“Rates of self-harm and suicide attempts in Don Dale are skyrocketing,” Natalie Hunter told several hundred people gathered in Darwin’s CBD for Larrakia Nation’s annual NAIDOC March on July 8. “Our kids are crying out for help and it is falling on apathetic ears.”
Hunter is part of Close Don Dale NOW!, a community group that holds weekly Friday afternoon vigils outside the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre (DDYDC) and other initiatives to raise awareness about the conditions inside the facility.
The NT News reported on July 6 that self-harm and suicide rates inside DDYDC rose by 400% in a year.
The Northern Territory Children’s Commissioner, who conducts routine inspections of DDYDC, has consistently found that there is “no therapeutic framework” in the facility, that staff are not trained in how to deal with trauma and that children have been left for 23 hours and 45 minutes in their cells awaiting medical attention after being designated “at risk”.
“The number of children in detention continues to grow,” Hunter said, “but the number of our supporters does not.”
Due in large part to the May 2021 amendments to the Bail Act and the Youth Justice Act, in June the number of children detained in DDYDC reached its highest point since the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory’s final report and recommendations in November 2017.
One of the recommendations was to close DDYDC.
The commissioners said it 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 the former Berrimah Prison for adults, which was closed in 2014 because it was deemed unsuitable for adults, before being re-opened the same year as a youth detention centre. Children as young as 10 are detained in concrete cells in a facility that is surrounded by barbed wire and rusting steel mesh.
“This year’s NAIDOC theme is ‘Get Up! Stand Up! Show Up!’,” Hunter said. “Our kids need to know that someone gives a shit about them. We need you all to get behind this. It is a crisis. And too many are not even aware of it. We must acknowledge that racism and marginalisation are at the heart of this problem.”
The NT government’s own figures state that almost 100% of the children in DDYDC are First Nations people, and most are on remand.
“Our children are under attack,” said Hunter. “They are being removed from their families at rates higher than any time during the Stolen Generations era. They are being criminalised and incarcerated more than ever before. There is no presumption of innocence. Before they are even found guilty of a crime, they are imprisoned on remand for months on end — or forced to wear an ankle bracelet. These are dehumanising and traumatic formative experiences for children.”
Close Don Dale NOW! runs a stall at the Palmerston Markets, and is organising a public forum on crime and youth justice in the NT. Members of the group handed then opposition leader Anthony Albanese a petition to close DDYC when he was in Darwin in February for the Bombing of Darwin commemorations.
Hunter expressed disillusion at the NAIDOC march with organisations whose stated aim is to support and advocate for First Nations people but do not deliver, and invited people to join Close Don Dale NOW!.
“The organisations that are supposed to deliver services have failed Aboriginal people,” Hunter told the march. “Non-Aboriginal NGOs receive the funding that communities desperately need to help themselves. They are beneficiaries of our disempowerment. Their business models depend on maintaining the status quo.
“This situation will not improve without community support. The government is building an even larger detention centre, with no sign of slowing its removal of children, nor its neglect and abuse of children in its care. We must come together as a community to demand better.
“This isn’t about being ‘tough on crime’ or ‘soft on crime’. It’s about addressing the root causes of crime. And make no mistake — we know what they are. Only when Aboriginal people lead Aboriginal justice will we see the positive, achievable changes outlined in the Royal Commission and consistently reiterated in the enormous body of evidence on youth justice.”