Banksia Hill Juvenile Detention — WA’s last ‘Juvie’

Our work with Banksia Hill’s teachers and their detainee students — What we learned and how it affected us.
We knew we’d encounter broken children — but it was how smart and how much potential they seemed to have that broke our hearts.

Education in Incarceration

Banksia Hill Juvenile Detention

Opened in 1994, Banksia Hill is the last remaining Juvenile Detention Centre in Western Australia. It was built to house 120 inmates aged from 10-17 years of age, and across two wings (boys and girls). These are young people who have been sentenced or are awaiting sentence for serious offences. One of the boys described the detainees housed there as, “…the ones they don’t know what to do with, so they lock us up.”

Banksia Hill detention isn’t tumultuous all the time, but when damaged young people are taken away from their communities and loved ones and held together in tight captivity — it seems likely that problems will arise. As a result, the facility often lives under a cloud of controversy. People quickly forget that nearly all of the young people detained at Banksia Hill are afflicted with multiple mental-health issues and many have complex histories of abuse and trauma. The cycle of disadvantage that ensnares most of these young people is notoriously difficult to break free from. Statistically speaking, once these boys enter the system, few escape it. Regardless of your stance on children in lock up — Banksia Hill exists, and so too do its children detainees and the adults who care for them.

Statistically speaking, once these boys enter the system, few escape it.

Thanks to the Media, it can be easy to only see the razor wire and imagine hardened criminals and watchful guards. What often becomes marginalised is that day in and day out, there are young people interacting with teachers and support staff — adult caretakers who only want good things for the youths in their care. Not for the faint of heart, these individuals possess something special. There is an underlying sense of hope here that is trying to prevail, teachers trying to keep the students calm, while achieving small wins. They know that many of these kids can be volatile and not to let their guard down, but still, they choose to get close, they are constantly talking to the kids and having deep conversations, because that’s what teachers do. It is hard to look beyond the criminal element sometimes, as few crimes are victimless, but every child deserves adults in their lives that advocate for them.

but every child deserves adults in their lives that advocate for them.

It was our friend Dr Lorraine Hammond who first told us about Banksia Hill, at the same time as she suggested we go in there and do some teacher demonstrations with the boy detainees. We were a little bamboozled by this, but for those of you who know her, the Doc is rather persuasive. She started her pitch by explaining how it will just be teaching like normal, because that was the point, that these boys could do the work if we get the teaching right. They’ll bring the boys to the library and have all the teachers, suits, and important people watching on from the back. “There will be half a dozen guards, it will be fine,” she said reassuringly. As we wrestled with the idea of teaching in that atmosphere, she added, “Guys, these inmates are just children…” Bam! It was hard to reconcile that. They are just children.

We have always championed hard for the kids in our care, both in the Pilbara and in the City. We fight hard for the battlers in particular, kids who could’ve gone either way, ones who with the right teaching would have a better chance at making it to adulthood, educated, stable, and empowered to build a good life for themselves — that’s a real victory. It’s easy to measure yourself by the top performer, but what about your weakest students, let alone the whole class succeeding as a group. A year of growth for every student is a beautiful thing, but young adults who can communicate and function is the ultimate goal. Every child deserves to make it to the gates of adulthood with such a strong foundation. As country boys ourselves from the top and bottom of Western Australia respectively, we know that for many young people it isn’t necessarily about what university they will go to, but whether they can make it to adulthood in one piece. Education can impact this — broadly speaking, it is the key to breaking the cycle of disadvantage. We told Doc (Dr Lorraine Hammond) we’d do it and she replied with, “I already told them you would…”

We told Doc (Dr Lorraine Hammond) we’d do it and she replied with, “I already told them you would…”

When we entered the facility and went through the security check, we had to lose all of our equipment, everything except a flash drive and our clothes. In return we were given a large personal alarm that they asked us to wear around our necks. “Don’t worry. If anything goes down, you just trigger your alarm and we’ll be there in a minute,” the prison officer explained to us. We looked at each other and without any words exchanged, it was obvious we were mulling over how long a minute really was. All of this catastrophising was normal for us, we were typically filled with terror before demoing for teachers.   

We proceeded through the security check and had the material on our flash drive checked. There were a few raised eyebrows when security saw some of the images for our vocabulary examples and non-examples. It’s not every day you see a picture of an angry orange poking its tongue out at you (prompt for the word obnoxious) or Pennywise the clown waving at you (prompt for the word trepidation). “We are teachers, those are vocabulary…” We try to explain awkwardly.  

Graffiti Art at Banksia Hill Detention

In the library, there were a dozen student desks that were surrounded by your standard bookshelves. We were meant to teach in rounds. There was roughly 20 teachers and observers at the back of the room, about 6 guards positioned around us, and 12 slightly bewildered students in their standard issue tracksuits and slippers. The boys would spend half an hour with us teaching and then swap out for another set of boys. It was a difficult setup really, the tension in the room was palpable and we were struggling with our own anxiety. The boys looked much the same as us… deer in the headlights.

We start with an English daily review, with the point being that all students can benefit from and enjoy the process of a fast-paced session that focuses on the fundamental elements of reading — phonics, PA, comprehension, vocabulary, fluency, and oral language. We explored a bunch of high frequency and tier 2 words and practised using them in complex sentences. We unpacked metaphors and analysed how they were used in poetry. The boys read, wrote, and discussed their ideas. All of these students have gaps, but these are the very things we can address through daily review in a way that also builds general knowledge and communication skills. The daily review prioritises reading and writing from sounds to the sentence-level, which are transferable skills that improve outcomes across the board.

One of our favourite poems — Invictus

After the boys were led in by the guards and were seated, Banksia Hill leaders started introducing us and thanking the boys for agreeing to help. One young man at the front immediately picked up his whiteboard and began drawing on it. No explanation of mine can suffice to explain the level of detail that this boy put into his drawing of a bong (cannabis smoking device). It had extra detail added, shadows, and a trail of smoke wafting out of it, the boy had an obvious talent. Not knowing what else to say, I broke the ice with, “A real artist can make art out of anything they’re given, is that something you love doing, making art?” to which he replied without missing a beat, “yeah, I combined my two passions, weed and bongs,” One minute down, 29 to go…

Phonics flash cards

We both always feel anxious when we are demonstrating teaching, the stakes are so high — we are teachers, this is what we do, and we should be able to do it anywhere. Yet, after being observed by thousands of teachers all over Australia… the adrenaline still kicks in, every single time. No matter how prepared, there is always a sense that we are winging it. It is interesting how many teachers we meet that share this sentiment.

…there is always a sense that we are winging it. It is interesting how many teachers we meet that share this sentiment.

The boys in the first group ranged in age from 12 to 17. They were quiet at first, but as the jokes started to fly, soon enough they were all laughing. We had good discussions as we learned new words like rancorous and gargantuan. The boys practised these words and put them into sentences verbally, and then on student whiteboards. With scaffolding through sentence-stems and modelled writing, the boys took the ideas and ran with them. Just like in our own classrooms, the students had so much to say. It surprised us at both ends, there were many moments of playfulness and good humour — and other times, things became deep and personal.

When we were reading a text with the word trepidation in it — the feeling of dread that sits in the pit of your stomach. The cheeky student from the start (bong artist) had interrupted a few times in a row showing off how many sentences he could concoct — when the largest and oldest of the boys suddenly intervened with, “Tsss shut up man, let this guy teach!” Which instantly made the room go quiet and caused the guards to shuffle their feet. There was an intensity to this boy that was like nothing else. After 4 or 5 seconds, the artist responded with, “Don’t mind him, he’s just trepidatious about getting out next week,” — he had used the vocabulary word to have another witty crack at the older boy and this did not land well. Breaking the tension again, I asked if it was true that he was getting out and the boy nodded, never taking his eyes off the artist who himself made a point of never locking eyes with the older boy. We openly celebrated the idea of him getting out because what could be better than getting your freedom back… but the look on his face wasn’t one of excitement, he seemed conflicted. What about freedom would fill him with trepidation. It was a reminder that nothing was simple in these boys’ lives. Wasn’t getting out a good thing? Turns out this young man was a new father or soon to be one… the word trepidation would never be the same again.

How can release be positive when it is plagued with so much uncertainty? Strict parole conditions do not mix well with erratic home lives, and many of the boys feel like they are destined to fail, just like their family members who lived out eerily similar stories before them, and who are now in larger prisons like Casuarina and Hakea — many of these boys look at it fatalistically. That’s how cycles of disadvantage work, the inopportunity, abuse, trauma, and dysfunction ripples across these families again and again. And as a result, they are impacted disproportionately and relentlessly. Some of these families have stories that defy the imagination.

The boys warmed to the fast-paced structure of the daily review and turned it into sport, which only enhanced the learning. As they put more and more effort into outdoing each other’s sentences and responding faster and faster — the quality and volume of content that we were able to cover was incredible. As the boys were guided to work with metaphors, it dawned on us, some of these boys were so smart. There were obviously loads of gaps, but the ideas that they had were indicative of intelligence and imagination. With just a little bit of targeted teaching and scaffolding, the boys could access the content and all experienced success. The mood was positive. Some of the boys were forming sentences that included their loved ones. It soon became apparent, that many of these boys had children of their own. As fathers ourselves, this was another thing that we would ponder long after our visit was over.

As fathers ourselves, this was another thing that we would ponder long after our visit was over...

Daily Review Samples

The first round was a success. These boys left with a nod and a smile, they acknowledged us and we them. We proved the pedagogy. They proved how capable they were. It was like we had a secret agreement to make each other look good. But as the guards marched them back to their cells, it didn’t feel like much of a victory.

When the next group came out, the boys were a little younger, and maybe a bit cheekier. It was Maths this time and no time was wasted before the whiteboards came out, which revealed exactly where student understanding was at. When teaching at the point of error, students were succeeding and having fun. It was a nice moment to see the boys experience that success and bask in the glory a little. Momentarily, we forgot where we were, and the boys seemed to as well… if only for a moment.

At the end of the demonstrations, we answered questions from observers and talked to teachers. We don’t have all the answers, but we have nothing but respect for teachers and do everything we can to support them. We went on to design 80 English and 80 Maths daily reviews for Banksia to support teachers and students. Knowledge-rich and high quality, these are probably the best reviews we have ever made.

It was a powerful experience on many levels. It reaffirmed how we felt regarding the efficacy of explicit teaching and Rosenshine’s Daily Review strategy. It reinforced to us how pervasive the cycle of disadvantage is, and the role of education in breaking that cycle. It reminded us of what teachers are fighting against every day, and what’s at stake. After all, children may be born into disadvantage…. but they are not born criminals.

— Jared and Jordan