Human rights Opinion

Prison tragedy highlights child incarceration cruelty

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Casuarina Prison recently saw WA's first death of a child in prison (Screenshot via YouTube)

The recent death of a child in custody has raised concerns about Australia's youth detention system, writes Gerry Georgatos.

CONTENT WARNING: This article discusses suicide

WESTERN AUSTRALIA’S Banksia Hill Detention Centre sailed dangerous winds for years, and as an institution with among the world’s highest rates of self-harm and suicide attempts. If the self-harm rates at Banksia Hill child prison were in any other contemporary Australian institution, surely it would have culminated in the closure of the institution.

The Western Australian Government has been breaking the law, disregarding court directions, by using Banksia Hill and “Unit 18” as holding pens – corrals of human misery – unlawfully locking up children 23 out of 24 hours a day, sometimes days in a row. In some cases, weeks and months.

I’ve seen Banksia Hill from the inside, working there as an external for eight weeks in 2020. I saw the horrible cells of the “Intensive Support Unit”, slagged as the “cage” and misused as punitive detention. I’ve seen the grotesque cells in the compounds.

We need respectable bedrooms for our neediest children, not grotesque stir-crazy gaol cells, or we risk the next generation even worse so condemned than the current.

Unit 18 is the evidence of decades of failures by one government after another. Also of the bastions – the Departments of Justice and of Corrective Services – who should be propositioning the compelling narratives, the proven restorative works of the Scandinavian and Dutch adaptive transformational programs that turn lives around, address trauma, dramatically reduce offending, make society safer and fairer for everyone.

Australia has more than 800 child prisoners and 6,000 on community orders. Norway has six children detained but rather than punishing, they are nurturing restoratively, educating the children. They do not reoffend. The redeemer is a blessing.

During the last three weeks, I and comrade, Megan Krakouer, have been supporting the out-of-town families – 70 individuals – of Cleveland Dodd, the 16-year-old child who is now Western Australia’s first death in a child prison. The last death in a child prison was in Tasmania’s notorious Ashley children’s prison in 2010. Since 1980, there have been 18 child deaths in children’s prisons Australia-wide. Cleveland is now the 19th.

Cleveland was failed by Banksia Hill, the Department of Corrective Services, the incumbent government of Western Australia — by one government after another since the establishment of Banksia Hill in 1997.

Some claim, once upon a time, Banksia Hill was a bastion of rehabilitation. I dispute this. I met Cleveland’s father in the ICU at Sir Charles Gardiner Hospital, in Perth, by his son’s bedside. Cleveland’s father, now 33 years old, was a child prisoner 15 to 19 years ago in Banksia Hill. Banksia Hill failed Cleveland’s father.

Cleveland’s father and mother were teenage sweethearts – impoverished descendants of the First Peoples – generationally living in crushing poverty because of the sins of an invader-born nation, which oppressed and segregated the First Peoples. For most of the teenage pregnancy of the mum-to-be, Cleveland’s dad-to-be languished in Banksia Hill.

There is nothing restorative or rehabilitative about Banksia and never was. Cleveland and his father are evidence. Of the children of Banksia who survived to adulthood – many died unnatural deaths after custody – more than half finished in adult prisons.

Cleveland’s father is incarcerated. He was relocated by the Department of Justice from Greenough Prison, Geraldton, to Perth’s Hakea Prison, to be by his son’s side. He was brought in each day of the eight days his son was on life support. He was shackled at the ankles and handcuffed; couldn’t embrace and hug his son.

I had refused to go to the ICU because in my view, the dignity of family needed to be preserved from the eyes of strangers. I learned of the shackles and handcuffs on the last day of life of young Cleveland. I discussed this with Megan. Megan contacted the Department of Corrective Services. I suggested contacting the Premier, which Megan did, tapping into compassion. Within half an hour, the shackles and cuffs were removed.

I spent 13 days at a Perth motel with 30 of the family – and with Megan, doing everything we could for the families – who had travelled from regional and remote communities. Some were flown in by the Department of Justice. I must declare that despite my tussles over recent years with the Department of Justice, it covered my accommodation costs so I could assist the affected families.

During the evening of Cleveland’s last day of life, the mum asked me to visit her son. I could not deny her ask. I hugged the father. My heart broke staring at the young one. He had been unresponsive since Unit 18.

The young man was breathing heavily. I knew he did not have long to go. The previous day, life support had been turned off. He would last only 30 hours. I sat outside the ICU, by the window looking at dad, mum and son.

At 10:14 PM, Cleveland took his last breath. A doctor came in, but he had passed. Father collapsed onto his only child. Mother, too, fell on her eldest child. The three were forged together for what seemed a pause in time. Grandmothers, aunties, and siblings fell to their knees. Sobbing, wailing and howling cries were heard throughout the ICU, into the corridor to the waiting room where scores of family members realised and wailed and howled. Searing grief screamed. Hearts broke behind our breastbones.

Cleveland will be long remembered as is John Pat, the 16-year-old bashed to death by an off-duty police officer in 1983. I believe Cleveland’s senseless death, described as a suspected suicide, will lead to some change. But that change will be more than ever before.

Nearly half the gaoled children of Banksia have been removed by the State from their families or carers. Their “parents” are now the State. These children were born into disadvantages and sufferings unimaginable to most.

Of the remaining children, the majority have, at best, weak safety nets — one or both parents are dead or in gaol. The extended families that may care for them are exhausted and unsupported, caring for far too many children that society has betrayed.

These children have it worse than their parents and if they are left likewise unsupported, their children, come the day, will have it even worse — harrowed lives, reprehension daily.

It is my experience the aberrances of these children are cries for help or worse, of cold surrender.

I am retired, living with Parkinson’s, but still volunteer with many youths who were the children of Banksia and some children, whom I mentor, to not return to Banksia Hill.

It is not enough to just argue about raising the age of criminal responsibility. This is a given. We must vest in the ways forward, to save these children, to improve their lot, to validate them and believe in them till they believe in themselves, to change the direction of their lives. We must ensure they do not languish lifelong in ruination, in adult gaols and die decades before their time.

Banksia is a systemic problem. A problem made by governments. There is nothing restorative, rehabilitative, therapeutic or transformational at Banksia. The disproportionality of First Nations children gaoled should not define and disguise the failures of the State as a Black problem. Homelessness is caused by governments not building social housing. Similarly, the WA Government does not invest in the nurture of our State’s most vulnerable children.

If there were genuine diversionary programs for the most seriously vulnerable children – many who are homeless, transient or orphaned – the Children’s Court would be referring children to such programs. Governments boast of mythical diversionary programs but come the day aberrant children front the Children’s Court, judges have nowhere to turn them to.

Where children can be released, we must vest support via intensive outreach, often of a psychosocial and psycho-educative content, but these models do not exist in WA, nor Australia-wide.

Because these forgotten children of Banksia are failed, about 60 to 70 per cent will finish up incarcerated as adults.

The children of Banksia who have been segregated at WA’s notorious maximum security adult gaol, Casuarina, I estimate nearly all will be incarcerated when adults. This is an indictment of us, not them. We have betrayed these children. I know most of the children of Unit 18 – they are not “monsters” – they are the children who were denied the beginnings most of us take for granted by life’s unfairnesses.

If you would like to speak to someone about suicide you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Gerry Georgatos is a suicide prevention and poverty researcher with an experiential focus on social justice. You can follow Gerry on Twitter @GerryGeorgatos.

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