24 July 2018
He remembers it as the "hot box:" a cell with nothing but a toilet and a heater, deep within the corridors of one of Victoria's most notorious adult jails.
Josh Searancke was only 16 when the state of Victoria locked him alone in that room at Barwon prison for 23 hours, where he says the temperature was cranked up so high he could barely stand.
How he ended up in there forms part of a dark chapter in the history of the state's youth justice system.
Searancke arrived at the adult jail from Parkville's juvenile justice centre in November 2016 and was made to sign a form that authorised guards to use capsicum spray, tear gas and firearms against him if he misbehaved.
At first he was put into an ordinary cell. It had a porcelain sink, which was inappropriate for a youth facility something that became apparent after the mentally fragile teenager smashed it to pieces and used the shards to cut himself.
Later, he says, the guards brought in their dogs, threatening to unleash them if he didn't surrender. When he eventually did, he was "dropped" to the floor.
Searancke is no angel he can be highly erratic, has depression and anxiety and was in youth detention. But he simply cannot comprehend why he was sent to an adult corrections facility in the first place.
The Andrews Government claimed at the time it had no choice but to temporarily move young people into a hastily-gazetted section of Barwon jail known as the Grevillea Unit, after parts of Parkville had been "shamelessly trashed" by young offenders in a riot.
"The behaviour that we have seen at Parkville is completely unacceptable," a tough-talking Premier Daniel Andrews had declared in the aftermath.
"Those inmates will be going to adult prison and I make absolutely no apology."
But Searancke, like many others who were transferred to Grevillea, had nothing to do with the riot.
"I was asleep when (it) happened," the now 18-year-old told The Age at his home in Frankston last week. "I shouldn't have been sent there."
Searancke claims he was in Grevillea for five days - with multiple trips to the "hot box" - but spent no more than three hours outside a cell. His Nan, Kathy, says he has not been the same since.
Now, almost 18 months after the Supreme Court found the government acted unlawfully and against children's human rights by sending them to Barwon, Searancke and his family have decided to speak out in the hope the same mistakes aren't repeated.
His is not an isolated case The Age understands that a number of youths are considering suing the government on the grounds of alleged mistreatment.
But with four months until the state election, it's emblematic of a deeper and persistent problem. An Auditor-General's inquiry due to be tabled shortly is expected to find that the reason some young people walk out of detention and reoffend is because of the way they are managed when they are incarcerated.
According to details obtained by The Age, many inmates don't even have a case plan, let alone a structure for rehabilitation, and they often don't get the mental health services or education they need.
Parkville College the school that was set up inside the justice centre in the hope of keeping kids on track had been underfunded by millions of dollars by the education department, and the department of justice, which now runs the system, does not have enough staff to make sure students can be escorted to class.
Boiled down, the Auditor-General's inquiry is expected to align with the findings of a damning review recently conducted by the government's own hand-picked experts, Swinburne University professor James Ogloff and former corrections bureaucrat Penny Armytage.
Both concluded that the system had "deviated from standards of humane detention" and was now doing "more harm than good".
"The system as it has currently evolved is starker, harsher, and more restrictive than the Victorian adult corrections system," Ogloff and Armytage wrote in their 861-page report handed to Youth Affairs Minister Jenny Mikakos last year.
Children's Commissioner Liana Buchanan is equally concerned. As the public watchdog for vulnerable young people, it's Buchanan's job to investigate systemic problems in youth justice, as well as isolated incidents of alleged brutality. One case involved a boy from Parkville whose limbs were fractured after he was restrained by staff. Another review found inmates placed in isolation for up to 45 days, some forced to defecate on the floor due to the lack of sanitation.
But if the welfare of young people is an issue, so too is the safety of those who work in the system.
Fairfax Media can reveal that WorkSafe has paid $15.3 million worth of injury claims between January 2010 and July 2018, including 104 payments on the grounds of mental stress, and 163 resulting from being hit by a moving object. Guards have been bashed, hospitalised, threatened with rape.
Public sector union boss Karen Batt says things are improving: shifts are now fully staffed, there a fewer poorly-trained agency workers, and having Special Emergency Response Group (SERG) roles undertaken by correctional officers was "increasing confidence amongst staff at work."
Nonetheless, a challenge remains: how do you strike the right balance between appropriately managing an increasing complex and violent cohort of offenders, while ensuring that workers remain safe?
Human Rights Law Centre director Ruth Barson says if the government was serious about young people's welfare it would explicitly prohibit the use of solitary confinement "and get rid of archaic laws, like the ones that allow children to be put behind the same razor wire as adults".
But Batt argues the "misplaced and misunderstood commentary about the youth justice offender being 'just a child'," had been part of the problem, placing an "enormous psychological strain on those managing their behaviour."
Some say the culture still is not tough enough.
"Separation of violent offenders, proper rehabilitation, and young offenders understanding the consequences of their actions is urgently needed," says opposition spokeswoman Georgie Crozier.
Neither Children's Minister Jenny Mikakos nor her department would commented on Josh Searancke's allegations of brutality, how offenders are now being managed, or the nature of assaults in the youth justice system.
Asked why Searancke was put in Barwon at all, a department spokeswoman said the transfer of young people to Grevillea "was based on system capacity and an assessment of suitability" while Parkville was being fortified after the 2016 riots.
Since then, the government argues, it's been improving the system: recruiting extra staff; providing better training; boosting security; expanding rehabilitation services. Planning is also underway for a $288 million "fit for purpose" youth justice centre in Melbourne's west, set to open in 2021.
"We are fixing the mess the Liberals left us and rebuilding our youth justice system after four years of cuts, neglect and mismanagement," Mikakos says.
Searancke and his family simply hope the lessons of Barwon have been learnt. They are considering taking some kind of legal action. His Nan, Kathy, cites the Northern Territory Don Dale facility where young offenders were brutalised.
"It broke my heart to see how kids were treated in Darwin. I can't believe something like that could happen here," she says.
"Josh is not perfect by any means," she adds, "but he didn't deserve that."
A link to THE AGE is HERE
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