“Racism Writ Large”: An Interview with Close Don Dale Now’s John B Lawrence SC

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Racism at large

Right now, Don Dale Youth Detention Centre continues to operate. Despite a Royal Commission recommending its immediate closure five years ago, the notorious prison for children is crowded, incarcerating kids as young as 10, applies the use of isolation and self-harm incidents are rife.

The July 2016 Four Corners documentary Australia’s Shame brought national attention to the child gaol, which was operating similar to a torture centre, with kids isolated without sunlight or running water, as well as being teargassed, stripped naked, restrained in chairs and spit-hooded.

Then PM Malcolm Turnbull established a Royal Commission on the day following the program’s airing. And in November 2017, amongst its volumes of findings, the inquiry recommended that Don Dale be closed down and that the age of criminal responsibility be raised to 12.

However, half a decade on and the child facility continues to lock up kids as young as 10, in such extreme conditions that last month saw a spate of self-harm incidents, which resulted in four youth detainees being taken to hospital.

Targeting First Nations youth

A stark aspect of the detaining of children in gaols across this country is that it disproportionately impacts First Nations youth. And in the Northern Territory, the situation is even worse as it’s often that the youth population inside its custodial centres is entirely made up of Indigenous kids.

Department of Territory Families, Housing and Communities figures show that on 11 July, there were roughly 48 Aboriginal children incarcerated in the NT, compared with only three of their non-Indigenous counterparts. And of those inside, 39 were on remand and 41 of them were in Don Dale.

Another outcome of the Royal Commission was a focus on reducing children being sent to prison and indeed, being remanded.

However, the Office of the Children’s Commissioner NT recently released data outlining a 200 percent increase in youths being detained in the territory since May 2020.

This steep increase can be attributed to the Gunner ministry having enacted stricter bail laws in May 2021, in response to the Country Liberals having launched a “tough on crime” campaign calling on Labor to reverse its initial post-inquiry bail reforms that were designed to reduce child detainees.

Neglect and punishment

Darwin barrister John B Lawrence SC is one of the spokespeople for the Close Don Dale Now campaign. It’s calling for the immediate closure of the facility, which continues to see children at risk of self-harm being detained in isolation for up to 23 hours a day.

A former president of the Northern Territory Bar Association, Lawrence further lays the blame for the ongoing mistreatment of First Nations youths at the Darwin children’s prison at the feet of the local legal community, which he claims is complicit due to its lack of action in seeking change.

Sydney Criminal Lawyers spoke to John B Lawrence SC about the reasons for Don Dale carrying on despite its widespread condemnation, the mainstream media’s collusion in propagating the “tough on crime” campaign and the fact that the NT is the greatest incarcerator on the planet.

Four youths at Darwin’s Don Dale detention centre were hospitalised last month, as a result of self-harm incidents. One 16-year-old attempted to take his life twice in one weekend. And there was talk of kids continuing to be held in isolation.

Much of the nation would expect Don Dale to have closed a long time ago. So, Mr Lawrence, what’s going on up there at present? And have conditions at the child prison improved?

The legal system up here is broken. The legal profession itself has normalised, and is willing to participate in, what’s really a theatre of the absurd. And it’s Indigenous people who are picking up the bill.

In this case, young people, children, who are already damaged psychologically are being held in conditions, which are inhumane and unlawful.

What is happening up here for Aboriginal people, who are wearing it, is despair. They have no future. They’re being locked up in isolation and horrific conditions. They are the victims of barbarism.

One of the explanations for it is an explanation that covers this whole country, which is basically nobody cares for them.

The situation here is now worse. How can you have what Four Corners and the Royal Commission discovered and then not only not improve that situation, but make it worse? That’s what has happened here.

Revelations around the mistreatment and abuse of children at Don Dale caused a nationwide outcry about the centre itself and youth detention in general. The resulting Royal Commission recommended Don Dale be closed.

Back then, there was talk of shutting the centre down three months after the recommendation. So, how does it come to be that Don Dale’s still operating five years later?

Having lived through this period and longer, my explanation for it is that no one cares about this shameful feature. No one cares about the children and their families, who are all Indigenous.

This is Australia 2022. Indigenous people in Australia 2022 are essentially voiceless and powerless.

The Royal Commission also recommended the government stop remanding children. However, stricter bail laws were enacted mid-last year, and the youth prisoner rate in the NT has risen by 100 percent over the last two years?

Why did the Gunner ministry bring in the tougher bail laws when the aim was the opposite?

The usual reason to win votes. Being tougher on crime means votes from voters who are largely uninformed and/or misinformed by the media.

It is not just Murdoch’s News Corp, but its every traditional platform of media. That includes Channel 9, Channel 7 and now, unequivocally, I can say, as opposed to the past and disgracefully, the local ABC up here.

And around 80 percent of the kids in Don Dale are on remand?

That’s right 70 to 80 percent of the kids are on remand, and it’s always been that.

The youth prisoner population in the NT can at times be entirely comprised of First Nations children. If that isn’t the case, the figures are just hovering underneath that. And these children can be as young as ten.

How do you describe what’s happening in this regard?

Racism writ large. Make no mistake about this. This could never happen to non-Indigenous children. It wouldn’t be allowed.

Indigenous people in Australia 2022 are clearly third-class citizens. That’s the major explanation for this disgraceful and shameful situation.

And further the Close Don Dale Now campaign outlines that the Northern Territory has the highest incarceration rate on the planet. Why is that the case?

It’s always been the case. It’s been like this forever. I’ve been here for thirty-five years. The Northern Territory has always had the highest imprisonment rate in the world.

The country with the highest imprisonment rate, aside from China because it doesn’t publish figures, is the United States of America: the land of the free.

The US gaols people approximately at 710 per 100,000. The Northern Territory gaols people at 920, or thereabouts, per 100,000. So, we’re not only the highest, but we’re beating America by a mile.

It has always been like that, but over the last ten years, it has increased. In particular, the imprisonment rate for women has skyrocketed. And the imprisonment rate for children has also increased significantly.

In the adult gaol, this imprisonment rate includes 85-plus percent being Indigenous: the highest rate in the world. And essentially 100 percent of the children in custody are Indigenous.

It’s an absolute disgrace.

And lastly, Mr Lawrence, your campaign wants to see the end of Don Dale. The government has commenced building a new facility after many years, which will replace it. But Close Don Dale Now is clear this isn’t the answer.

So, what does your campaign assert is the way forward?

The Royal Commission made two recommendations in November 2017 in relation to the detention of juveniles.

One was that the current facility, the previously condemned adult prison Berrimah, which has been used to lock up children since 2015, is unfit for purpose and should be closed down immediately and the children released from there.

They also said that the alternative should be a purpose-built facility, which they stipulated should be built nowhere near the adult prison.

Since 2017, the NT government has steadfastly ignored both of those recommendations.

They haven’t shut what they call Don Dale. They have commenced building a replacement facility, which will be, at latest estimates, completed by late next year. But they’re building it adjacent to the adult gaol, directly against the recommendation.

As to what can and should happen, there will always need to be some type of detention facility for younger people who have committed serious crimes. But when I’m talking about younger, I’m talking about over 14. I don’t think any kid should be detained under 14.

That facility, in relation to Indigenous detainees which invariably it will be used on, has to be custom and purpose-built, and it can be done on Country or it can be done in the suburbs of Darwin, in a far more humane and intelligent way.

The actual original Don Dale detention centre, which was custom built in 1990 is lying empty 500 metres down the same street as the Don Dale detention centre now being used. That could have been reopened years ago, revamped if you like, and used.

There are other facilities that could be utilised. There are former facilities that were used for refugees, like Wickham Point. And there are halfway houses, bail shelters, which can be expanded and are far more effective.

These facilities would be cheaper. They would be more appropriate. And they would be more effective.

Main image: Darwin barrister John B Lawrence SC standing outside of Don Dale Youth Detention Centre

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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