Close Don Dale activist cleared of criminal charges while First Nations children remain incarcerated

September 12, 2023
Photo: Close don Dale NOW/Facebook

A year and a half after sitting down in Territory Families Minister Kate Worden’s electorate office, Justin Tutty has been found not guilty of trespass by Magistrate Alan Woodcock in the Darwin Local Court.

Woodcock described Tutty’s actions as “an act of purported protest”.

Alongside other community members, Tutty had demanded an emergency meeting with the Minister after hearing about the reported self-harm crisis inside the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre (DDYDC).

This November will mark six years since the Royal Commission into the Detention and Protection of Children in the NT delivered its final report. It said the facility must close and that the DDYDC was “not fit for accommodating, let alone rehabilitating, children and young people” due to its “severe, prison-like and unhygienic conditions”.

The Children’s Commissioner found in 2021 that children inside DDYDC were denied adequate access to basic educational and medical services. It said some are at risk of self-harm, being kept in their cells for up to 23 hours and 45 minutes a day.

The commissioner has repeatedly said the DDYDC provides “no therapeutic framework”. Despite this, children as young as 10 have been detained in DDYDC. Almost all the detained children are First Nations and most are on remand.

The latest figures show that in March there were more children detained than at any time in the past year.


Graph: NT Department of Territory Families, Housing and Communities

In August, the NT Labor government raised the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 12. But the conditions inside the facility are not suitable for children of any age.

A nurse who worked in DDYDC said children were so distressed they had asked for anti-psychotic medication. The practice of rolling lockdowns, sometimes confining children to their cells for 23 hours a day, was causing significant distress.

NT Labor has made it clear that children will continue to be incarcerated in DDYDC until the new youth justice facility is completed. The opening date has been pushed back several times: it is being built exactly where a youth justice facility should not be put: next to the adult prison.

The decision to spend police and prosecution resources on Tutty’s arrest and trial for his attempt to get justice for neglected children highlights the criminal justice system’s double standards.

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse report in 2017 found that First Nations children had been subjected to verbal and physical abuse, sexual harassment and psychological manipulation that included being coerced to eat bird faeces in exchange for rewards.

No criminal charges were laid following those findings.

In recent weeks, the NT Supreme Court ordered NT Labor to pay close to $1 million in compensation for the unlawful teargassing of First Nations adolescents in the original Don Dale facility in 2014. No criminal charges were laid following that abuse, and NT Labor is considering appealing the order.

Gurindji grandmother and long-time social justice activist Josie Crawshaw addressed the 22nd Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) in April. She delivered an impassioned plea for a coordinated global response to ending the incarceration of First Nations children.

The UNPFII’s final report, released earlier this year, said: “The Permanent Forum was presented with horrific testimonies of Indigenous children incarcerated in prisons and other holding facilities. The Permanent Forum reminds Member States to fulfil their obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child in relation to the arrest, detention, or imprisonment of a child. No child should be in prison.”

The continued incarceration of children in DDYDC violates several international instruments. The failure to do right by First Nations children will have damning repercussions for the social cohesion of Territory communities.

[Close Don Dale NOW! holds a weekly vigil at DDYDC every Friday at 5pm.]

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