A New Year’s Eve riot at Western Australia’s Banksia Hill youth detention centre was the culmination of an escalating crisis in which vulnerable children are denied the basic rights of education, recreation and restorative justice. By Jesse Noakes.

Banksia Hill and WA’s youth justice crisis

An closeup of an older woman with white hair surrounded by people at a rally. She is seated, holding one of her hands to her head with a sorrowful and tired look on her face. She is wearing a black t-shirt with the Aboriginal colours of red, yellow and black.
Professor Fiona Stanley during a rally and memorial for Cassius Turvey, 15, who died after being assaulted in Perth in 2022.
Credit: Matt Jelonek / Getty Images

As the sun set on 2022, two dozen children were still on a perimeter fence at Banksia Hill, Western Australia’s only youth detention centre. After gaining access to secure staff facilities, seizing weapons and setting fire to multiple buildings, the child detainees refused to come down until they had watched the New Year’s Eve fireworks over Perth.

It was a fitting cap to the escalating crisis at Banksia Hill, where staffing shortages, rolling lockdowns and a lack of access to education or recreation have seen the facility branded as “inhumane”, “appalling” and “illegal” in the WA Supreme Court, by the president of the WA Children’s Court, and in local media headlines again and again throughout the year.

“That wasn’t an impulse action,” says Gerry Georgatos, an advocate at the National Suicide Prevention and Trauma Recovery Project, who is in close contact with many of the young people currently incarcerated at Banksia. “That was strategic.”

Georgatos says detainees chose New Year’s Eve for the siege. “It wasn’t a coincidence,” he tells The Saturday Paper. “They planned that. It was a full-on revolution; it was a fightback … This is what you can expect in the new year. I know these kids. I know them very well and I speak to them all the time.”

In early 2020, Georgatos and colleagues spent two months inside Banksia running an in-reach program when other services were suspended by the first wave of Covid-19 lockdowns. What they saw appalled them.

“These kids are going stir crazy,” Georgatos says. “There’s no interaction, there’s no recreation, there’s nothing to do. They are locked inside their cells for an average of 20 hours a day and they can’t handle it.”

In 2022, more than 700 children were detained inside Banksia Hill. As of January 9, according to figures provided to The Saturday Paper by the WA Department of Justice, 75 per cent of the youth detainees identified as Aboriginal.

Ballardong Noongar man Desmond Blurton Cuiamara, chair of the WA Deaths in Custody Watch Committee and both a former prison guard and detainee himself, agrees that prolonged lockdowns are at the core of the recent unrest.

“It is inhumane and torture to treat adolescent kids this way. The media has got to ask why the kids are on the rooftop, what caused their actions, and does the premier see compulsory solitary confinement as a way of resolving other issues?”

As early as February last year, the president of the Perth Children’s Court, Hylton Quail, warned that Banksia Hill was treating “a damaged child like an animal” and that the centre was allowing “prolonged systematic dehumanisation and deprivation”.

“If you want to create a monster, this is how you do it,” Quail declared while sentencing a young offender who had spent 79 of the previous 98 days in solitary confinement.

By July last year, internal pressures at the centre became so acute that the WA government transferred more than a dozen children to a specialist facility dubbed “Unit 18” inside the adult maximum-security Casuarina Prison.

Quail subsequently warned the WA government that it risked being held in contempt of court for keeping youth detainees at Unit 18, describing their detention by the state government as “a form of child abuse”.

As recently as last month, the WA Supreme Court ruled that the McGowan government was acting unlawfully by detaining multiple young people in solitary confinement for more than 23 hours a day.

According to answers tabled in WA parliament in November, there were at least seven suicide attempts in the prior four months from children held at Unit 18, despite widespread public condemnation. This was in addition to at least 20 suicide attempts and almost 100 other self-harm incidents in 2022 from the children who remained at Banksia Hill.

WA Greens MP Brad Pettitt tells The Saturday Paper that it’s time the WA government “stops defending the indefensible”.

“The New Year’s Eve riot is a symptom of a broken system that’s seeing young people predictably react to long periods of often solitary confinement in their cells,” he says. “It’s creating a cohort of kids that are more damaged when they are released than when they came in, which is appalling.”

Federal Greens senator and Yamatji-Noongar woman Dorinda Cox says the state government is not taking the issue seriously, with McGowan also ruling out raising the age of criminal responsibility to 14.

“Restorative justice is what’s needed, not more cruelty and the breaching of the rights of children,” she tells The Saturday Paper.

Last month, a class action against the WA government on behalf of hundreds of former youth detainees was lodged in the Federal Court by Georgatos and his colleagues.

Weeks earlier, the ABC and Seven West Media obtained footage of forced restraints used on detainees at Banksia Hill. These have since been banned by the WA government, as they have in other states.

McGowan announced what The West Australian newspaper described as a “crisis summit” on the issue following multiple front-page stories and editorials from the newspaper, for whom Georgatos wrote a weekly opinion piece for much of last year.

Among the attendees was 2003 Australian of the Year Professor Fiona Stanley, who had been advocating privately with politicians for months about Banksia Hill.

“It fails everybody,” Stanley tells The Saturday Paper. “The taxpayer, the families of the people who get jailed, even the safety of the public is failed by a punitive system which doesn’t understand the causal pathways.”

Stanley cites research from 2017 that found 89 per cent of detainees at Banksia Hill had some form of severe neurodevelopmental impairment, with more than one-third diagnosed with foetal alcohol spectrum disorder. “Not one kid in Banksia would have had a normal life,” she says.

Stanley says McGowan’s subsequent characterisation of their meeting as a success was “misinformation”.

“I was shocked, because he didn’t seem to take on board any of the stuff we’ve sent him, which is some of the best evidence in the world of what to do,” she says.

“I really felt such a lot of anger and worried because Christmas was approaching and we know that these kids are even more vulnerable at Christmas and New Year.”

Stanley likens the WA government’s rhetoric about detainees at Banksia Hill to Donald Trump’s incitement of the Capitol riot. McGowan has described the young people in Unit 18 as “the most violent and disruptive offenders, and I mean extremely violent”.

“It’s sort of saying to some people, ‘These kids aren’t worth very much,’ ” she says. “These kids are not the problem. These kids are damaged because of the system that they live in.”

Stanley’s message is echoed, perhaps surprisingly, by the WA Liberal shadow minister for Corrective Services, Peter Collier, a former teacher. “If you can help those kids to rehabilitate themselves, the community will be better off,” he tells The Saturday Paper. “It has ceased to become an institution of rehabilitation; it is now a punitive institution.”

Describing Banksia Hill as “entirely a political issue”, Collier says McGowan knows that concerns about young offenders are not a vote-winner. “He’s got so much political capital, he doesn’t care.”

“They have got no genuine interest and empathy with the individuals,” Collier says, suggesting the death of a child in custody is the only thing that will move the WA government. “One of these kids ultimately is going to take their life, and all hell will break loose.”

Following the meeting with Stanley and others in November, the WA government announced a $63 million investment to improve youth detention. The Department of Justice tells The Saturday Paper it is currently undertaking priority works, upgrading cells and infrastructure at Banksia Hill. Those works are scheduled to be completed by the middle of this year.

“Major works, which include a purpose-built crisis care unit, are scheduled to be progressively completed by 2025/26,” a spokesperson said. “Along with the hiring of additional staff, funding is being utilised to enhance the recruitment and retention of staff.”

These measures fall well short of the therapeutic interventions and culturally informed restorative justice approaches advocated by people such as Blurton Cuiamara, who calls on the WA government to meet urgently with the Deaths in Custody Watch Committee and Elders “to mediate peace”.

On January 12, for the second time in less than two weeks, teenagers climbed onto rooftops and fences after escaping from staff.

“We need our Elders and community members to be able to go inside these prisons, because that’s what Banksia is, and mediate with our people on the inside,” Blurton Cuiamara said. “If we had our people in there on New Year’s Eve, do you think those kids would have stayed up there for hours?”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 21, 2023 as "‘Inhumane and torture’".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription