Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

Don Dale torture shows need to invest in communities – not prisons

Reading Time: 3 minutes

In July a damning 4 Corners report exposed numerous acts of abusive behaviour carried out by prison officers against inmates at the Northern Territory’s Don Dale Youth Detention Centre. Officers were filmed using a mechanical restraint chair and tear gas against the boys. They regularly put “spit hoods” over the boy’s faces and verbally abused them, calling them “dogs” and “little fuckers”.

The footage aired in the report showed prison officers repeatedly placing boys in solitary confinement, sometimes for over two weeks at a time. While these boys were in the isolation unit (cynically named a “Behavioural Management Unit”) they were without adequate sunlight, exercise and running water. They were also denied access to educational material.

While the 4 Corners footage focussed on a group of six boys in Don Dale, it would seem that the issue is far more widespread. Children and young people in Victoria, NSW, Queensland and WA have reported similar abuse.

The conduct of the prison officers is deplorable. These fully grown men who physically and emotionally abused young, vulnerable boys need to be held to account. As does the management of the Don Dale Detention Centre, and the Northern Territory government.

That Malcolm Turnbull was pressured to announce a Royal Commission into the abuse just hours after the story aired shows how much pressure the government was under to be seen to be acting. Some commentators compared the footage to the torture of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. However, this Royal Commission will be completely ineffective and is merely designed to divert people’s anger away from the real issues.

There are currently around 900 children and young people in jail on any given night in Australia. Because of systemic, racist policing, 54% of these young people are indigenous, while only 3% of the broader population is indigenous. In the NT the situation is even worse with 97% of youth detainees being indigenous.

Far from this situation improving, things are getting worse. In the 25 years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody the number of indigenous people in custody has doubled. Between 1980-2011, there were a staggering 449 Aboriginal deaths in custody. The only way that we can ensure that children and young people are not abused in jail is avoid putting them in jail.

Most research shows that community based diversionary programs are far more effective at lowering recidivism rates than prison sentences. It is generally accepted that incarceration actually increases “criminality”, and has negligible or even negative effects.

This is particularly the case with children and young people, as placing them in jail exposes them to extreme levels of violence which can significantly alter the way a child’s brain develops. Incarceration also costs about ten times more than community based diversionary programs, and even more when you consider how difficult it is to gain employment after having served a prison sentence.

In the end the best way to stop young people engaging in criminal behaviour is to create a society that provides for their wellbeing and offers them a real future. Far from achieving this, capitalism exploits and oppresses young people, and often criminalises indigenous people, for example with measures such as the Northern Territory intervention.

There are well documented indicators of disadvantage that are characteristic of children and young people entering the criminal justice system, such as mental health issues, drug and alcohol use, homelessness and poverty. Providing people with culturally appropriate services, homes and real jobs would be a huge step towards reducing the occurrence of many crimes.

Under capitalism, such an approach is not possible, as the system prioritises profits above all else and thrives on racist division and oppression. Only a socialist society that is based on human need rather than profit would be capable of using the wealth created to provide for all, and remove the basis for crime and anti-social behaviour in the first place.

The Socialist Party demands:

-Jail child torturers and sack all racist prison officers
-Money for health, education and housing, not more police and prisons
-The right to a job and welfare for all, no welfare quarantining
-Land rights and community control of resources to solve social issues
-Bring the major sectors of the economy into public hands to ensure wealth is distributed in the interests of all

By Meredith Jacka


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