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Youth justice watchdog reveals "uncomfortable" findings from prison review

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Incarcerated children are being denied access to education, phone calls to lawyers and medical treatment due to “inadequate” staffing and resourcing at South Australia’s youth prison, the state’s youth justice watchdog has revealed in an explosive new report.

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“Some of this report will not make comfortable reading,” said Youth Training Centre Visitor Penny Wright in the preface to her pilot report, tabled in parliament this afternoon, which shines a light on the day-to-day operation of South Australia’s Kurlana Tapa youth training centre.

The report is the first of its kind in South Australia to formally investigate the centre, which holds on average 39 young people aged between 10 and 19 years old, many of whom have significant needs in relation to trauma, developmental disadvantage, mental ill-health and disability.

Wright’s office found most children and young people detained at the centre during the inspection period in November were not formally sentenced, but were being held in detention while on remand.

It found more than half were Aboriginal – despite Aboriginal children representing just 4.5 per cent of the state’s total child population – while more than a quarter of detainees were also children from the out-of-home care system.

According to the report, the centre was “on track” to reach only a “few” standards, with most labelled as either “passable” or “needing attention”.

“There is no doubt that many of the aspirations and goals of the centre are worthy but hampered by a lack of resourcing,” it states.

“This is often manifested in too few staff to facilitate aspects of campus life like access to education, training, programs to promote growth and development, medical and mental health care and external leave for funerals, cultural events and vocational training.

“But it is exactly these kinds of activities and services which are crucial if the objectives of rehabilitation and reintegration are to be met.”

The report states that a recent decision to join the girls’ and boys’ campus into one meant that staff workloads had doubled, meaning children were being offered fewer opportunities to access education.

It quotes a staff member saying, “we can’t get kids out of rooms” due to roster restrictions.

“One example was that of two young boys who, while eligible to go to school, could not attend for several days because unit operational requirements meant that staff could not be released to escort them,” the report states.

“There were also practical problems caused by more restricted access to usable spaces, especially those needed to protect privacy and confidentiality.”

The report says girls were particularly disadvantaged by the decision to join the campuses, with space and staffing restrictions meaning female detainees were not afforded the same access to facilities as males.

The report quotes a female detainee saying staff told girls at the centre that they could not use the gym equipment because “that is for boys only”.

“One young woman, responding to what she saw as diminished amenity after the female detainees were moved from Jonal campus, said that the multi-faith room (which was then being used for the girls’ classes) is ‘too small’,” it states.

Wright also raised concerns about detainee access to appropriate legal representation.

The report states two detainees separately described difficulties they experienced when they requested a phone call to their lawyers.

“One said he had been prevented from making calls at times, due to operational practices or decisions.

“Asked for an example of this, the young man identified the impact of excessive lockdown times (such as extending over the scheduled shift changeover times) as being the reason given for his calls not being facilitated.”

Children were also denied external leave to attend family funerals.

According to the report, there were seven applications to attend funerals in 2019, of which six were made by Aboriginal young people.

It states five of the funerals were in regional South Australia and were not approved or supported, while the two that were approved were less than one hour’s journey from the centre.

The report states that it was “not possible to say” that medical, psychological and psychiatric treatment of detainees were assessed in a “timely way”.

“Individual detainee needs are not always identified and adequately addressed,” it states.

“Detainees do not always have access to regular psychiatric reviews and there is not a consistent therapeutic environment available.”

The report makes 10 recommendations which include better programs for girls and young women, Aboriginal children, drug and alcohol support, independent living skills and anti-bullying and peer support.

In a statement, Human Services Minister Michelle Lensink said the State Government had accepted all 10 recommendations.

“As the TCV report is already seven months old, I’m really pleased the TCV has noted that since her inspection there have been encouraging actions by the Department, with work already underway as part of our new Youth Justice State Plan 2020-23,” she said.

“Broadly, our vision is to provide South Australian children and young people in the youth justice system – and their families – with better support programs and services to achieve positive outcomes.

“We remain committed to making significant improvements in our youth justice system and we will continuously review best practice for both young people and staff.”

Opposition human services spokesperson Nat Cook said the report “clearly shows that the Training Centre Visitor needs additional resources to ensure that they meet their future obligations”.

“The safety of vulnerable young people is paramount,” she said.

“The Liberal Government needs to listen to Penny Wright’s calls and ensure her office is adequately resourced and funded.

“These calls have been unheard for the last two years.”

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