During the second half of 2011 and 2012, the Inspector became increasingly anxious about the risks at Banksia Hill for the following reasons:

  • The responses to the inspection of 2011 appeared unrealistic and out of touch;
  • Incidents were escalating in frequency and seriousness, including numerous roof ascents, some of which involved standoffs or serious assaults and one which resulted in a dangerous escape in August 2012;
  • Excessive ‘lockdowns’ due to staff shortages were having a negative impact on the regime for detainees;
  • Divisions between staff and management were clear;
  • There were frequent changes in management positions on site and in head office, with particular upheaval between December 2011 and April 2012;
  • The building program was well behind schedule and unrealistic timeframes were being indicated for completion and testing; and
  • Banksia Hill generally was not ready for amalgamation.

 The decision of the President of the Children’s Court in Department of Corrective Services v RP on 22 March 2012 was another significant indicator of serious problems in youth custodial services. The Department had applied for an order under section 178 of the Young Offenders Act 1994 that RP be transferred to an adult prison because of his behaviour at Banksia Hill, including two serious assaults on staff and a major roof ascent. His Honour Judge Reynolds declined to make the requested order. He fully acknowledged the seriousness of RP’s behaviour but expressed major misgivings about the way he had been treated at Banksia Hill, including the various ‘regression’ and ‘management’ regimes to which he had been subject.

Using unprecedentedly strong language, Judge Reynolds held that RP’s treatment amounted to ‘psychological subjugation’ and was ‘cruel and inhumane’. His Honour also made particular note of the fact that RP had made real progress since being moved from Banksia Hill to the Rangeview Remand Centre, and that the Department had not provided a clear plan for RP if he was transferred to an adult prison.

The case of RP should have heightened head office concerns about the management of detainees at Banksia Hill but, as with its responses to recommendations from the 2011 OICS inspection, there is no evidence of a reflective or proactive response. Despite the severe judicial criticism the Department did not institute its own internal investigation into the treatment of RP at Banksia Hill and downplayed the issues in its communications with staff. In a custodial environment a lack of reflection, responsiveness and learning will elevate risk.

At around the same time, the Department did not follow through on commitments that it had given to the then Minister. The challenges facing Banksia Hill featured prominently in meetings and briefings involving the Inspector, the two Ministers and the Commissioner throughout 2012. On 29 February 2012, the then Minister sought specific written advice from the Department as to the risk of further delays to the amalgamation and the strategies it would adopt to manage staff and union concerns. The Department provided the requested briefing two months later, on 26 April 2012. It advised that it had held a workshop in March and that the risk issues identified at this workshop included staff anxiety about change and concerns about safety, risks associated with the construction on site, the impact on staff and detainee morale of frequent lockdowns, gaps between staff and management expectations, and the difficulty of amalgamating two workforces. These risks were nothing new and should have been well-known but only three months earlier the Department had played them down.

In its briefing to the former Minister, the Department committed to nine risk-mitigating strategies:

  • Provide continuous information to staff about the progress of the building works by newsletters, emails and by senior management walking around the centres each day;
  • Re-establish the staff consultative committees and working groups which were in existence in the early planning stages;
  • Accelerate the planned staff interchange between the two centres, starting in the ‘coming weeks’;
  • Work with staff to better understand and articulate their roles;
  • Improve staff numbers by reducing the number of staff on workers compensation and sick leave;
  • Set up a governance structure for the new position of Assistant Superintendent Compliance.
  • Develop a new process for managing high-risk offenders;
  • Be seen to be responding immediately to legitimate concerns about safety; and
  • Update the risk register for the building program to include industrial issues.

Although the Department took some steps on some of these strategies, the actions and outcomes fell far short of what would reasonably have been expected by the Minister or, indeed, by Banksia Hill staff. This placed the site and the Minister at further risk. The Inquiry also sighted other examples of poor follow through on Ministerial advice.

A new Minister (Hon Murray Cowper MLA) took on the corrective services portfolio on 21 March 2012. Again, the amalgamation featured as an area of high risk in discussions between the Inspector and the Minister, as well as between the Inspector and the Commissioner. As shown in Appendix 3, there were some very serious incidents during July and a dramatic high-risk escape in early August. The escape involved two detainees who left a supervised activity in the gymnasium and scaled a fence into the young women and girls’ precinct, which was still under construction. They used a brick or rock to break into and steal a vehicle belonging to a building contractor, striking the contractor on the back of the head and ejecting him from the vehicle. They then used the vehicle to smash through two roller doors and the mesh gate in the front gate of the centre.

The August escape reflected not only extraordinarily high-risk behaviour, but also some serious security and safety issues. While the detainees could only escape because of weaknesses in the perimeter, this did not explain why they had not been better supervised and had been able to steal the vehicle. The Department’s internal review of this escape identified basic procedural security failings as the main cause.

Following the escape on 2 August 2012, prison officers from the Department’s Emergency Support Group officers were deployed to Banksia Hill. They guarded the damaged sally port and patrolled the perimeter of the construction site. Their presence continued for several weeks, until the completion of work to repair the sally port and install a new 3.6 metre high fence around the girl’s unit. On 3 September 2012, the Department’s monitoring officers commenced work at Banksia Hill. Their usual role is to monitor standards at privately operated prisons and this was the first time that they had been deployed to a public prison. They provided several reports per week to the Director State Security. The reports immediately raised serious concerns about the abilities of the Banksia Hill workforce.

On 17 August 2012, the Inspector provided detailed written advice to the Minister regarding the risks at Banksia Hill. He advised that in his view the risks were such that amalgamation should be deferred by a minimum of one month from the scheduled time (early October 2012), preferably longer. This would have given closer to three months to amalgamation. Although this was still a relatively short time, it would have allowed more time for security testing, improved site and staff readiness, and the injection of immediate resources into issues relating to human resources and change management.

The 17 August advice included the following comments:

If the only issue at Banksia was the buildings themselves, the timeframes to the units becoming operational would be extremely tight. By way of comparison, the rule of thumb in adult custodial has been that at least two months should be allowed between practical completion and occupancy. It is generally thought that this time is required for assessing and remedying faults and for thorough operational testing including scenarios, the development of local procedures and emergency plans, security testing by the ESG and staff training and preparation. Certainly, there has been a far longer lead in time at the adult prisons where new units have been added (Albany, Casuarina, Hakea and Karnet). It is also interesting to compare the new West Kimberley Regional Prison. That reached practical completion on 10 August but the prison will not be officially opened for two to three months. Then, quite appropriately, it will be filled gradually, primarily with relatively compliant Kimberley Aboriginal men and woman. Even before the prison has opened, it has had a substantive superintendent and a number of other staff to support its development. Banksia faces more complex challenges, including the need to take larger numbers of less settled detainees and to amalgamate two staff groups with different cultures.

The advice noted that deferring the handover of Wandoo would need to be negotiated because Serco had already made plans for staffing and physical redevelopment at the site, but that Serco had indicated its willingness to negotiate. The advice concluded:

Without being alarmist, there are significant risks with the proposed transition dates. These factors include the physical and cultural readiness of Banksia for such a move, the associated risk of industrial action, and issues relating to the decent and humane treatment of detainees. Although nobody wants such an outcome, the accumulation of inter-related factors is such that, in my opinion, it is necessary for the Minister and the Department to consider whether the transition should be delayed by at least one month. Such a deferral will bring a potential financial penalty but it is a case of weighing a number of competing risks. Provided the time is used well, an extra month would allow some significant issues to be negotiated and progressed, time for Banksia to be better prepared, and time to mitigate the very real risk of industrial action.

The Department was provided with a copy of this advice and asked for its views. Its advice to the Minister on 23 August 2012 acknowledged there were some issues with respect to staff and site readiness and said that these were being actively monitored. The former Commissioner noted that because of the risks there was likely to be a short delay in the transfers and that he was to be consulted before any transfers occurred. He also strongly emphasised the risk that ‘Serco will be paid but not delivering the required service’ if handover was deferred.

By this stage, the Department was obviously in a difficult situation in terms of balancing the various institutional and financial risks. However, it seems clear that the Wandoo contract timeframes were afforded too much weight compared with the Banksia Hill risks.

During the rest of August and September, a number of initiatives were taken to try to improve staff security awareness and practices. Overall, however, too little was done to address the issue of cultural fragility. Nor was there sufficient attention to basic practical necessities at the point of amalgamation, such as staff familiarity with the site, clarity about rosters, having basic necessities in the new Banksia Hill units, and tidying up at Rangeview.