Indigenous children are 24 times more likely to be sent to prison than their non-Indigenous counterparts, despite Aboriginal people making up just 3% of the population.
These statistics are appalling enough on their own and speak of the crippling problems associated with a lack of socioeconomic support, drug and alcohol issues and racial profiling by police.
But a recent investigation shows that Indigenous youth are being subjected to horrific treatment whilst in custody, with a Northern Territory juvenile detention centre being accused of multiple human rights abuses on children as young as 14.
Children Tear Gassed and Masked
According to a report tabled in the Northern Territory Parliament last week, five children who were alleged to have taken part in a riot at the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre on 21 August 2014 were subjected to horrific treatment during and after the incident.
The report details how the teenagers were tear-gassed in their cells by prison officers who normally worked at the adult prison, before the officers threatened to ‘pulverise’ one detainee. The incident was captured on CCTV footage.
Incredibly, the use of force was authorised by the Northern Territory’s Corrections Commissioner, Ken Middlebrook, who has admitted to being at the facility on the night in question, saying that he authorised the use of tear gas because he ‘had an obligation to bring [the incident] to an end and bring it to an end quickly.’
He claims that the incident was the first time tear gas had been used in a juvenile detention centre during the Commissioner’s career. Typically, trained dogs are used to diffuse situations, but prison staff believed that the situation was unsuitable for dogs and resorted to using tear gas.
The Commissioner maintains that he did not use excessive force; telling the media that ‘I am not in the business of overuse of force. There were two sprays from an aerosol into the area…It wasn’t overuse of gas.’
Yet despite his account, Commissioner Middlebrook can be heard on the CCTV recording as saying to a prison officer, ‘Mate, I don’t care how much chemical you use, we gotta get him out.’
The report goes on to state that six children were exposed to tear gas for between three to eight minutes each.
The Truth Emerges
While Commissioner Middlebrook maintains that the actions were a reasonable response to a violent riot, the report suggests that there is more to the situation than meets the eye.
According to the report, in the days preceding the alleged riot, a number of juveniles had been placed in solitary confinement for between 6 and 17 days.
These cells lacked natural light, air conditioning or even fans – and did not even have access to drinking water or a sink to wash hands.
According to section 153(5) of the NT’s Youth Justice Act, a detainee can only be isolated from others to protect the safety of others, or for the good order or security of the detention centre, for a period not exceeding 24 hours, or 72 hours with the approval of the Commissioner.
While the Commissioner’s approval was given, the young persons remained isolated for days after the authorised period of isolation had expired.
After a number of days spent in solitary confinement, the young people became increasingly hostile and aggressive towards officers, repeatedly asking when they would be removed from segregation.
After an incident on the 21st of August which resulted in the children being told they would be spending additional time in isolation, the illegal detention became too much and one child managed to escape his cell due to an oversight by prison staff.
But this highly relevant background of illegal detention was not initially reported by the media.
Children Transferred to Adult Prison
The media did report noted that juveniles were transferred to an adult prison after a Magistrate approved the transfer under emergency provisions contained in section 154 of the Youth Justice Act. But while the Magistrate authorised the transfer of only five detainees, all six were transferred to the adult facility – one of them being transferred illegally.
On top of this, the illegally transferred detainee was only 14 years old at the time, despite the Act stating that children must be at least 15 before they can be transferred to an adult facility.
The General Manager of the juvenile detention centre dismissed the matter as an ‘oversight,’ stating that he was not aware that the detainee was only 14 years old, but he could explain why six detainees, rather than five, were transferred to the adult prison.
The detainees were forced to wear ‘spit hoods,’ which are fabric masks or hoods that prevent a person from spitting at others. This is despite the fact that only one of the six juveniles had ever spit at guards – and that juvenile detention centre staff had not received training on how to safely apply the hoods, without risking suffocation.
Commissioner Middlebrook has spoken out after the tabling of the report, saying that the accusations contained in it are ‘shallow’ and ‘one-sided.’
But many others are concerned by the abuses, saying that the centre should be accountable for its illegal conduct, and calling for prompt action to prevent further abuses – including better training and guidelines.