Australia

Harmony’s story: Breaking the cycle of youth incarceration in Western Australia

After eight weeks, Harmony completed a Certificate 3 in Civil Construction. Source: Aaron Fernandes, SBS News

For the first time, a new program in Western Australia is following the journeys of young people out of juvenile detention.

The statistical odds were all working against Harmony.

When an Indigenous person ends up in juvenile detention in Western Australia, they are more likely to end up in an adult prison later in life.

Three months ago, Harmony sat in a cell at Banksia Hill Detention Centre in Perth’s southern suburbs, the only prison in the state for juvenile offenders.

Currently, there are 108 detainees at Banksia Hill, the youngest just 11 years old. Seventy-eight of them are Indigenous.

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“My life is s***, that’s why I ended up in Banksia,” Harmony, now 18 years old, tells SBS News.

“Just the freedom and not being able to see family (bothered me). I did seven months, got out for a month, then went back for another six. I just got out again.”

Her prospects for turning her life around became even bleaker in February this year, when eight major not-for-profit organisations stopped going into Banksia Hill to work with young offenders, due to coronavirus concerns.

Western Australia's Banksia Hill Detention Centre.
Banksia Hill is the only facility in WA for juvenile offenders.
Aaron Fernandes, SBS News

The WA Department of Corrective Services looked for new service providers to fill the space.  

“There are a lot of issues around adolescent mental health and [a] very high number of Aboriginal people [in Banksia Hill],” WA Corrective Services Commissioner Tony Hassall says.

“What we wanted to do was make sure we covered all those issues, of suicide, self-harm and trauma. Something that would be unique and different in terms of managing young Aboriginal girls in the system”.

Megan and Gerry from the Nation Suicide Prevention and Trauma Recovery Project
The NSPTRP received a small grant to work in Banksia Hill.
Aaron Fernandes, SBS News

Corrective Services partnered with the National Suicide Prevention & Trauma Recovery Project, a Perth-based organisation proposing an intensive support program for Indigenous girls. 

The aim of the program was to build trust with the girls while they were at the facility, then follow their journeys post-release, to ensure risk factors such as housing, mental health and access to education and employment were mitigated.

“We supported them with a daily presence, assertive outreach while they’re in prison and constant support from the first day they’re released to prevent any risk of re-offending,” NSPTRP National Coordinator Gerry Georgatos says.

“We didn’t cherry pick which kids we worked with, we took the toughest ones with the hardest circumstances”.  

Children are sent to Banksia Hill from all over the state, with many there awaiting their first court appearance or because they’ve been denied bail.

The NSPTRP program targeted around a dozen Indigenous girls with a history of serious offending, including violent assaults, car theft and high-speed chases.

Many are themselves victims of abuse and subsequent trauma, from homes where poverty, violence and substance abuse are pervasive.

“If it was your son or daughter (incarcerated), you would want them to have every possible chance of leaving prison and not going back,” NSPTRP Director Megan Krakouer says.

“We know a lot of the families that these kids come from, we work with them too because intergenerational poverty is a factor in most of these stories.”

Harmony reached out to the NSPTRP for help.
Harmony is now qualified to work on a range of worksites.
Aaron Fernandes, SBS News

It was during the first visit by NSPTRP to Banksia Hill in March this year that Harmony reached out for help. 

“They came into Banksia … I just walked up to them and asked if I could get some help. Try to get back on track, try and get my life sorted out,” she says.

At that point, Harmony had only a few weeks left until release, but had no job, no education and no stable housing.

“I’m 18, I dropped out (of school) in year eight, at the start of year eight,” she says.

Harmony received daily visits from the NSPTRP prior to her release from Banksia Hill.

“(Harmony) was about to come out of Banksia with her juvenile detention photo ID, and that’s it,” Mr Georgatos says.

“She didn’t have the basic documentation, in order to apply to get a drivers licence, a healthcare card or enrol in training for employment, or access Centrelink.

“So the first thing we had to do was organise documents to get her ID to get her to that 100 point checklist.”

Harmony has made a commitment to rebuilding her life out of the justice system.
Harmony completed her course in eight weeks.
Aaron Fernandes, SBS News

Driving Harmony to appointments, the NSPTRP followed her through the process of enrolling, delivered food to her family home and conducted around-the-clock support.

“We drove her to appointments, bringing her to training everyday when she needed to be here. Basically, be there for them the entire way,” Ms Krakouer says. 

“This type of work doesn’t finish at 5pm, you have to be reachable at all hours, whether it’s via Facebook, messages. Just keeping it real.

“This kid is a bright kid, she’s a lovely person. And sometimes all you need to show is that there’s love around them and circumstances can change.”

Harmony then enrolled in a Certificate 3 in Civil Construction, provided free of charge by a workplace training centre with experience working with ex-prisoners. 

“We’ve had hundreds of success stories come through here … guys out of incarceration that are making good money now. Harmony is the first of the younger ones, they’re the ones we should be helping”, Skills Training and Engineering Services General Manager Clinton Kieswetter says.

Even with support, it took multiple attempts for Harmony to achieve her qualification. The risk of failure however meant an almost certain relapse into criminal behaviour and adult prisons. 

“I never thought I’d be able to do it, but once I started doing it, I seen that it wasn’t as hard. I gave up a few times, but I’m finished now,” she says.

“If I could do it, anyone can do it. So just give it a go.”

The program is the first time young offenders have been intensively assisted on the outside.
The program is being considered for further funding.
Aaron Fernandes, SBS News

Mr Georgatos is quick to point out that Harmony’s journey is far from over. The next step is to find her independent housing and then a permanent job.

Even then, nothing is guaranteed.

“We work with them, even if they’re cursing us away. We work with them, even if they don’t want that support any further,” he says.

“We keep on engaging with them until we translate that engagement into outcomes. Into meaningful activity, into education, into training and employment,” he says.

“(It's) everything that they want, but obviously they have had hardships that need to be unpacked, trauma that needs to be unpacked. We believe in them relentlessly until they start believing in themselves.”

The NSPTRP is now being considered for future funding by WA Department of Corrective Services.

Reaching new heights.
The course was provided for free by STES in Bibra Lake.
Aaron Fernandes, SBS News

“This (program) is unique in terms of its intensity, intensive support for young girls who were vulnerable and at risk,” Commissioner Hassall says.

“They’ve taken a young girl from being in Banksia Hill right the way through the journey. That sort of end-to-end approach, we actually haven’t had before”.

Mr Hassall says the success of the program continues a recent push across government agencies in Western Australia to promote partnership, culture and participation when working with Indigenous communities.

In WA’s Kimberley region, the department has launched a juvenile justice strategy, co-designing youth services with local communities.

“There is a push across government to be aligned in how we manage these challenges. We’re all agreed on the objectives … reducing the overrepresentation of Aboriginal people in the justice system,” Mr Hassall says. 

“(The NSPTRP) is different is terms of, they follow the person all the way through. They start that intensive work in the centre, and we’ve had to do things differently, we’ve had to operate in a slightly different way, and that’s fine.

“That then drives in us a slightly different appetite in how we take risks and how we manage risks”.

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