Revealed: The 'living hell' of life inside the Bimberi youth detention centre

Revealed: The 'living hell' of life inside the Bimberi youth detention centre

Six years of violence and abuse inside the Bimberi youth detention centre can finally be revealed following an investigation by The Canberra Times.

Frontline staff, former detainees and government officials have come forward to blow the whistle on a series of disturbing incidents between 2011 and 2017.

Workers from the Bimberi youth detention centre have described adverse working conditions at the site.

Workers from the Bimberi youth detention centre have described adverse working conditions at the site.Credit:Karleen Minney

Troubled children have allegedly been abused and humiliated by a small number of "bad apple" staff, several inside sources alleged.

Staff have themselves been threatened and attacked by volatile detainees, with occupational violence dismissed as part and parcel of their difficult job, sources added.

Staff have spoken out about the toxic culture inside the ACT's youth justice system.

Staff have spoken out about the toxic culture inside the ACT's youth justice system.Credit:Karleen Minney

"I'm looking for work, we all are," said one youth worker.

"If a detainee hits me I'll just let him beat the shit out of me. It's better to be at home on compo than to be at that place."

In a special investigation spanning several months, The Canberra Times has uncovered a number of concerning allegations, including:

  • "Sickening" acts of violence between detainees and staff members
  • Guards encouraging children to settle disagreements in organised fights
  • Detainees being supplied with alcohol and drugs
  • Indigenous and immigrant detainees being goaded with racial slurs

The 40-bed Bimberi facility in northern Canberra houses the ACT's most troubled young offenders aged between 10 and 21.

A picture of a cell inside the Bimberi Youth Justice Centre

A picture of a cell inside the Bimberi Youth Justice Centre

Built in 2008 following the closure of the scandal-plagued Quamby centre, it was itself the subject of a damning human rights review in 2011.

The ACT government's executive director of youth services, Dr Mark Collis, said Bimberi was today "one of the most open and transparent" detention centres in Australia.

"I'm not giving credence to any one of these matters, [but] I want to hear what they are," he said.

"We have a track record of acting on every allegation of misconduct that has come before us."

If a detainee hits me I'll just let him beat the shit out of me. It's better to be at home on compo than to be at that place

Bimberi youth detention centre worker

The Community Services Directorate declined to comment on specific allegations, although it said it was aware of a number of incidents in the past, each of which had been reported and responded to at the time.

"And I am absolutely relaxed about the responses we've had," Dr Collis added.

"I am confident the centre hasn't had the kind of catastrophic failures that others have. We have a centre that delivers really good outcomes for kids."

Sources told a different story.

The first sign of trouble inside Bimberi came earlier this year when a guilt-stricken whistleblower wrote a series of letters to politicians and the territory government.

The letters, seen by The Canberra Times, painted a horrifying picture of life inside the detention centre.

"I had witnessed young persons try to kill themselves and cut themselves until they bled," one letter began.

"I had watched and been involved in uses of force where the young person screamed for their mum or dad."

One letter recalled a "sickening" incident around 2014, in which a detainee smashed their head on the concrete after guards threw them to the floor.

"Their hands were cuffed behind their back and they were unable to break the fall. The sound it made was sickening and I thought for sure they had split their skull."

They later described how the sound of the incident still haunted them years later.

"That was one of the worst things I ever saw. The sound, I couldn't believe it. It was like dropping a coconut on the concrete."

The same whistleblower described another violent incident involving one detainee and three guards.

"I saw the footage. You could see the kid throw a jab towards a staff member's stomach.

"[The guards] have grabbed them and thrown them against the wall. They were holding them and kneeing them in the body and face. They had a black eye for a week."

Former Bimberi detainees also spoke of an environment where violence was a tool to make troublesome children toe the line.

A small number of former guards would go as far as to encourage children to fight each other, ex- detainees alleged.

"If there was a problem, the guards would let us sort it out ourselves.

"Certain guards would arrange for us to go into a room and sort it out."

Occasionally, this would stretch beyond disagreements and guards would ask particular inmates to fight other troublesome detainees.

"They would say to us, 'We want this guy next'."

A former youth worker described similar incidents.

"During my employment at Bimberi I personally heard staff congratulate [detainees] for assaulting disliked detainees," they said.

"I also heard a detainee defending their actions by saying words to the effect of, 'I thought I was doing staff a favour'.

"There were several children in Bimberi who didn't fit in so were continually a target for staff and detainees.

"For these detainees Bimberi was an absolute living hell."

Current staff members said a lack of resources and training created an environment where they were concerned for their own safety when dealing with volatile detainees.

"It's a really dangerous place. You don't know if you'll go home safely," one source said.

"A lot of us are scared."

Former staff members have also raised concerns about other alleged human rights issues inside the facility, such as racially abusive language.

"I personally heard a staff member, in a morning brief, refer to an Indigenous young person as a black c---," a source said.

It is not just frontline youth workers who have been disturbed by their experiences.

A small number of staff within the ACT's wider youth justice system have also grown concerned in recent years.

"I feel I have a duty to step up and give an insider's view about how and why the system continues to fail so severely," said one veteran of the ACT youth justice system.

"At one meeting senior staff were discussing troublesome young people, talking about a child who had been 'bronzing up' – or smearing faeces over his cell.

"Everyone was laughing and sniggering at this behaviour. But any expert should know this is a flashing red light of potential psychosis."

Dr Collis said Bimberi staff were extensively trained and worked within a comprehensive set of workplace policies and procedures.

Before starting at the centre, they underwent one of the most "intensive induction procedures in any youth justice centre in Australia", he said.

The ACT Human Rights Commission has confirmed that it is aware of concerns about the treatment of young people at Bimberi.

"We have a number of regulatory and oversight mechanisms that we are utilising regarding these concerns that have been brought to our attention, and are reviewing Bimberi practices, including use of force and strip-searching, which we expect to complete later in 2017," a spokeswoman said.

Behind the wire: Youth detention in the ACT

2008 - The Bimberi Youth Justice Centre is opened following the closure of the scandal-plagued Quamby Centre

2011 - A teacher inside Bimberi quits before raising concerns about staffing, bullying and training

2011 - Bimberi is reviewed by the Human Rights Commission. The damning report delivers more than 200 separate recommendations

2011 - A youth worker is charged after allegedly smuggling cannabis into the centre for a detainee

2012 - Three prescription drug overdoses are reported inside the facility

2013 - Two more prescription drug overdoses are reported inside the facility

2015 - Guards are investigated and cleared after allegations they had been selling drugs to detainees inside the facility


2015 - A staff member is investigated and cleared following allegations they were watching pornography on the job

2016 - Three youth workers are hospitalised after a violent incident involving three detainees

Steven Trask is a reporter for The Canberra Times

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