Protesters gathered outside Don Dale Youth Detention Centre (DDYDC) on June 8 following reports of an attempted suicide by a child detainee.
According to the Northern Territory News, a 16-year-old boy in DDYDC stabbed himself after being placed in isolation, was hospitalised and then returned to DDYDC.
Incidents of self-harm and suicide attempts have been on the rise in DDYDC, with data released in March revealing there had been 54 incidents from July to December last year, compared with eight over the same period in 2020.
The NT News later reported, on June 9, that last weekend four children were taken to Royal Darwin Hospital because of “at risk” incidents.
Donna Hunter told protesters that DDYDC is no place for children. Speaking about her 11-year-old grandson, who spent three months in DDYDC on remand last year, she said: “The fact is that if he ever goes back in there my fear is that this could happen to him and it terrifies me”.
“I am pleading that the minister stops this, not only for my grandson, but for the children that are already in there. My heart goes out to the mothers and grandmothers whose children are currently in there and what they must be thinking.”
The Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory found that DDYDC was “not fit for accommodating, let alone rehabilitating, children and young people” due to its “severe, prison-like and unhygienic conditions”.
DDYDC is not a purpose-built juvenile facility. It is a condemned adult prison from the 1970s that was deemed “only fit for a bulldozer” by the CEO of Correctional Services in 2011.
Children, nearly all of whom are First Nations people on remand, have been kept in DDYDC since 2014.
The royal commission recommended in 2017 DDYDC be closed. Since then, the NT government has expanded the prison and introduced amendments to the Bail Act and the Youth Justice Act designed to make it harder for young people to access bail.
The number of children in youth detention in May was at its highest since the royal commission delivered its final report.
John Lawrence SC told the protest that going through the traditional channels had failed to deliver justice for First Nations children.
“We have lobbied and demonstrated and protested and did everything within our means. We’ve even met the minister, and she has insisted that it will remain as it is.
“Do we really have to wait for the inevitable? And let’s face it, we are so without care now that perhaps the inevitable won’t have the effect we are assuming as human beings it should have. This message, I hope, will be spread as far as possible and I sincerely ask anybody who is aware of this to lend a hand to stop this barbarism, this backward behaviour by our government.”
The Northern Territory Children’s Commissioner has consistently found that DDYDC “lack[s] a therapeutic framework” to guide its operations and that staff are not being educated in developmental trauma.
Its latest report also found that children were denied adequate access to basic educational and medical services, with some at risk of self-harm being kept in their cells for up to 23 hours and 45 minutes a day.
Hunter and Larrakia woman Tanya Williams personally handed Anthony Albanese a petition in February calling for urgent federal intervention to close Don Dale. Labor has yet to provide an official response to the petition.
US-Australian singer-songwriter Toni Childs told the protest she was “very sad to be standing here.
“These kids don’t deserve to be in there. They deserve to be valued. These children do not see their value because of the wounds of their families.
“Do we take those children from those families and then stamp and brand it on them that they are truly unvaluable? That they do not matter? I say they matter.”
[The Close Don Dale NOW! Movement holds demonstrations outside the gates of DDYDC every Friday at 5pm. The group has information stalls at the Nightcliff and Palmerston Markets, and is organising a public forum on crime and youth justice at the Garrmalang Festival in July.]