It has been almost six years since the Royal Commission into the Detention and Protection of Children in the Northern Territory delivered its final report, which said the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre (DDYDC) was “not fit for accommodating, let alone rehabilitating children and young people” due to its “sever, prison-like and unhygienic conditions”.
Since that 2017 report, the NT Children’s Commissioner has repeatedly said there is “no therapeutic framework” inside DDYDC.
Children as young as 10 can be — and have been — detained in DDYDC. Government figures show that in March there were more children detained on average than at any time in the past year. Almost all of the children detained in DDYDC are First Nations and most are on remand.
The conditions inside DDYDC have been described as horrific. A nurse who worked inside the prison said in December that children were so distressed they asked for anti-psychotic medication.
The practice of rolling lockdowns, sometimes meaning children are confined in their cells for 23 hours a day, has caused significant distress.
The NT government has pledged to close DDYDC but, contrary to the recommendations of the royal commission, it is planning to build a replacement facility at a site next to the adult prison in Holtze.
The new facility was supposed to open in July, but supply chain issues have delayed the opening to an unknown date.
Concerned parents and community members say this is unacceptable.
Josie Crawshaw, a Gurindji grandmother, long-time social justice activist and member of Close Don Dale NOW!, delivered an impassioned plea for a coordinated global response to the issues facing incarcerated First Nations children to the 2023 United Nation Permanent Forum on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNPFII) in April.
“The atrocious conditions in Don Dale are not an accident,” Crawshaw said. “This is not incompetence or apathy. It is the inevitable consequence of settler-colonialism and the ongoing elimination of First Nations peoples. We cannot trust the government to reform this system.”
More than a year ago, First Nations grandmothers personally delivered a petition to then-opposition leader Anthony Albanese calling for the immediate closure of DDYDC. That petition fell on deaf ears.
Then, last September, the NT Labor Conference passed three motions calling for the government to close Don Dale. The motions also seemed to fall on deaf ears.
The only federal support for the campaign, so far, has come from the Australians Greens which, in December, gave notice of a private members’ bill to close DDYDC.
While many are hopeful about this bill, immediate and effective action is needed to stop children suffering further harm.
“It is a condemned adult prison, surrounded by razor wire, where children are locked in blood-stained concrete walls for up to 23 hours per day,” Crawshaw told the UNPFII. “Behaviour is managed through the use of force and isolation.
“Don Dale severely violates Australia’s international obligations towards children and Indigenous peoples, including those outlined in the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the Convention against Genocide and the Convention Against Torture.”
Crawshaw recommended an urgent UN response to “create a global consensus that children’s prisons are never appropriate or acceptable” and emphasised the need to “directly support First Nations people to build self-governing structures with the capacity to lead restorative justice”.
There is a modicum of hope that international shame and attention will force the local authorities to do the right thing by incarcerated First Nations children. The final UNFPII report is yet to be released.
[Close Don Dale NOW! holds a weekly vigil at DDYDC every Friday at 5pm. It also runs information stalls at markets and local community events.]