They’ve been dubbed uncontrollable thugs and Victoria’s worst teen criminals.
But a systematic failure of the youth justice system is turning offending teenagers into hardened, lifelong criminals and endangering the safety of communities across Victoria.
Cuts to critical education and rehabilitation programs for young offenders have resulted in them spiralling out of control, while a toxic culture of fear and intimidation has disempowered the youth justice workforce, a senior prison insider says.
It comes after a mass escape of 15 inmates from the Malmsbury Youth Justice Centre in central Victoria last week.
The youths were all caught within 24 hours, including one in the Ballarat suburb of Redan, but had allegedly committed a string of serious crimes including carjackings, a home invasion, street robberies and an aggravated burglary.
The whistleblower who spoke exclusively to The Courier on the condition of anonymity said there was a critical need for increased funding for rehabilitation programs for high risk youth and mandatory attendance as part of sentencing.
The source said to fix the serious problems within Victoria's troubled youth justice system, a complete overhaul of legislation was needed, including tightening the state’s dual track sentencing system which allowed some of the most dangerous and worst offending youths to repeatedly be put into youth detention centres.
This week, it was revealed a new high-security youth justice centre will be built by the state government in Werribee South following the violent uprisings, escapes and several damning reviews of existing facilities at Malmsbury and Parkville.
The government is expected to announce the 250-bed youth detention centre in a desperate bid to staunch the crisis that has plagued Victoria's youth justice system and threatens the government's re-election prospects.
But the insider said it was a “reactive” response by the government failing to address the endemic core issues fuelling the present crisis.
Poor top tier management and Department of Human Services directives to cut educational and rehabilitation service providers has seen youth become disengaged and bored while in custody.
Added to this, was a lock-down regime and dangerous, inciting individuals which created a pressure cooker atmosphere where riots were inevitable.
“This boredom creates all sorts of issues,” the source said.
“We have massive rates of returnees and it seems to get worse and worse. We are paroling young people who aren’t addressing their offending behaviour, one of the critical reasons why they come into youth justice, so once they are released they go on to re-offended.
They remain a huge risk to communities.”
In the lead up to a violent crime spree earlier this month involving 15 escapees, staff at the Malmsbury and Parkville youth detention centres struggled to control riots and violent rampages involving large groups of inmates.
In one terrifying ordeal, teenagers took over their unit in the Malmsbury Youth Justice Centre keeping guards at bay for three hours, brandishing makeshift weapons and smashing windows and fittings.
“We’ve had a build up to all this because we’ve had a series of riots across the two precincts,” the insider said. “The boys feed into it and the media report it all of the time.
“We have young people in the 15 to 17-year-old demographic who developmentally don’t make very good decisions and they get reinforcement from their peers and it continues to fuel it.
“This notoriety issue is a big deal for them.”
Ringleaders involved in violent uprisings in Parkville were transferred to Malmsbury in the weeks leading up to the jailbreak.
Officials have said a guard was overpowered, bashed and had his swipe card and keys stolen at the Malmsbury youth detention centre before the youths allegedly stole a ute and escaped on January 25.
“It’s been extremely difficult for staff because they’ve never had to deal with this type of client before,” the source said.
“They don’t listen to the staff, they’re out of control, they don’t follow direction. The common attitude is well “what can you do, I’m under 18, you can’t transfer me to prison anyway.”
“They feel like they’ve got nothing to lose.”
In the aftermath of the crime spree, a number of extra corrections staff have been put on site.
But staff feared it would only be a matter of time before there was another violent riot if nothing changed.
Retaining staff at the centre was difficult.
“Since September last year, we have had monthly inductions for people coming to work across the youth precinct,” the insider said.
“But we can’t keep up, we can’t even staff the units given that we’ve had that many recruitment because we can’t retain staff.
Something needs to be done in terms of making the workplace safe so we can retain the staff and do the work with the boys that we need to do.”
Tougher sentencing was also needed for for repeat offenders in the 18 to 21 age group, the source said.
Victoria’s unique dual track system under the Sentencing Act 1991 allows adult courts to sentence young offenders (aged under 21 years) to serve custodial sentences in youth detention instead of adult prison.
For a young offender to qualify for youth detention, the court must be convinced they have reasonable prospects of rehabilitation, or they are particularly impressionable, immature, or likely to be subjected to undesirable influences in an adult prison.
While legislation does allow the Youth Parole Board to transfer dangerous detainees to adult prisons, they are reluctant to do so despite them posing a serious risk to the lives of other inmates and staff, the insider said.
“The process of getting to the point of application is extremely difficult and generally means the client commits a number of offences in custody that endanger staff, other clients and the environment before this will occur.”
The insider said magistrates also needed to make directions during sentencing which made it mandatory for young offenders to participate in offence rehabilitation programs while they were custody.
At the moment, young offenders, including those with a history of drug and alcohol-fuelled offending, are able to reject rehabilitation programs aimed at helping them, the source said.
The state Ombudsman has also weighed in over Victoria's youth justice crisis, preparing to table yet another critical report about problems in the system.
The director of prison schools Brendan Murray was also forced to take leave while the government conducts a secret investigation into his actions.
His sidelining came after youth justice system chief Ian Lanyon was pushed from his role.
The Andrews Government has been plagued by continual rioting, escapes and violent episodes at its current sites at Malmsbury and Parkville.
But the dysfunction set in long before the government was elected with successive governments neglecting and taking the wrong approach to the state’s youth crime endemic, the insider said.
TAFE programs have been cut by the DHHS and outsourced to less effective models, the source said.
Qualified youth workers are being used to supervise classrooms rather than utilising their skills.
Staff who supervise reported inmates aren’t completing work they get signed off for and results were fudged by the educational providers, the source said.
“If they had specialised programs which motivated or interested the boys they would be engaged in learning. The key to breaking the cycle of offending is intervention, proper rehabilitation and education.”
The source said staff are intimidated and threatened on a daily basis by highly violent inmates but are too afraid to psychically restrain young offenders due to a high number of internal investigations which left staff “demoralised and broken”.
“Physical force is always a last resort,” the source said. “But what happens now is incidents escalate into a much higher level when it could be prevented if the youth was moved away from the situation.”
A DHHS spokesman said the department understood the pressures facing the system.
“That's why we're getting on with overhauling it,” he said.
“You cannot rehabilitate anyone in an unsafe and unsecure facility. The government is building a new, fit-for-purpose youth justice facility to keep young offenders secure and the community safe.”
Forty more highly trained adult prison staff will also move to secure Malmsbury and Parkville youth centres in the wake of the riots.
The government said all sentenced and remand clients receive education, rehabilitation, and mental and physical health services while in custody.
It said on admission to a youth justice custodial centre, all young people – those on remand and on sentence - receive a health screening that considers any immediate medical, physical, psychological needs and formulates the basis of an immediate needs plan.
A review of Victoria's youth justice system is also underway to replace the current 16-year-old policy framework.
Department of Education and Training program spokesman Craig Simon said young people in youth detention centres can access a range of vocational certificates while in custody.
The government did not confirm whether these programs or rehabilitation programs were compulsory for inmates.
He said the Parkville College Integrated Education Model was introduced in 2012 and 2013 following an Ombudsman’s report which was critical of the lack of education within youth justice.