The Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory handed down its final report on November 17.
The commission was called after a July 2016 Four Corners report showed chronic levels of abuse in the NT’s youth detention system. Video footage showed instances of guards stripping detained children naked and piling on top of them, and of guards applying painful restraint holds to children as young as 12.
The image that most represents the abuse suffered by children in detention is that of detainee Dylan Voller in a “restraint chair”. The image of Voller tied to the chair, unable to move with his entire head covered by a white “spit hood”, invoked images of Guantanamo Bay and moved many to call for a royal commission.
Commissioner Margaret White AO and Commissioner Mick Gooda said in the joint press release on the findings: “The Northern Territory and Commonwealth Governments were right to commission this Inquiry and what we have found vindicates their decision.
“These things happened on our watch, in our country, to our children.
“The time for tinkering around the edges and ignoring the conclusions of the myriad of inquiries that have already been conducted must come to an end.”
The commission ran from August 1 last year and heard from more than 214 witnesses. Green Left Weekly has reported on some of the abuses before. But more was revealed through the course of the commission’s hearing.
Young women in detention were placed in solitary confinement to separate them from the boys. They had unequal access to hygiene facilities and complained of sexual abuse and inappropriate touching.
It was reported that guards would use their phones to film boys showering.
Choke holds and “ground stabilisation” — being tackled to the ground and sat upon — were common for both boys and girls in detention. These are illegal under international law because it is easy for adults to do serious harm to children.
Verbal abuse was common. Guards were shown calling a detainee a “fucking slut” while assaulting her. Abusive phrases caught on camera included: “stupid black cunt”, “dumb black kid”, “dumb fuck”, “black cunt” and “I’ll pulverise the little fucker”.
Many of those who suffered were Aboriginal — overrepresented in the youth detention system in the NT.
Outrage at the conditions in youth detention was part of what propelled the NT Labor government into power, and it appears willing to implement the proposals in the final report.
New NT Chief Minister Michael Gunner told ABC News on November 17: “It's sobering this report was borne of the treatment of children in the care of the Northern Territory Government.
"It is the story of our failures to care, protect, and build those who needed building most.
"It will live as a stain on the Northern Territory reputation. For this I am sorry. But more than this, I'm sorry for the stories that live in the children we failed."
The NT government has pledged $990,000 to rehabilitation and diversion programs, and appears willing to close the Don Dale detention centre in Darwin — the site of many of the atrocities uncovered in the commission.
Many of the commission’s proposals are designed to bring the NT in line with youth detention regimes in the rest of Australia.
For example, the commission proposed raising the age of criminal responsibility from its current, shocking, 10 year’s old to 12. The commission also proposed limiting detention for under 14-year-olds to a last resort.
There are proposals to make bail more flexible for young people and improve diversion programs.
The commission also identified failures of the care and protection of children system as contributing to the large number of young people in detention. Many young people who get caught up in the justice system come from broken families or are under the care of the state.
The commission proposed greater funding to place more kids caught up in this situation with other kin before resorting to state care — an attempt to strengthen family and community connection.
But the commission did not call for any criminal charges against staff or government officials who oversaw or engaged in the abuse. Some, who supported the old system, see this as a victory.
Former Justice Minister John Elferink told ABC News on November 18: “What they haven’t recommended, is a single criminal charge to be lodged against any human being associated with youth detention in the Northern Territory.”
“That is a million miles away from the comparison of Abu Ghraib barbarism and torture of which the NT Government stood accused.”
He also defended a bill that allowed for the use of restraint on juvenile offenders — effectively making much of the abuse completely legal. “That bill enabled a panel of experts to use force which was reasonable to protect the staff,” he said.
Several former detainees are pursuing compensation cases against the NT government and some have welcomed the outcomes of the commission.
Dylan Voller was quoted by SBS on November 11 saying: “I have accepted and admitted that I have done the wrong thing, I have made silly threats, I have abused prison staff, I’ve spat, I’ve kicked doors, I’ve done stuff like that, and yeah I do admit it, I have admitted to it and I know it was wrong.
“But nothing like that justifies adult officers grabbing us kids by the necks, locking us in cells for long periods of time, and none of it justifies the behaviour that goes on in Don Dale from the staff, so I think it's just time that they all accept responsibility, because I think that’s the only way to, I guess, forgive the system and move on, is accepting what you’ve done is wrong.”
Voller said: “It does hurt knowing I’ve got friends and family still inside the prison system ... and we’ve seen a lot of cases where it’s happening in a lot of other states.
“I think to be honest these recommendations should be not only for the Northern Territory, but for all states across Australia.
"I believe it's still happening and will be for a long time.”
The reports from the royal commission can be found here.
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