Staff at Victoria’s two youth justice centres have used lockdowns and isolation to control juvenile detainees many thousands of times in the past two years, often due to staff shortages and in contravention of human rights laws, a damning report has found.
The practice of locking down and isolating youth offenders inside the Parkville and Malmsbury justice centres hit a high late last year, when there were 4767 “lockdown episodes” between October and December, data shows. There are roughly 200 youths in detention in Victoria.
The parliamentary report recommended a major boost to “vastly inadequate” mental health services for the state’s youth offenders, while inside detention, noting expert evidence given during the inquiry that it would improve rehabilitation rates.
In a 232-page report, tabled on Tuesday, a committee of nine upper house MPs found that the increased use of lockdowns, isolation and separation to control youth inside the Parkville and Malmsbury centres was counterproductive.
“The increasing prevalence of such security approaches is a strong indication of a failing youth justice system that cannot maintain order without reverting to extreme physical security measures,” the report states.
The use of isolation – placing a young detainee alone inside a locked room – peaked in March and April 2016, when the punitive control technique was used more than 600 times a month.
By the end of 2016, isolation rates had risen from an average of 8.8 times a day to 42.4 times a day.
Isolation of youth offenders is prohibited under Victorian law, however the parliamentary committee heard evidence it was used widely as a punishment, most often for aggressive behaviour by detainees.
“The committee finds this particularly concerning due to evidence linking isolation with the potential to create or exacerbate trauma, including increasing the risk of self‑harm,” the report said.
The committee included four Liberal MPs, three Labor MPs, one Greens MP and Reason Party MP Fiona Patten.
Liberal MP Georgie Crozier accused the Andrews government of hampering the committee’s efforts, by withholding or seriously delaying the release of data on issues such as assaults on staff.
Committee members said important statistics on lockdowns for 2017-18 were withheld until very late in the inquiry process.
High staff turnover was a serious problem inside the justice facilities, Ms Crozier said, noting evidence given by the Community and Public Sector Union during the inquiry that 70 per cent of current employees had been working at the centres for less than six months.
Among the report’s 39 recommendations was a call to establish a forensic mental health precinct as a way to improve mental health services it described as “not enough to meet offenders’ needs”.
The Victorian Greens responded to the report by reaffirming their call for Labor to cancel its plan to build a new youth justice centre at Cherry Creek, an isolated location just outside Melbourne’s urban limits in Wyndham.
“Building another facility of this magnitude risks stereotyping young offenders as hardened criminals,” Greens MP and committee member Nina Springle said.
The planned facility was shifted from Werribee South by the Andrews government in response to a fierce community backlash.
Jenny Mikakos, the Minister for Families and Children, blamed the former Coalition government for leaving the state’s youth justice system in a mess.
She said the report was a cut and paste job full of recommendations the government was already acting on.
“Last August, the most comprehensive review into Victoria’s youth justice system in 17 years handed down its recommendations – and we’re already acting on them,” Ms Mikakos said.
– Authored by: Adam Carey, Photo By: Luis Ascui, The Age, 06.03.2018