Daniel Travis Ratten, 52, assaulted the boy in Unit 18 in 2022
- He was later found guilty of assault, despite claiming he’d acted in self-defence
- Experts say little has changed in WA’s youth justice system since
It’s a confronting moment captured on camera — a handcuffed 16-year-old boy is kneed in the torso by a veteran prison guard much bigger and older than him.
That single moment resulted in the guard, Daniel Travis Ratten, 52, being fined $5,000 and given a spent conviction.
One of the state’s former prisons’ inspectors described it as “gratuitous violence, not necessary force”, in their view.
But to some, the incident reveals broader problems inside Western Australia’s youth justice system.
The assault happened during a riot inside Unit 18, a juvenile detention wing set-up within the maximum-security adult Casuarina Prison, less than two weeks after the first group of young people were moved there.
Ratten’s trial heard detainees in one of the unit’s day rooms started throwing items like steel poles and a window frame at youth custodial officers, leading to one calling a “code red” over the radio.
It prompted prison officers – who are not necessarily trained in managing young people – to rush to the unit from across the prison in a bid to help bring it back under control.
As the handcuffed 16-year-old was being escorted out of the day room he yelled something to detainees who remained.
He was then led into a small airlock where Ratten, surrounded by more than a dozen other officers, kneed him and pushed his head, before he was pulled through by the officer supervising him.
The 16-year-old boy, who cannot be identified, told the court he “couldn’t really breathe properly” after being kneed.
Ratten claimed at trial he had acted in “self-preservation” because he feared the boy was about to walk into him, but Magistrate Tanya Watt ruled the “much smaller, younger, handcuffed” boy posed “no threat”.
Another prison guard who was in the airlock at the time, Basil Joseph Faulkner, asked Ratten about what happened in the moments after the incident.
“You know there’s a camera up there?” he told his colleague.
Asked at trial why he mentioned that, Mr Faulkner said it was because the cameras record everything and that was “what should cover us”.
‘Where are the consequences?’
Nearly a year-and-a-half after the incident unfolded, the ABC can now broadcast footage recorded on that CCTV camera showing exactly what happened.
Neil Morgan spent more than 10 years as WA’s independent prisons watchdog and after watching the video said in his view, Ratten’s actions were “gratuitous violence, not necessary force”.
“Something has gone badly wrong in youth detention, and to some extent this comes from the top,” he said.
The WA government has twice been found to be unlawfully detaining young people by the state’s Supreme Court, Mr Morgan said, but without consequence.
“If young people arc up there will be consequences for them, and indeed as we’ve seen there will be consequences for officers, individual officers, who step out of line,” he said.
“But where’s the shame on the part of the government for breaking the law consistently for 18 months and where are the consequences?”
While Mr Morgan said it was positive the incident was investigated and prosecuted, he feared what kind of message incidents like this assault send to detainees.
“If they’re locked down all the time, and then they see officers behaving that way, what have they got to lose?” he said.
Prison officers need better training: union
Prison Officers’ Union secretary Andy Smith has a slightly different view of the footage.
“What we had is no formal training … no training to deal with juveniles, but certainly no awareness for the staff as to what they were attending,” he said.
“You’ve got heightened tensions of officers when they attend, heightened adrenaline, no training, large numbers of officers in a small area.
“I don’t excuse [what happened] in any way, but as an employer the Department of Corrective Services owes it to prison officers and to juvenile officers to provide them with the right facility, the right training, the right number of staff and a safe working environment.”
Mr Smith likened sending prison officers into Unit 18 to “putting a soldier in a hospital”, saying “they’re trained to do a job, and not that job”, noting the guards would have been used to responding to adult riots, not juveniles.
Department defends staff training
It’s that issue where both Mr Smith and Mr Morgan find common ground.
“People who work with children should be trained to work with children,” the former inspector said.
“If this, as the government says, is a complex, challenging, sometimes violent group of young people, people need to be trained to respond to that and respond appropriately.”
In a statement, a Department of Justice spokesperson said prison officers specifically rostered to work in Unit 18 “receive appropriate training for their duties”.
“The prison officers improve safety for both YCOs (Youth Custodial Officers) and detainees, allowing YCOs to work directly with the young people and focus on their rehabilitation,” the statement said.
It did not respond to questions about whether all prison guards at Casuarina, who may respond to incidents in Unit 18, as Ratten did, received specific training or advice.
Mr Smith said that meant, some 17 months on, a similar incident could happen again, with the only change being a higher degree of managerial involvement.
“We would still see the same poorly trained officers,” Mr Smith said.
“We have … prison officers that are trained to deal with adults still working in units that are occupied by juvenile detainees.
“It shouldn’t happen.”
Minister praises new Commissioner
The Department also said recently-appointed Corrective Services Commissioner Brad Royce – who took up the role in the wake of the suicide of Cleveland Dodd – had been “working to enhance youth detention practices”.
That includes appointing a separate superintendent to oversee Unit 18, which had previously been managed by the superintendent of Banksia Hill.
“[In addition] two senior officers have been appointed principal officers at Unit 18 to provide insight, guidance and support to uniformed staff,” the spokesperson said.
“Additional staff have been deployed to improve delivery of programs and increase out-of-cell time.”
Corrective Services Minister Paul Papalia declined to say whether he’d seen the footage, or respond to other questions about the incident, but said in a statement Commissioner Royce was “excelling in his new role”.
“I am extremely pleased with his performance so far and look forward to seeing what he and the rest of the senior executive team can achieve in 2024,” he said.
The spokesperson said Ratten remains suspended from duty while an internal investigation into his actions continues.
Plans are underway to construct a new, purpose-built alternative to Unit 18 closer to Banksia Hill Detention Centre, but completion is at least a few years’ away.