March 2017


Call for backup

By Russell Marks
Image of Malmsbury Youth Justice Centre

Malmsbury Youth Justice Centre, Victoria, 25 January 2017. © Paul Jeffers / Fairfax Media

How authorities lost control of juvenile detention

A 17-year-old boy is asked to take a shower. He refuses. An alert is called. Fourteen adults respond, five of whom drag him off the table he’s sitting on, lay him facedown on the concrete floor while pressing their knees into his back, secure handcuffs and ankle-cuffs, and strip him naked with a knife. They leave him there for an hour.

The security footage was recorded at Cleveland Youth Detention Centre, Townsville, in January 2013. Twice in the previous two months the same young man had tried to kill himself. Staff said he had been “ground stabilised” because he had “refused to go to his room and to change” and “was extremely aggressive” (though the footage only shows him sitting with his arms crossed). His clothes had to come off, they said, because of the risk that he would tear them off and strangle himself with them – while he was cuffed by his wrists and his ankles. Staff were following what they understood to be standard procedure in high-risk scenarios.

Incidents like this go to the heart of a question that’s now dominating the minds of policymakers, and the public, across Australia: how should the state respond to young people who commit crimes? In Queensland, Annastacia Palaszczuk’s Labor government is investigating the effects of the unorthodox approach taken by the previous administration, led by Campbell Newman, which had set up “boot camps” and used “naming and shaming” techniques to drive behaviour change. In New South Wales, authorities imposed lengthy periods of solitary confinement on teenagers, including those with mental illnesses, under the short-lived Chisholm Behaviour Program until May 2016. In Western Australia, teenage detainees were moved into an adult prison for eight months in 2013 – and strip-searched regularly – while repairs and reinforcements were made to the state’s youth justice centre. In the Northern Territory, recent behaviour management techniques have included, notoriously, spit hoods, mechanical restraint chairs and capsicum spray.

The distinguishing feature of a youth justice system is its emphasis on therapeutic intervention. Very few kids commit serious crimes. Look into the short life stories of those who do, and it’s not at all difficult to find reasons for their extraordinary, fatalistic rage. Most were victims of extreme abuse or neglect long before they began hurting others, and mostly at the hands of people they should have been able to trust. Their abuse has too often extended into their out-of-home “care” placements. Child protection systems are the tragic “conveyor belts”, in the words of one insider, that provide two thirds of youth justice centre clients in Victoria – and most of its adult prisoners. Most kids settle down eventually. Some keep bashing people and destroying property well into their adulthood. The ultimate KPI for any youth justice system is whether it makes that graduation more or less likely for the children it receives.

The Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory was set up by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in July last year after the ABC’s Four Corners offered a rare glimpse into the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre. The footage was recorded between 2010 and 2015. It showed Dylan Voller and other teenagers, aged between 13 and 18, being stripped, beaten, hurled across the room by the throat, locked down, hooded, shackled, tear-gassed. During that time they were also threatened, starved, demonised, watched while showering and going to the toilet, and forced to urinate on the walls of their cells and defecate into pillowcases. Then there was the iconic image that evoked Abu Ghraib: a 17-year-old topless Voller strapped to a mechanical restraint chair, a white spit hood covering his head, his neck fastened to the back of the chair. Those responsible for what looked to be, fairly self-evidently, assaults and abuses weren’t “rogue elements”, as Territory ministers initially claimed. Most of it was authorised – by managers, by governments, by parliaments – ironically with the intention of making things safer for staff and young people.

Some of these techniques (solitary confinement, capsicum spray) have bled into youth justice from adult prisons. Others (boot camps, mechanical restraint) are innovative. None is drawn from evidence about what we know works. They all raise the same question: what is it that we’re trying to achieve?

For a long time, reformers have petitioned to ensure that young offenders are kept separate from adults and treated differently. One reason is to prevent the “crime school” effect. In 1849, George Nichols sponsored the Infant Criminals’ Education Bill in New South Wales’ parliament. He presented the case of two boys, aged about 13 and 16, who had been sentenced to labour on the roads. What was the point, he asked, of sending them “to Cockatoo [Island] to be herded with felons from Moreton Bay, from Van Diemen’s Land, and Norfolk Island – to be made criminals of the worst and most desperate character by their association with these ruffians?”

The second reason has to do with our understanding of adolescent brain development. Teenagers are not simply younger adults. There are good reasons why we don’t let them drive, vote, drink, go to war. Why we don’t allow adults to form romantic relationships with them. Their brains are still developing, say experts – into their 20s, the latest research suggests. If teenagers are more impulsive and reactive in general, this is especially true of teenagers in the justice system. Trauma, abuse or neglect actually impair the development of impulse control, and this has implications for criminal justice systems, which have traditionally been set up to punish. The evidence is overwhelming: kids who have already been “punished” throughout their childhood don’t suddenly stop behaving badly in response to more of it. On the contrary, responding punitively to bad behaviour is likely to entrench it – children become more resentful, more defensive. As a former staff member of one of Victoria’s youth justice centres told me, “If you kick a dog, it’ll bite you.”

Empirical evidence supports both lines of thinking, which have endured in international and Australian law. For many years, Victorian authorities sought, more so than most, to build their system on this evidence base, linking its youth justice system to its child protection system. Victorian magistrates, lawyers and politicians have often expressed something like pride in the state’s youth justice system, and the low youth crime rate (compared to most other states) was seen as a measure of its success.

How, then, did Victoria’s system erupt within a few months last year into such complete chaos that many of its distinguishing features are now being discarded? With a royal commission now hearing how the Northern Territory got it so horribly wrong, this is a story with national implications.

The narrative of crisis began on the Saturday night of Melbourne’s annual Moomba festival in March last year, in a public brawl involving young people in and around the city’s Federation Square. This was most Victorians’ introduction to the so-called Apex Gang, named after a street in culturally diverse but economically depressed Dandenong North, in Melbourne’s south-east. Readers of Melbourne’s Herald Sun have since been fed a consistent diet of Apex Gang stories, emphasising its vicious “suburban thuggery”, its alarming spread north and west, and especially its ethnic makeup, which is said – frequently – to be “a mixture” of Sudanese, Pacific Islander and Middle Eastern.

Coincidentally, the weekend before Moomba, a group of teenage boys had run wild at the Melbourne Youth Justice Centre in Parkville, a trendy inner-northern suburb. They took pitchforks and metal bars from a gardening shed, smashed windows and skylights, tore apart air-conditioning units, and beat up at least one fellow inmate. Daniel Andrews’ Labor government asked a former head of NSW’s juvenile justice department, Peter Muir, to investigate. In May, Muir gave the government his report, which was alarming. Parkville was effectively a tinderbox. Its physical infrastructure, its staffing shortages and, as a consequence of those shortages, staff’s frequent use of lockdowns had precipitated a level of risk that was high and rising. In these circumstances, Muir wrote, the young detainees’ destructive behaviour was “to be expected” and “will almost certainly occur again”.

The government kept Muir’s report secret, but his predictions came to pass – on at least 19 separate dates until mid November in both Parkville and the state’s other youth justice centre outside Malmsbury, about an hour north-west of Melbourne. Tabloid media covered all of these incidents, too. And then, over the course of one weekend beginning Saturday, 12 November, teens inflicted such catastrophic damage to Parkville that 62 beds in four of its accommodation blocks were lost.

“Enough is enough!” Victoria’s minister for families, children and youth affairs, Jenny Mikakos, told journalists as dozens of Victoria Police officers were still restoring order behind the grey walls of the Parkville precinct. Three years ago, the state’s Ombudsman had concluded that “there are no circumstances that justify the placement of a child in the adult prison system”. Now, in the wake of what the media was calling a three-day riot, the premier confirmed plans the government had floated in October. “Those inmates will be going to adult prison,” Daniel Andrews promised, “and I make absolutely no apology.” Many of the staff at Parkville and Malmsbury were also at the end of their tether. Concerned for the safety of her members, Karen Batt, the state secretary of the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU), applauded the prison idea.

However, on the Wednesday following the Parkville riots, the state’s Youth Parole Board refused Mikakos’ initial application to transfer seven particularly difficult-to-manage young people into a prison, to mix with the adults there. Meanwhile, senior public servants were frantically working on alternatives. They came up with only one, which they presented to a grateful minister. The following day, Mikakos and Andrews announced that adult prisoners would be moved out of the Grevillea “restricted regime unit” at the maximum-security Barwon Prison, near Geelong. Youth justice staff would move in. Grevillea – right in the centre of the prison – would be repurposed as a remand centre for teenagers.

“We are sending around 40 young offenders to Victoria’s highest security prison,” Mikakos declared. They were only alleged offenders at best. All were on remand, awaiting the day the Children’s Court would find them guilty or innocent and, most likely, release them from custody. But Mikakos’ language was deliberate. “The Andrews Labor government is sending a very clear message that this disgraceful behaviour won’t be tolerated,” she continued. The minister responsible for the children’s care and protection later called them “the worst of the worst” and, in a notorious New Year’s Day Twitter spat with Ruth Barson of the Human Rights Law Centre, made a meal of advice she had received about double-bunking risks and implied they were potential rapists.

Staff and contractors gained access to Grevillea for the first time on the Friday, 18 November, and worked throughout the weekend to convert the maximum-security prison unit into a youth justice facility geared toward therapeutic responses. By Monday, it wasn’t ready. But Parkville still looked like a demolition site. Around a dozen remandees, all aged 16 or 17, were bussed into Grevillea that afternoon, including at least three who hadn’t been involved in the riot the previous weekend. One was an Aboriginal boy who himself had been born in Parkville detention centre while his young mother was in custody there, and had been in and out of the youth justice system since he was 12 years old.

Any violent, dangerous or destructive behaviour, the teenagers were told on their arrival at Barwon, would be met with dogs, capsicum spray, tear gas and guns at the hands of the prison’s Security and Emergency Services Group (SESG). Nothing like SESG exists at Parkville or Malmsbury.

Lawyers visiting Grevillea were shocked. The boys were locked inside their cells almost constantly for the first weeks. One lawyer discovered children weren’t given blankets for over a week, despite the air conditioning blasting cold air into their cells. They were hungry. There were rats. One boy self-harmed using porcelain from his cell’s smashed sink. “This is the most fucked-up place we’ve ever been,” one child is said to have told a worker, later reported in the Age. “This is hell on earth.”

Grevillea is close to what we imagine whenever we think “prison”: a rectangular common area is lined by two levels of cells, the upper level accessible by stairs and a platform walkway. Prisons are built primarily to punish offenders. They don’t have a good record at rehabilitation, let alone therapeutic interventions aimed at addressing the root causes. The Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS) was horrified. They teamed up with the Human Rights Law Centre, where Ruth Barson was keen to take on the state government in court. Barson had worked as a prisoner rights and youth lawyer for Aboriginal legal services in the Northern Territory, where she’d represented Dylan Voller when he first came into the system. The lawyers filed in the Supreme Court the following morning, Tuesday, 22 November, alleging that the government had acted illegally in transferring Aboriginal children to Barwon.

The senior public servants given the job of approving particular clients for transfer had never been to Grevillea. (Nor had Mikakos.) They weren’t aware that the SESG could be on call, that any parents who had criminal records would find it almost impossible to get through Barwon’s security to visit their children in Grevillea, that the teenagers would be locked down in their cells for up to 23 hours every day, that they would be handcuffed whenever they were in the exercise yard, that lawyers would find it difficult to talk to their clients for more than a week, and that there wouldn’t be a school.

Daily revelations about these inhumane conditions in which children were being held overwhelmed what Andrews and Mikakos had hoped would be the narrative – about violent teen “thugs” who had brought these conditions on themselves, the “worst of the worst”. Having declared that it would “vigorously defend” the legal action, the government offered an extraordinary last-minute settlement the day before court. All Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids came out of Barwon immediately.

VALS and Barson’s team assumed the settlement made the full abandonment of Grevillea inevitable: if it wasn’t suitable for Koori kids, surely it wasn’t suitable for any kids? Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt saw it quite differently: Victoria had just “proved” that its youth justice system was governed by “apartheid” conditions after “ruling that adult jails were bad for young Aboriginal criminals but fine for whites”.

Barson and her team then partnered with the Fitzroy Legal Service to bring the inevitable second case. This time Mikakos made good on the promise to vigorously defend it: when the trial began on 12 December, the government was confident the judge would acknowledge improvements made to Grevillea over the previous fortnight, which he did. But the case ultimately turned on legal questions. While the government certainly had the power to establish a third youth justice centre for Victoria by gazettal, was that power exercised according to the law’s requirements? No, said the judge, it wasn’t. After four days of trial, the government lost.

But there was a twist. Just as the judge was about to order the Department of Health and Human Services to remove the children from Barwon, the government’s barrister sprang to his feet. Parkville and Malmsbury were already beyond capacity, he said. There was absolutely no other facility available in which the teenagers could be securely held, and it might take eight months to repair Parkville. The judge agreed to stay his order – the children would stay in Barwon – until the Court of Appeal made its ruling. Extraordinarily, that happened on the Wednesday after Christmas – when the government lost again.

But the day after the Court of Appeal’s decision, Minister Mikakos simply published a new gazettal, correcting the “errors” of the original. The teenagers had been in Barwon Prison for Christmas, and they’d see in the new year there as well. It all came down to little more than paperwork. Ruth Barson called the 29 December re-gazettal “a consummate act of bad faith”.

Meanwhile, the chaos continued. On 7 January this year, six teenagers fled a basketball court at Parkville, jumped into a pool and refused orders to get out, and then broke off bits of the pool’s fencing. Then they climbed inside a roof and broke out one of their mates, who was locked down. Police were called to again restore order, but Parkville had lost even more beds. The seven were sent to Malmsbury and Grevillea. Five days later, six young men grabbed poles at Malmsbury and locked themselves in a secure yard before riot police were called in. And then on the eve of Australia Day, Malmsbury erupted in sensational fashion when 15 detainees stole a staff member’s access pass and escaped by ramming the exterior fence with a ute. In stolen cars, they led police on high-speed chases through the roads north of Melbourne.

And through it all, the Herald Sun bore down on magistrates who granted bail, on ministers who weren’t being tough enough, and especially on what they repeatedly called “teen thugs” who were African or Islander and were terrorising the state.

“The Herald Sun sees the kids going wild and reacts, but that’s just the symptom,” says one staff member. Insiders and experts quietly agree that the system is already too punishment-focused, and doesn’t include enough positive reinforcement of good behaviour. In the absence of appropriate incentive schemes, staff are reportedly resorting to bribing kids with Snickers bars. Below the headlines, there’s a story about an apparent lack of planning over recent months and indeed years, worsening management–staff relations and increased staff shortages, all in the face of consistent warnings. The government was told in May last year that Parkville could blow up at any moment. It knew even earlier: Peter Muir had made similar findings when he reported on a major disturbance the previous September.

Jenny Mikakos and the Department of Health and Human Services didn’t just have Muir’s reports to alert them to risks of inaction (or wrong reaction). They also had the experiences of youth justice authorities in other states. If Victorian decision-makers wanted a cautionary tale, they needed to look no further than what happened after the Barnett government closed Western Australia’s second youth justice centre in October 2012.

All of WA’s young detainees were moved into the one facility: Banksia Hill in the Perth suburb of Canning Vale. In response, the CPSU warned the government that Banksia Hill was now a “pressure cooker situation”: children were “being locked in their cells for long periods of time because there aren’t enough staff to deal with increased detainee numbers”. A government-appointed reform team reached the same conclusions after finding that 60 of WA’s total youth justice workforce of 199 were on workers compensation. Sure enough, on 20 January 2013 more than 60 teenagers ran riot for nearly four hours. They smashed cell windows, cell doors, security systems, the roof, electrics, plumbing and furnishings. They ripped electrical cabling from walls, and they flooded the centre by leaving taps running. In the end they’d trashed 108 cells.

An independent report later found that the months preceding the riot were marked by “significant fragilities including staff shortages, excessive lockdowns of detainees in their cells, poor responses to detainee misbehaviour and an increasing disconnect between management and staff”, which meant that a “major security incident was entirely foreseeable”. The same words could be applied to Parkville before November last year.

Mikakos and her department hadn’t heeded Perth’s warning, but it’s as if they took detailed notes of the response. Western Australian authorities bussed 73 boys to the Hakea men’s prison, where they stayed for the next eight months while repairs were made to Banksia Hill. As at Grevillea, the government made the transfer legal by re-gazetting units at Hakea as a youth detention centre. As at Grevillea, the boys were locked down in their cells for 23 hours every day for the first few weeks, and had to wear handcuffs whenever they were out of their cells. As at Grevillea, visits, education, recreation and remedial programs were, a judge later found, significantly curtailed. Strip searches were frequent.

The same pattern – lockdowns preceding riotous behaviour – was also seen in the Northern Territory in August 2014. Five young escapees were returned to Don Dale’s “behaviour management unit”, a purpose-built concrete unit whose five austere cells opened to a larger concrete room staff called an “exercise yard”. The cells had no air conditioning, fans, water, windows or ventilation. The only natural light in the whole unit came from a very high window at one end of the “exercise yard”, but the teenagers – one of whom was Dylan Voller – stayed locked in their cells for up to 23 hours every day.

By 21 August, the five young escapees had been in solitary confinement for between six and 17 days. A shift supervisor told them he’d be keeping them there, arbitrarily, for another 24 hours. The kids became “increasingly aggressive and violent towards officers”, and the shift supervisor called for backup. By the time that arrived, 14-year-old Jake Roper had managed to escape his cell (it had been left unlocked by a staff member), and began smashing glass panels and light fittings. Staff had barricaded themselves in the storeroom. Roper then tried to bust into the storeroom with a fire extinguisher.

“I’ll pulverise the little fucker,” one staff member can be heard saying, in footage that’s now on the internet. “Oh shit, we’re recording, hey?” (Such footage is rare. Australian prisons and youth justice centres are notoriously opaque.) Roper then threw a length of aluminium into the storeroom, where it hit one of the staff and drew blood. The staff sought approval to use tear gas. (“Fuckin’ gas them!”) By now, Roper could hear a dog approaching the unit. Afraid, he asked to speak to a particular staff member in the storeroom. “Nah, you’ve had your chance” was the reply. Prison officers were already on their way with the tear gas. Wearing masks, they forced their way into the unit. Tear gas causes an extreme burning sensation to the eyes, nostrils, throat and mouth, and makes breathing very difficult through huge coughing fits. Officers shot four bursts of it into the enclosed room to subdue Roper, a single 14-year-old boy. The gas penetrated rapidly into the surrounding cells. By the time they were taken outside, the five children had been exposed to the gas for between three and eight minutes.

From there, all five boys – including Jake Roper, illegally given his age – were taken to an adult prison on the approval of a magistrate. A sixth boy was also inexplicably transferred, without any approval. When they got to the prison, officers fitted them with spit hoods for no reason anyone could later nominate. By May 2016, the NT parliament had authorised mechanical restraint chairs for use on teenaged detainees, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The United Nations urges an “absolute prohibition” on the solitary confinement of young prisoners and has declared that locking children up for 22 hours a day amounts to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or even torture. It cites evidence that shows solitary confinement causes, rather than prevents, violent and even psychotic outbursts.

“In a system that’s unsettled, marked by serious staffing issues, the inconsistent application of rules and arbitrary lockdowns for young people even when they’ve done nothing wrong, there’s no question all of that has an effect on young people’s behaviour,” says Liana Buchanan, Victoria’s principal commissioner for children and young people. “The notion that young people have just behaved the way they have, without thinking their environment or their treatment has played a role in that behaviour, is just ridiculous.” Mikakos, Andrews and senior bureaucrats from the Department of Health and Human Services told reporters and the parliament repeatedly that they didn’t know what was causing the escalating violence in Victoria’s youth justice centres throughout 2016. But they must have had a pretty good idea.

What was actually happening inside Victoria’s youth justice centres? Let’s pick up the story from when Ian Lanyon, a former police officer with law and management qualifications, was brought in by Victoria’s previous Coalition government as director of secure services at the Department of Health and Human Services in late 2012 following a scathing report into Parkville. Apart from the physical infrastructure deficiencies the then Ombudsman identified – including hanging points, broken glass, electrical hazards and unhygienic kitchens – he found that some staff were beating kids up.

Lanyon’s task was to implement the Ombudsman’s recommendations, which he did well enough. With educator Brendan Murray he championed Parkville College, a new school set up under the Department of Education and Training and hailed as a bold, evidence-based experiment in trauma-informed education. He notoriously declared to a new group of inductees that he was getting rid of the “dead wood” among existing staff. In early 2014 the Ombudsman declared his recommendations had all been implemented.

But it became difficult to distinguish between Lanyon’s clean-out and the then Coalition government’s budget-led redundancies. The “dead wood” included, it seems, not just the old-schoolers who were belting kids but also many of the older staff who were good at building rapport with them – as well as many senior bureaucrats. Decades of experience walked out the door forever, and insiders say an entire ethos went with them.

Lanyon explicitly wanted to professionalise the education services so that kids could take qualifications out into the world. Whatever his intentions, now when young detainees leave their classes they go back to cells whose staff – including too many from labour-hire companies – are more like guards.

There’s also little doubt that problematic staff remain in Victoria’s youth detention centres. Recruitment ads in newspapers declare “no qualifications required”. “I’ll tell you how to get things under control,” one youth justice worker told me. “Turn the cameras off for two weeks and just lay into the little fuckers … That’ll teach them.” This man is a current staff member. I’ve spoken to others who say similar things. “If Lanyon was so determined to get rid of the bad elements,” one insider asked me, “why are they still there more than four years later?”

Lanyon was removed as director of secure services in January this year, the first fall guy for a government that’s in serious trouble on the issue. There’s one factor in Victoria’s youth justice crisis, however, that’s been well beyond Lanyon’s – and the department’s – control. As a result of changes to bail laws in 2013 (partly a response to Jill Meagher’s murder by a paroled Adrian Bayley), magistrates denied bail to more and more kids. They began flooding into Parkville and Malmsbury on remand. Before long the traditional custodial mix – 20% on remand, 80% on sentence – had been turned entirely on its head. There are tremendous problems with these huge remand numbers. Unlike the sentenced population, which is relatively stable, the more transient remandees are forever re-establishing their pecking order – and they often do that by fighting.

Whether staff shortages are due to overcrowding, high absenteeism or budget-oriented “efficiency dividends”, they mean one thing to young people in the centres: lockdowns. If there aren’t enough staff on at any given time, there’s little alternative in the current setup than to send kids into their cells and lock the doors. For a detained teen, lockdowns for “operational reasons” are indistinguishable from punishment by solitary confinement. And lockdowns have been implicated in youth justice centre riots all over the country.

Victorian police, politicians and even magistrates talk of a much more violent cohort of young criminals now. Official statistics in Victoria do show that while the number of young people committing crimes continues to fall, there’s a small core of kids who are racking up very long rap sheets. Apex is often blamed. The CPSU, which is working closely with the government, says examples like Banksia Hill show the new cohort isn’t unique to Victoria. But claims about new cohorts or new and challenging behaviours are not new. In 1952, Victorian authorities transferred a handful of “uncontrollable and incorrigible” girls to Pentridge Prison after they smashed up their cells. One 13-year-old girl returned to Pentridge the following year. “We have to protect the lives of our staff and other inmates,” said the secretary of what was then called the Children’s Welfare Department. “We just cannot handle her.”

Many dispute that Apex even exists. “The idea that there’s an organised gang is a misnomer, a false paradigm,” says Warren Eames of the Youth Support and Advocacy Service, which works with many migrant kids. Experts say media reports fuel it, by giving at-risk kids looking for a group identity something to brag about being part of. The tabloid Apex panic feeds neatly into other existing panics. Anthony Kelly of the Flemington & Kensington Community Legal Centre says “Apex” is now dog-whistle code for “migrant crime”. The panic has so far sparked a Senate inquiry and Border Force deportations.

“Disadvantage, poverty, trauma – they’ve always been the drivers [of criminal offending],” says one insider. Two thirds of the kids in detention in Victoria have problems with drugs and alcohol. A quarter have intellectual disabilities. Every second kid in an Australian youth justice centre is Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. If there is a new profile – perhaps from particular cultural backgrounds, with particular traumatic experiences, using particular drugs (like ice) that the system isn’t familiar with – then it’s incumbent on the department to investigate and build an evidence-based response like it always has. But insiders say that hasn’t been done. “It’s just reactionary arse-covering,” one says of the “new cohort” claims. “It’s just the latest case of blaming the most vulnerable kids for the failures of adults across the board.” Angry, broken kids are good at pushing adults into punitive reactions, say the people who work with them. It’s how they get attention.

What actually happened before the Parkville riot in November challenges some of the ways it’s been characterised. Kids had been locked down and were sick of it. The cells there – management calls them “bedrooms” – are enough to make anyone feel lonely and claustrophobic, or worse, if already suffering a mental illness, which most kids in custody do. One boy worked out that he could kick his way into the ceiling. From there, he discovered he could move to adjacent cells, kick in the vents and pull other kids up into the ceiling with him. Then they found they could get into the tool shed. Staff made a tactical withdrawal from the unit, which is standard procedure, and called police. For at least an hour, the kids had the run of the place, and probably did what angry, mistreated kids who’d been locked up against their will would be expected to do. They found high-vis vests and walkie-talkies, and even apparently ordered Domino’s Pizza. And they found angle grinders, which they used on doors and bed frames and walls – but not on Parkville College’s program areas. Nobody was seriously injured.

But the department lost too many beds. If there were no alternatives to sending kids to a unit inside an adult prison, it’s because the government hadn’t created any.

As can be seen in letters Liana Buchanan sent Jenny Mikakos, now published in an Ombudsman’s report released at the beginning of February, the Commission for Children and Young People wasn’t happy with Grevillea before Christmas. But things were improving. They’ve since gotten a whole lot worse. Chronic staff shortages saw the teenagers go back to 20-hour lockdowns in the new year. A 16-year-old boy suffered broken vertebrae after he was attacked by other teenagers, despite his mother having warned authorities multiple times. The Human Rights Law Centre is again asking the Supreme Court to close down Grevillea. “It’s hard to imagine that Grevillea could ever be a safe or appropriate environment for 40 young people,” Buchanan now says. As if on cue, the boys in the Grevillea unit rioted again in mid February. Prison guards used tear gas on them.

Parkville was built on residential and rehabilitative principles in the early 1990s. The site had been originally a “receiving depot” for all children who came into state care, whether through child protection or youth justice. But on the logic of security, Parkville is “not fit for purpose” – a phrase that Mikakos has been using a lot recently, and one that has bounced around various states and territories for years. Neither, it seems now, is Malmsbury. But what is? Grevillea? It all depends on what that “purpose” is. The more an environment looks and feels like a prison, the more the people inside it behave like prisoners and guards. There’s no evidence jailing kids makes them any less likely to reoffend. What are we trying to achieve?

“We should be asking why one of the biggest escapes in recent memory happened out of Australia’s newest high-security facility,” says a current staff member, referring to the 25 January escape from Malmsbury’s secure unit, which the former Coalition government began building and which Jenny Mikakos opened in July 2015 with much fanfare.

Many want to go even further. Victoria’s Opposition leader, Matthew Guy, wants to publicly “name and shame” young offenders. The idea has failed everywhere it’s been tried, including in Queensland and the United States. Kids thrive on the notoriety, say experts, and their profile locks them into a public identity as violent crims.

There are other ways. Glebe House in Cambridgeshire, England, a therapeutic community house for teenage boys who have committed sexual offences, manages to keep boys on-site for two-year programs despite having no locks and no perimeter walls. Spain has weekend custody centres that allow kids to work or attend school on weekdays, therapeutic centres where they get treated for mental health or drug dependence issues, and fully open centres. Even the most restrictive “closed” centres focus primarily on pro-social development, not punishment. Scandinavia and New Zealand are replete with fascinating alternatives.

By February, the Victorian government had stopped listening to the Department of Health and Human Services and transferred responsibility for juvenile justice to Corrections Victoria, with its primary focus on secure infrastructure and punishment. Even experts who want the administrative link with child protection maintained concede that the department has no capacity to manage the crisis. But the government rejects proposals for improved therapeutic approaches to address violent behaviour. On 6 February, following a review by former police commissioner Neil Comrie, the government announced that a new high-security centre will be built in Werribee, on the outskirts of Melbourne. Like modern prisons, and Don Dale, the new centre will incorporate a maximum-security “behaviour management unit”.

Service organisations had begged Mikakos not to make any major decisions, at least until a root-and-branch review of Victoria’s youth justice system is completed later this year. But the review is housed in the Department of Health and Human Services. Mikakos went out ahead of it. Public servants say the government is so desperate to get this story off the front page that it’s making political decisions rather than trying to solve the problem.

Bernie Geary, who retired as Victoria’s first commissioner for children and young people in late 2015, can see a terrible irony emerging. “Right now there’s a royal commission that’s hearing about how things were allowed to get so bad in the Northern Territory, and it’ll probably end up making recommendations in line with the kind of things we’re already doing here. But by then, we’ll have abandoned them.”

In 2012, when he was 16, Michael* planned an escape from Parkville with three other boys. The planning took not much more than half an hour. One of them held a shiv to a staff member’s neck, causing a wound that required stitches. They restrained another staff member and took her keys. They ended up locking themselves in a room for three hours and trashing it.

The way Michael remembers it now, he thought he’d just be “slotted” (isolated) for a couple of days, which was what normally happened whenever he did anything stupid or violent. “But it was like they really wanted to get rid of us,” he reflects. The boys went to an adult remand prison for a week before ending up in Port Phillip Prison’s Charlotte Management Unit. There, they stayed in solitary confinement for more than three months. These were the cases that led the Ombudsman to conclude that children should never go to adult prisons.

Michael was taken out of his cell for one hour each day, in handcuffs, into a caged exercise yard. He was also in handcuffs the first time he had a visitor, despite the visit being in a “box” – a tiny metal cubicle in which inmate and visitor are separated by a panel of unbreakable glass, and where there is no possibility of contact. “It’s like, what was the point?” he asks. There was no reception on his TV, and he didn’t get access to the prison’s library of books. Michael got few visitors, and the guards wouldn’t talk to him except to bark orders. “Lonely” doesn’t come close to describing his experience of those months. “The way it messed with my head …” He trails off. “I did some pretty fucked-up shit when I got out of there. I pretty much went crazy.”

Michael shares his opinions about what’s been going on in Parkville and Malmsbury, and Grevillea. “Slotting kids for ages, that’s pretty much the worst thing they can do if they want co-operation,” he says. “It’s just gonna make them so much worse.”

Michael is 20 now. His entire life has been defined by severe trauma. Like his fellow would-be escapees, he hasn’t stopped offending. He’s done some bad things, for which he’s been punished. He’s very quick to own up, to demonstrate an effort to take responsibility. He talks about what he imagines must be the psychological effect of his crimes on his victims. His eye contact is steady. He hasn’t got much to hide.

I ask Michael what matters most, what works and doesn’t work to calm him down when things get tense. He shakes his head. “They always come in with riot gear and all that shit, you know? And stupidly I fight back.” Then he says something not dissimilar to Dylan Voller’s responses to these kinds of questions. “I know I lose it, but they just need to talk to me. Knowing someone cares about me, actually gives a shit. That’s the thing that works best.”

*Name has been changed.

The author has previously worked for the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service and at the time of writing was a consultant to Nina Springle MLC, youth justice spokesperson for the Victorian Greens.

Russell Marks

Russell Marks is a criminal defence lawyer and an adjunct research fellow at La Trobe University, where he completed a PhD in Australian political history. His most recent book is Black Lives, White Law: Locked Up and Locked Out in Australia. He lives on Kaurna land.

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