Juvenile detention centres are places where troubled youths are sent as punishment, and where they can engage in counselling and programs to help get them back on the right path.
They are certainly not places where punishment is meant to be administered, let alone where adults in positions of power engage in inappropriate sexualised conduct towards these troubled kids; many of whom have experienced dysfunctional family and social lives.
But it seems Darwin’s Don Dale youth detention centre is a facility where children caught up in the justice system are not only physically and mentally abused, but subjected to degrading sexualised treatment.
Conan Zamolo, a former youth justice officer who worked at Don Dale for several years, has admitted to the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory that he filmed himself bursting into a cell where several young boys were in bed and repeatedly asked them to perform oral sex on him.
Propositioning minors is all in a day’s work
Captured on the social media app Snapchat, Mr Zamolo runs into the room of the youth inmates that he was employed to keep watch over and demands, “Which one of you boys wants to suck my dick?” The officer then yells at one of the boys, who at this point is hiding under a blanket, “Come and suck my dick you little cunt.”
Mr Zamolo explained to the senior counsel assisting, Peter Callaghan SC, that he was only have “a joke” when he demanded sex off the boys. Mr Callaghan then asked Zamolo if it had occurred to him that one of the boys might have actually taken the suggestion seriously, and gone along with it.
Zamolo replied that he “had a good relationship with the kids” and that’s “how they talk to each other.”
Of course, it’s one thing for a group of youths to talk to each other in that sort of manner. But it’s a different story when a grown man, who’s in charge of looking after a group of minors, is found asking them to perform sexual acts upon him.
Prompting kids to “eat shit” is a common pastime
But that wasn’t the extent of his “joking around”. Zamolo also took video footage of himself encouraging one of the youth detainees to “eat shit.” A small piece of what appears to be bird faeces is found on a table and Zamolo can be heard behind his camera egging the boy on to eat it.
Mr Zamolo told the senior counsel that the incident was just a bit of “goofing around” to “pass the time.” And it wasn’t just him enjoying the spectacle, there were six other youth justice officers standing around waiting to see whether the child would actually go through with it.
And he didn’t stop there
Zamolo also testified that he burst into a toilet and filmed a young boy urinating. The former youth justice officer is heard to say, “Oi, what are you doing you little gay dog?”
Mr Callaghan asked Zamolo if there was “anywhere else on the planet” that he would film a child urinating. To which Zamolo replied in the negative, then went onto explain that he had a new smartwatch with video capabilities that he wanted to test out at the time.
Zamolo rejected the claims of another three detainees who said he’d filmed another boy masturbating.
He was subsequently investigated by police over the footage, but cleared of any wrong doing.
Zamolo was later charged for being in possession of steroids and ultimately sacked over another incident that involved Dylan Voller.
The torture of Dylan Voller
Youth detainee, Dylan Voller, came to national attention in July last year when an ABC Four Corners program exposed the abuse that was being perpetrated upon him, as well as other child inmates being held at the centre.
During Voller’s time at the correctional facility, he was subjected to multiple acts of assault and what can only be described as torture at the hands of youth justice officers. This included an incident in 2015 where he was strapped to a chair and hooded for two hours.
In early February this year, the Northern Territory Supreme Court allowed Voller to leave prison eight month early and take part in a sixteen week rehabilitation program at the Bush Mob facility in Alice Springs.
Don Dale’s notorious Behavioural Management Unit
Mr Zamolo raised concerns during his royal commission testimony about the state of the Behavioural Management Unit (BMU), which is an isolation unit at the detention centre. He testified that he feared the youths placed in that part of the facility would be “psychologically scarred.”
Reports of the systemic abuse at the Don Dale facility came to light around August 2014, when six youths – including Voller – were tear-gassed in the BMU cells.
Three weeks prior to the gassing, five boys had escaped the centre. When they were recaptured, they were placed in the isolation unit for over two weeks, locked for up to 23 hours a day in a hot cell, with no natural light or running water.
Mr Zamolo told the royal commission that he was on duty the day that the six boys were tear-gassed, after one of them had escaped from his solitary confinement cell and began trashing an exercise yard. But he denied any involvement in the decision to gas the children.
The other youth justice officer on duty
Mr Zamolo also said he witnessed his fellow ex-guard Ben Kelleher attempting to cover a CCTV camera, before relentlessly verbally abusing Voller while the boy was cowering on a bed.
Mr Kelleher testified at the royal commission on Tuesday. He too was on duty the day that the six youths were tear-gassed. But he told the inquiry that he’d been used as a scapegoat over the gassing incident.
According to Kelleher, he had warned his superiors that the youths were being kept in stifling heat and oppressive conditions in the BMU cells, which he described as “shitholes” being used for punishment.
He claimed to have calmed down the youth that had escaped from his cell, but others went ahead and tear-gassed the boys anyway.
Kelleher, who stands accused of verbally abusing Dylan Voller, claims to have tried to reach out to the boy, taking him to kickboxing matches and trying to show him an alternative life to crime.
“Dylan is a boy who had a bad start and I believe he needs strong male role models in his life,” Kelleher told the hearing.
The royal commission’s proceedings were recently extended by four months, and its final report is scheduled for tabling on August 1 this year.
Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He has a focus on human rights issues, encroachments on civil liberties, drug law reform, gender diversity and First Nations rights. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, he wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.