13 thousand strip searches of children, 340 days in isolation: urgent reform needed at WA’s Banksia Hill children’s prison

WA Corrections Minister Fran Logan must stop Banksia Hill children’s prison falling into another cycle of “denial and spin” on his watch, said Amnesty International today, following the release of a new report into conditions at the detention centre.

Today’s Office of the Inspector of Custodial Services’ report found that, despite some improvements, Banksia subjected children to a range of harmful conditions and practises, including excessive strip-searching.

“Staff did 12,813 strip searches over the two years 2015-1016, on children as young as 10 years old, despite finding only 10 items of contraband. Whilst this rate dropped significantly in 2016, excessive strip-searching remains a gross violation of the rights of vulnerable children and should only be carried out when absolutely necessary,” said Tammy Solonec, Indigenous Rights Manager at Amnesty International Australia.

Isolation cell the size of car parking space

Of most concern, the centre’s so-called Intensive Support Unit “created a highly inappropriate and counter-therapeutic environment to house young people who are, or had been, acutely mentally unwell.”

A young person has now been held in an isolation cell in the ISU, the size of a car parking space, for over 340 days, has resorted to self-harm, and is applying to be transferred to an adult prison.

“When a young person is desperately applying to be transferred to a harsh adult prison just so they can get away from the punishment unit in Banksia, it’s clear that conditions are very bad. Minister Logan must close this isolation unit immediately,” said Tammy Solonec.

Amnesty International has, since December, repeatedly requested access to information on Banksia Hill via a Freedom of Information request. The department has failed for four months to make any decision about this request.

The report also found:

  • the children’s prison is breaching international standards by subjecting all children to collective punishment;
  • too many are children locked up in the controversial centre, highlighting that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children make up seven out of 10 children in Banksia Hill, and almost all of the younger and regional children;
  • there was inadequate support to connect Indigenous children to culture, or support for Indigenous staff members;
  • there was inadequate support for children with diverse needs, citing a recent Telethon Institute study, which showed that 9 out of 10 of the children in Banksia have some form of brain injury; and
  • girls in the centre were housed inappropriately, with fewer access to privileges than boys, such as being able to make food for themselves and access sports training sessions run by external sporting clubs.

Poor leadership, denial and spin

This is all against a backdrop of years of mismanagement. Inspector Neil Morgan said, about the centre, that “Every period of crisis has been preceded by poor leadership and management, compounded by denial and spin.”

Tammy Solonec said, “Corrections Minister Fran Logan cannot hide behind these reports any longer. For these girls and boys, this report or the next one or the next one won’t matter. Mr Logan has a duty of care to these children – he must shut down the isolation unit immediately, and commit to an open, transparent and trackable strategy to overhaul the youth justice system in WA.”