The Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory has shown that juvenile inmates at the Don Dale detention facility were subjected to horrendous abuse at the hands of corrections staff.
A number of incidents have been brought to light, including a case where four teenage boys are receiving a total of $53,000 in compensation for their treatment after tear gas was used on them in August 2014. They accused the government of withholding key evidence during the trial and successfully appealed the initial decision.
In another case a Don Dale Detention Centre guard was not charged with assault because he believed he was just “goofing around”. This case included allegations that a former guard had bribed kids to fight each other for junk food, posted a nude video of a detainee on social media and hit another on the kneecaps with a torch. Detective Sergeant Kirsten Engels told the Royal Commission that the former guard’s maturity level was barely higher than the kids he worked with.
Former chief minister Adam Giles has denied almost all knowledge of the crisis within Northern Territory youth detention that saw children treated “like animals”, staff pushed to breaking point and agencies starved of funds. He has declared he was neither shown, nor should he have seen, the footage of youngsters being abused in Don Dale prior to the ABC’s Four Corners expose.
The teargassing of six youngsters and other high-profile incidents that sparked the Royal Commission could have been avoided if the Northern Territory had invested a quarter of the inquiry’s cost in youth detention in 2013-14, a former corrections boss said. He said he was shocked $50 million had been found within 24 hours to fund a Royal Commission when successive governments had not adequately supported youth justice reforms.
In another example of the problems inherent with the child detention system, the locking up of teenagers at Victoria’s maximum security adult prison has been ruled unlawful for a second time by the Supreme Court. The court was asked to rule on whether the Victorian government had breached the law in moving children from juvenile facilities to the maximum security adult prison at Barwon.
The teenagers were transferred to the adult prison last November after riots at the Parkville Youth Justice Centre destroyed accommodation. The Victorian government lost an initial Supreme Court case against detaining teenagers at the adult prison last December but re-classified the unit so it could remain open.
It prompted a second legal challenge by the Human Rights Law Centre, which argued the Grevillea unit was fundamentally unfit to accommodate teenagers and could not meet their human rights. In terms of small gains however, the case has shone a spotlight on the harmful conditions at Barwon leading to fewer children being detained at Barwon and improvements to the worst conditions at the prison.
There is no doubt that there are major problems with youth detention system in all Australian states. Placing young people behind razor wire does nothing to deal with the issues that lead youth down a path of crime, nor does it reduce recidivism.
The chance of those who are incarcerated in youth detention facilities reoffending within two years of release is above 50%. And the numbers who graduate from juvenile to adult prisons runs up to 70% in some states. Some commentators suggest that the courts are also using youth detention facilities as a means of housing young offenders who have no stable accommodation.
We need to entirely re-evaluate the way we treat children and young people who have committed crimes. Many studies indicate that the most effective way to deal with these young people is to place them into community based diversionary programs, rather than prisons.
We also need a major overhaul of residential care programs and other social services that young people rely upon. Several of the Don Dale inmates had come through the Northern Territory’s out-of-home care system. Half of all children in Victoria’s youth detention centres have come from the child protection system.
There is a clear link between poverty, family violence, insecure housing and crime. This is no new discovery, yet the major parties are reluctant to acknowledge this fact. This is because all of these problems stem from the system that prioritises profits above all else.
While the Royal Commission may uncover some of the worst aspects of the youth detention system, what is really needed is an examination of what is needed to discourage these young people from crime in the first place. No doubt that would be money for welfare, education, jobs and housing, not more police and prisons.
By Amy Neve