The Northern Territory Labor Conference unanimously passed three separate motions on September 3 calling on the NT Labor government to close the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre (DDYDC).
The Indigenous Labor Network’s motion demanded the NT government “urgently close” the DDYDC and replace it with “a new, purpose-built facility at a separate location to Darwin Correctional Precinct”.
The Casuarina Branch called on the NT government to “honour the Royal Commission’s recommendations and urgently decommission the existing Youth Detention Centre”. It said the government must “urgently move the children and youths detained at Don Dale to other alternative facilities”.
Young Labor’s motion called on the government to commit to “closing Don Dale for good” and “never reopening another facility like it”.
The three motions add to the mounting pressure on the government to close DDYDC sooner than it said it would.
Labor has committed close the DDYDC in “late 2023” after it opens a new youth justice centre, being constructed in Holtze, next to the adult prison.
DDYDC is the former Berrimah Prison for adults, which was closed in 2014 but re-opened as a youth detention centre. It was the subject of a 2016–17 royal commission that found it was “not fit for accommodating, let alone rehabilitating, children and young people” due to its “severe, prison-like and unhygienic conditions”.
The Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory recommended DDYDC be closed. It has remained open and since NT Labor passed controversial bail “reforms” in May last year, it has become more difficult for children to be granted bail.
By this May, the DDYDC had recorded the highest number of children incarcerated since the royal commission handed down its final report.
The number of self-harm and attempted suicides has been rising: NT News reported in July they had risen by 400% in one year.
Protesters from the Close Don Dale NOW! group gathered outside the Mal Nairn Auditorium at Charles Darwin University where Labor was holding its conference.
Natalie Hunter, a founding member of the group, said the situation inside DDYDC is so dire it needs to close immediately.
“We’re here today to make sure the [Labor Party] get[s] the message,” she said. “We’re not getting anywhere with the NT government.”
John Lawrence SC, former president of the NT Bar Association, echoed Hunter’s call. “We are here to emphasise our continued dissent and opposition to the NT Labor government’s policy of child abuse,” he said.
Lawrence has been representing an 11-year-old Indigenous boy, who spent more than three months in DDYDC on remand. Almost all the children in DDYDC are Indigenous and most of them are on remand. He said the NT government is “directly responsible” for “keeping children in unlawful and barbaric conditions”.
“These [Labor] people stand for nothing except winning,” he said. “If it means Indigenous children being tortured and self-harming in terrifying numbers they will do it.”
The protesters called on NT Members of the Legislative Assembly entering the conference to come and speak to them, but none did.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has said that the reports of self-harm in youth justice systems are “regrettable and concerning”.
Hunter said the PM’s response was “inadequate”. She said as the White-Gooda royal commission was a joint NT-federal investigation that the federal government should take responsibility to ensure DDYDC is closed immediately.
[The Close Don Dale NOW! Movement, whose numbers have steadily been increasing, holds Friday afternoon vigils outside the gates of DDYDC.]