Prison Reform Moves Slowly In The West

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Over 140 juvenile offenders are currently being held at Western Australia’s Hakea prison. As has been widely reported, the high-security adult prison is holding the youth following a riot at the Banskia Hill detention centre, where they were previously held. The riot, staged in January by a small group of detainees, caused enough damage to render the centre uninhabitable.

There is no other facility for young offenders in Western Australia as Banksia Hill is being rebuilt. Western Australia's prisons are all currently over-capacity, and private contractor Serco operates the only other youth facility. Current reports from the Department of Corrective Services suggest that the juvenile offenders won’t be out of Hakea until the end of June.

The decision by the Department of Corrective Services to house the young males at Hakea has been controversial, with three separate inquiries held into the decision. The first found that the young detainees showed signs of physical abuse, malnutrition, and a decline in mental health. A hearing in WA’s Supreme Court began last week challenging the decision, and Amnesty International has taken up the cause.

There are bigger questions to be answered about Western Australia’s juvenile offenders. For starters, why are there so many of them? And why were prison officers unable to stop or curb the riot? ABC’s 730 Report recently reported that WA has the second highest incarceration rate of young people across the country – second only to the NT. One hundred and sixty-eight young people are detained each night, and over half of them are Indigenous.

Retired WA judge Antoinette Kennedy addressed the issue in a public statement in mid-April, calling for more community programs for potential juvenile offenders, and concrete solutions to prevent the current overcrowding of prisons – both for young and adult offenders.

Last year the Killara Youth Support Service was shut down after the Department of Corrective Services (DCS) deemed it no longer relevant. The program, which was launched over 20 years ago as part of the Department of Child Protection and then moved to the DCS, was an early intervention service designed to work with young people and their families before they committed any serious offences.

Killara would contact families when a young person received a caution for a minor crime, and work with them over a series of sessions in an attempt to rehabilitate the young offender. Families could also contact the service if they thought their children were committing minor offences, or at risk of doing so. After Killara funding was was cut, WA was left without an early prevention program for young people. Support was only on offer for those who are already entrenched in the court system and have committed serious offences.

The DCS currently provides Juvenile Justice Teams (JJT) for young offenders – if an offender works with a JJT, they can generally carry out an action plan that will ensure they don’t receive a criminal record for their offence. But once again, this addresses the problem after the fact, rather than attempting to curb offenders before they reach the courts.

During the Supreme Court hearing for the Hakea case, WA’s Chief Justice found that out of 199 available juvenile justice workers, 60 are currently out of work on workers compensation. The number of assaults on prison workers in Australia is alarming. John Welch from the Prison Officer’s Union recently stated that in December alone, there were seven assaults on prison officers at Banksia Hill, and that last year overall there were at least 75 assaults on prison workers.

The WA Prison Officers Union’s campaign, Respect the Risk, outlines the risks of being a prison officer in WA, and aims to come to an agreement with the government over wages and conditions. According to WAPOU, the prison population has increased over 25 per cent in the past three years.  There are currently almost 5000 inmates in WA’s 15 prisons, but there is only space for around 3500 detainees.

Throughout February and March, prison officers across the board in WA went on strike for better pay and conditions and to protest against privatisation.

In March former Inspector of Custodial Services Professor Richard Harding wrote an op-ed for The West Australian condemning the state’s prison system, blaming the Department of Corrective Services for focusing on incarceration rather than prevention. He wrote: “well-known problems have not been addressed, so they have deteriorated.” 

Harding discussed overcrowding, noting that despite a number of new facilities being built over the past decade, prisons and detention centres are still crowded and the core problem has not been addressed:“The department's building priorities have not only distorted its ability to manage the population equitably, but almost certainly have cemented reoffending rates at a higher level.”

He also argued that the Banksia Hill riot “epitomised” the problems with the system, raising the point that most issues within the system can be linked back to a “policy drift within the Department of Corrective Services.”

It’s now evident that the Banksia Hill facility was not stable or secure enough to hold the young detainees. There have been reports of other prisons not being up to scratch during inspections, and the Supreme Court hearing last week revealed that Hakea prison currently has an asbestos problem in over half of the prison’s cells. On the day of the Hakea hearing, two prisoners escaped from Bunbury Regional Prison.

In the meantime, the Barnett Government has promised to build new facilities to ease overcrowding, as well as to expand Hakea.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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