Systemic Abuse of Children in NT Detention

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Boy looking out of window

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has announced a Royal Commission into the abuse of children at the old Don Dale detention facility in Berrimah, outside Darwin.

The inhumane practices were publicised to the nation by the ABC’s Four Corners Program, although several instances of abuse had previously been reported through other channels, including our blog in September last year.

Acting like he was surprised about the content of the exposé, Turnbull said he was “deeply shocked and appalled” by the mistreatment of children in detention. The mainstream publicity has finally led to the dismissal of Northern Territory Corrections Minister John Elferin.

Followers of this blog will know that many of these abuses were actually exposed last year, including the use of tear gas and masks, excessive force, solitary confinement and the transfer of children as young as 14 to adult prisons.

This was all within the context of a criminal justice system which sees Indigenous children 24 times more likely to be placed into custody than their non-Indigenous counterparts.

Now that the mainstream media has publicised images which the government has had for some time, it looks like action will finally be taken.

Abuse at Don Dale

The footage shows a particularly distressing scene of six boys being tear-gassed, hooded, restrained, denied access to water and held in solitary confinement for more than a fortnight. The youngest is 14 years old.

Other footage depicts the restraint and spit-hooding of a 17-year-old boy. Another shows a boy being stripped and physically held down by guards on more than one occasion.

In one scene (which presenter Sarah Ferguson compared to the shocking images of Guantánamo Bay, or Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad), Dylan Voller is shown hooded and tied in a restraint chair for two hours. The Northern Territory government had recently added these chairs to a widening list of “approved restraints.”

Mr Turnbull said there was “no question” there had been serious mistreatment of young people.

NT Chief Minister Adam Giles has now acknowledged a “culture of cover up” within the prison system, with Kate Wild of ABC Darwin noting that former Commissioner of Corrections Ken Middlebrook “had shown me some of that vision himself in his office” and that all of the abuse shown in Four Corners had previously been outlined in government documents.

Systemic Failure

While Mr Giles echoed calls for a Royal Commission, he stood by prison staff and the NT prison system as a whole.

Giles admitted that the exposé “raised serious questions”, but went on to say “[e]qually the Northern Territory Government does not resile from its tough approach to those who don’t want to respect other people’s property or safety.” He expressed “full confidence” in the staff at Darwin’s correctional facilities.

These comments were made in the face of repeated reports of widespread abuse and cover-ups under the two previous corrections ministers. For instance, Ken Middlebrook openly expressed his support for the actions of Alice Springs Detention Centre guards who restrained and stripped a teenaged boy naked.

Human Rights Violations

Several children in Don Dale were locked in their cells for almost 24 hours a day with no running water and little natural light, and denied access to school and educational material.

Human Rights Lawyer Ruth Barson describes such treatment as a “clear violation” of the UN Convention Against Torture and UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

“The UN’s expert on torture has said there are no circumstances that justify young people being held in solitary confinement, let alone prolonged solitary confinement,” Ms Barson said.
The ABC said Don Dale had “no concept of the duty of care” as senior officers routinely authorised, oversaw or engaged in the mistreatment of young people in their care.

A solicitor representing two youths in respect of a civil suit against the NT government for assault, battery and unlawful imprisonment has called such mistreatment “chronic” and “systemic”.

Royal Commission

Mr Turnbull promised the Centre would be the subject of specific inquiry, but acknowledged that there was a wider culture of mistreatment. He expects the Royal Commission to consider “whether there is a culture that spreads across the detention system in the Northern Territory”.

Patrick Dodson, Labor’s Shadow Assistant Minister for Indigenous affairs, called on the government to take a broader look into the system of juvenile detention, which he believes fails to address problems exposed by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

Mr Dodson wants the Royal Commission to consider the impact of “tough on crime” measures such as mandatory sentencing on the experience of incarceration, noting that “laws may be part of the problem”.

Unfair Detention and Dehumanisation

Australian Human Rights Commission President, Gillian Triggs says the abuse of children in juvenile detention centres is partly the product of a broader culture of unfair detention.

She believes laws which authorise state agents to arrest and incarcerate people without court oversight (such as anti-terrorism measures), and the demonisation of certain groups of people (such as immigrants and young “troublemakers”), makes it more acceptable for those in power (such as prison guards) to dehumanise and abuse “undesirables”.

“We’ve created a culture of accepting this level of detention without trial and without proper judicial supervision,” Ms Triggs said. “There is that sense that the children are out of sight and out of mind in the Northern Territory in these detention centres and that’s an acceptable and necessary thing to do because some children go off the rails.”

Now that abuses within the NT system have hit the mainstream media, it is hoped changes will be made for the better.

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