“The racism in this country is getting worse,” Pat Anderson told a crowd outside the notorious B Block of Berrimah Prison, known as the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre (DDYDC). The gathering was the eleventh demonstration of the Close Don Dale NOW! Movement on February 25.
“You know why most kids are in here? Because most Territorians, white ones … believe that these kids should be here. That’s why we’ve got to go South. We have to do everything that we possibly can. We’re not going to win it here. We have to go outside and even internationally,” Anderson said.
DDYDC is not a purpose-built juvenile facility; it is a condemned adult prison from the 1970s that was deemed “only fit for a bulldozer” by the then CEO of Corrections in 2011. Children, most of whom are First Nations and on remand, have been kept in DDYDC since 2014.
The Northern Territory Children’s Commissioner has consistently found that DDYDC “lack[s] a therapeutic framework” to guide its operations and that staff are not being educated in developmental trauma. Its latest report also found that children were denied adequate access to basic educational and medical services, with some at risk of self-harm being kept in their cells for up to 23 hours and 45 minutes a day.
The Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the NT (RCPDCNT) in 2017 recommended that DDYDC be closed. But the NT government has expanded DDYDC and introduced amendments to the Bail Act and the Youth Justice Act designed to make it harder for young people to access bail.
These amendments were rushed through the NT Legislative Assembly despite protests by medical experts and Aboriginal organisations, who wrote in an open letter to the NT government that the proposed reforms posed “a significant threat to the health and wellbeing of an already vulnerable cohort of young people”.
Anderson, who has spent decades working in senior roles in the public service and for Aboriginal organisations, including serving as the current Chairperson of Batchelor Institute Council, no longer has faith in the government’s willingness or ability to deliver justice for First Nations people.
“I’ve sat on so many committees,” she said. “We have done every single thing that they’ve asked. More action needs to happen. It has to be ramped up because most people don’t really care, not here, not in this heartless place.”
After amendments to the Bail Act and the Youth Justice Act there has been a spike in the numbers of youth in detention. The highest number of children detained in the NT since the Royal Commission handed down its final report in 2017 was recorded in January.
“This government does not care if it locks up and tortures children,” Victorian Greens Senator Lidia Thorpe said in her statement of solidarity read out to the rally by Josie Crawshaw.
“The closure of Don Dale is long overdue. This place should have closed years ago. This is the last place our children belong. Our children belong with family. Our children need love and care. Instead they are being locked up and punished.”
Thorpe condemned the federal government’s failure to fully implement the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture (OPCAT) which Australia ratified on December 21, 2017.
Fully implementing the OPCAT would have given independent monitoring bodies the right to inspect conditions inside youth detention centres.
“In 2017, both the National Children’s Commissioner and the Attorney General acknowledged that if a fully implemented OPCAT system had been in place … the horrific treatment uncovered at Don Dale would likely not have happened.”
A demonstration was held outside of the NT Legislative Assembly on February 17 to mark the four-year anniversary of the date the RCPDCNT gave the NT government to report on its plan to close DDYDC.
The NT government has chosen a site next to the adult prison in Holtze for the new Darwin Youth Justice Facility, despite the RCPDCNT indicating that youth detention centres not be built near adult correctional facilities.
Construction has yet to start on the new facility; recent correspondence from the NT Attorney General to John Lawrence claimed it was “scheduled to be completed by mid-2023” which suggests the NT government intends to continue detaining children in DDYDC for the foreseeable future.
“We are Grandmothers and Mothers,” the petition read. “We are genuinely grieving and despairing at the abuse of our children being locked up in Don Dale … We can’t stand by and watch this torture continue. If this isn’t brought to an end now then we are all complicit in abusing and harming children. Please help us.”
Albanese has yet to provide an official response.
[The Close Don Dale NOW! Movement gathers every Friday at 5pm outside the gates of DDYDC to demand its closure.]