The ABC broke a story on 24 August about the failures of the Northern Territory’s statutory monitoring system for its youth detention centres.
Following a freedom of information request, the ABC discovered that from April last year to June, the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre (DDYDC) had only been inspected once by an official visitor.
The nameless official visitor’s report obtained by the ABC listed concerns they observed during their September 2021 visit, including that no psychologist had been appointed and that one of the cells had been smeared with blood.
The NT’s Youth Justice Act 2005 specifies that the minister must appoint at least three “official visitors” to inspect DDYDC. Each detention centre must be visited at least once a month by an official who must then provide a written report to the minister.
The Act specifies that official visitors “must inquire into the treatment and behaviour of, and the conditions for, detainees in the detention centre for which the official visitor is appointed”.
DDYDC has been in the news due to a marked increase in self-harm and attempted suicides. The NT News reported in July that episodes of self-harm and attempted suicide had risen by 400% in one year.
One of those episodes included a 16-year-old boy who stabbed himself while in isolation and required hospitalisation and surgery.
Chief Minister Natasha Fyles told Jo Laverty on the NT ABC’s Breakfast program on August 24 that staffing issues, partly COVID-19 related, were to blame for the lack of visits and she appeared to downplay the self-harm and attempted suicide statistics.
“Self-harm within these facilities is concerning and the definition of self-harm is someone speaking and communicating that they’re uncomfortable right through to critical incidents,” Fyles said.
“One hundred and forty incidents of self-harm: How do you respond to that?” Laverty asked the Chief Minister.
“So Jo, I just explained there is a broad definition and any instance does need to be acted upon and supported,” Fyles replied. “But I can come back to the fact that we’ve put in an enormous amount of work into the new youth justice system, but there is more work to do and that is being undertaken by Territory families.”
The NT Labor government introduced bail reforms in May last year to make it more difficult for children to be granted bail.
As a consequence, by this May the DDYDC had the highest number of children incarcerated since the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the NT handed down its final report and recommendations in November 2017.
The NT government launched the Aboriginal Justice Agreement in August last year, whose stated aim is to “reduce offending and imprisonment of Aboriginal Territorians”.
One of the Royal Commission’s key recommendations was to close down the DDYDC.
DDYDC is not a purpose-built juvenile facility: it is the former Berrimah Prison for adults which was closed in 2014 and then re-opened for use as a youth detention centre by then NT Country Liberal Party government.
The Commissioners in 2017 described DDYDC as “not fit for accommodating, let alone rehabilitation, children and young people” due to its “severe, prison-like and unhygienic conditions”.
Reacting to the Chief Minister’s comments later on ABC Radio’s Late Breakfast program, a former President of the NT Bar Association John Lawrence SC, said: “This Labor government has been conducting, deliberately, child abuse for years now in the face of the Royal Commission’s recommendations”.
Lawrence is representing an 11-year-old Indigenous boy who has spent three months on remand in DDYDC. Almost 100% of children incarcerated in DDYDC are Indigenous and most are on remand.
“I honestly find it beyond belief that you’ve got instances of self-harm this high and no-one seems to get that this has to end yesterday,” Lawrence continued.
“This Labor government has absolutely no regard for Aboriginal children, their parents, their families and Aboriginal people if it thinks it can get away with treating Aboriginal children like this after a Royal Commission that brought the whole country to a state of disbelief.”
Lawrence urged the Prime Minister and the Federal Attorney-General to intervene to stop the continued detention of children in DDYDC in a later interview with Sky News.
Lawrence’s call builds on Nyigina woman Donna Hunter handing Anthony Albanese a petition in February.
“Please help us by telling this government to close it down and move the kids to a more appropriate and humane place,” the petition read.
The NT government is committed to keep incarcerating children in DDYDC until at least “late 2023”, when its new youth detention facility is scheduled to be completed. The new facility is being built next to the adult prison in Holtze, directly contravening the Royal Commission’s recommendations.