Dealing with Criminal Youths – Repeated mistakes of the past

Following the investigation and exposure of Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in Northern Territory 2016, a Royal Commission is looking into all youth detention centres in Northern Territory.  Victoria has recently had escapes and/or riots at both Parkville and Malmsbury detention centres with a quick fix answer to build a bigger prison in Werribee South.  Expert research and investigation occurred some years ago, predicting the riots and unrest if systems were not fixed.  Yet little or nothing was done.  The issues and reasons why Point Puer did NOT fully work, are uncannily being repeated in Youth Detention Centres in Australia today – making Point’s story current and important.


Below is a letter sent to politicians and media March 2017.

I am writing to beg this government, the legal system and the humanitarian youth experts in control of (or have a say in) the youth justice system – to stop the knee jerk reactions and deal with the recent prison rioting issues thoroughly, openly, consultatively, and HONESTLY. Thanks to Four Corners uncovering neglect and abuse in the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre, we now have a Royal Commission into youth detention centres in Northern Territory.  Then this happens in Victoria.  I would suggest there needs to be a Royal Commission into ALL youth detention centres in Australia.

The bricks and mortar or the physical infrastructure is only a small part of a much bigger issue.  To try and gain political points by announcing building of a super max prison in Werribee South is appalling.  We need to go back to the drawing board.  A quick fix after years of neglect is not the answer.Over a number of years, I have researched the history of Point Puer boys prison in Tasmania built in 1834.  It was the first time the British government decided to separate boys from men and to attempt any form of ‘rehabilitation’ through teaching them a trade and how to read and write.  I have written a play ‘Point of No Return’ with Point Puer as the basis of the story.  Hence the reason for the in depth research. The Point Puer experiment succeeded but only partially.  Boys didn’t necessarily die (as was mostly the case prior to Point Puer) and some even became our first pioneers of Australia.  It wasn’t completely successful though and this is the direct link to today’s youth prison riots – uncannily and unbelievably the government has repeated the mistakes of the past.  Have we learnt absolutely nothing and in fact not listened to expert advice warning of greater unrest if systems weren’t improved. Are we going backwards?

To be specific why Point Puer DIDN’T fully work is as follows:

  • There was still a mentality of harsh punishment to control the youths.  Overuse of solitary confinement led to increased anger, chaos, and revenge.  Virtually every newspaper that reported  on the youth riots,discussed the thorough investigations into Victoria’s youth justice system and how ALL had warned of the overuse of solitary, lack of trained staff, squalor conditions and uncaring sloppy attitude of staff.  Deputy Ombudsman visited Parkville in 2010 and reports that he was ‘horrified’ at what he saw.  The riots were predictable.

  • Grossly underestimation of how teenagers think and behave.  They take stupid risks, are lacking in control of anger and just giving harsh punishment only results in amplifying this.

  • Grossly underestimating what teenagers want. What they respond to.  They want to BELONG.  As the ancient African proverb states, ‘If the boy is not initiated into the village, he will burn it down to feel its warmth.’

  • Rewards work.  The boys at Point Puer snuck out to cook potatoes on the beach, at huge risk to themselves.  The boys who escaped into the roof of Malmsbury were enticed down with pizza and soft-drink.  PIZZA AND SOFTDRINK!!! They are kids, very angry even adult sized kids. But still kids.

  • Guards at Point Puer were mostly ex-prisoners from Port Arthur - untrained and totally unsuitable for the job. Both The Age and Herald Sun reported on the gross lack of training of the prison officers at Don Dale, Parkville and Malmsbury. 


    As a knee jerk political reaction to public outcry and against all expert advice, some of the youths were transferred to maximum security Barwon prison.  Also in Don Dale, youths were transferred to the run down old Berrimah adult prison. Utterly incomprehensible and wrong. 


    Ombudsmen Deborah Glass warned Andrews govt against “knee jerk responses to the crisis in youth justice, saying all efforts must be made to ENSURE YOUNG OFFENDERS WERE GIVEN THE BEST CHANCE TO AVOID BECOME ADULTS CRIMINALS.  ‘Reform’ should not be derailed by knee-jerk responses to events which will not make us safer in long run. (The Age, Feb 7)

In short, these recent riots were not only predictable but preventable.  The quiet sliding through of a decision to build a new youth prison in Werribee South will not solve the problems and has understandably enraged the residents of the City of Wyndham. But EVERYONE should be enraged.  To just talk about being ‘tough’ and ‘getting back control’ scares me.  What will happen behind these walls?  Four Corners exposed the appalling treatment of teenagers Don Dale youth prison in Northern Territory last year.  I would suggest this is an Australia wide problem and so we should have an Australia wide investigation into youth detention centres.  We are in 2020!  Let’s fix this properly, listen to the experts. Look after our youth.  And yes, even our misguided, angry, criminal youth.


Alaine Beek 0439 690091