The deadline for submissions to the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory has been extended by four months.
The royal commission was announced on July 26 by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to investigate allegations of abuse of minors in the NT’s child detention system.
It came on the back of a July 25 Four Corners episode that showed youth detainees being stripped, beaten and strapped into a chair in “Guantanamo-style” conditions.
The NT imprisons children at a rate three times that of any other state or territory. Its imprisonment rate for Aboriginal people is second only to Western Australia, with about 4% of Aboriginal people in the NT currently behind bars. The percentage of all incarcerated adults is also much higher than other jurisdictions — more than three times the per capita rate compared to its nearest rival Western Australia.
Combined, these statistics mean that at any given time, there are a large number of, particularly Aboriginal, children in the NT behind bars.
What the Four Corners program showed is that many of them are subjected to intolerable forms of abuse.
The commission has been tasked with reviewing the past 10 years of the youth detention system in the NT and making recommendations for reform. Calls to extend the terms of reference to the rest of Australia — made more pertinent by the incarceration of juveniles in Victoria’s Barwon prison late last year — were knocked back by the Commonwealth on July 27.
The extension of time was welcomed by the commissioner in charge, Mick Gooda who, in September, said that it was not possible to meet the demands of the commission within the original timeframe.
The commission also faced criticism that there is insufficient participation from remote communities.
Sabella Kngwarraye Turner told ABC online in September that she thought there should be more consultation.
“I'd love to see more community consultation, more departments communicating with families, grandmothers, sisters, brothers,” she said.
“Having our little ones in that jail there, what are they learning?
“Take them back to communities, that's their healing, they belong somewhere, these little ones, and they know that in their hearts."
The hearings have led to some detainees announcing that they would launch a class action against their mistreatment in detention.
Maurice Blackburn lawyers for Dylan Jenkings and Aaron Hyde said on January 11 they would sue the government, saying that prison authorities had subjected Hyde to a savage beating in 2012.
They allege, in their application to the Federal court, that Hyde was slammed into a doorframe and then handcuffed to a basketball court fence for an hour after being stripped. He was then subjected to three weeks in an isolation cell without tap water or a blanket.
His mother alleges that, when he complained about the cold, he was told to masturbate to keep warm.
Hyde was 15 at the time.
Jenkings’ case relates to beatings with shields and batons during a “riot” in which tear gas was used against detainees who allege they were made to sit for hours in tear-gas-soaked clothing that burned their skin and eyes.
“Our clients are concerned not only of their own treatment, but the treatment of other young people in youth detention centres,” lawyer Ben Slade said.
“These young people are entitled to be compensated for the wrong that was done to them. Things have to change.”
The action would also set a precedent for others to be compensated.
This abuse failed to rehabilitate Aaron Hyde. In 2015, he was involved in a violent armed holdup and stolen-car chase that resulted in the death of his friend and co-offender Ashley Richards. In July 2016, he was sentenced to 11 years in adult prison.
A January 11 report on ABC Online said that psychiatrist Dr John Kasinathan believed this mistreatment and abuse made it more likely for detainees to reoffend.
“It certainly worsens the trajectory of these young people,” Kasinathan said.
“The problem with such restrictive practices is they carry the potential to reduce a young person’s ability to self-regulate, to be able to get more healthy ways to manage their anger, and it also puts in a real distrust to authority figures.
“That makes it very hard for them to shift gears and to become more pro-social and engage in rehabilitation.”
Government policy has also contributed to the youth detention spike.
In 2009, the then-Labor NT government introduced the first four hours policy, which mandated that schools teach only in English for the first four hours of the day.
In a part of Australia with some of the highest rates of households where Aboriginal languages are spoken at home, this meant large amounts of school time were unintelligible to students. This in turn led to a drop in attendance, which has been linked to young people becoming involved with the criminal justice system.
In 2007, vast changes were made to the welfare system in the NT. Among those was the “quarantining” of 50% of welfare payments onto a card that could only be used for food, clothing or medicine, and only in certain stores.
This makes it very difficult for people to pay a cousin as a babysitter (cannot pay them in cash), or send a child to the shops to buy milk (cards can only be used by the cardholder) or any other number of things poor people do to survive poverty.
This disruption to the way people pay for things, and the shame associated with the cards, increased family instability and family breakdown, factors that have also been linked to young people being involved in the criminal justice system.
When the NT Country Liberal Party came to power in 2012, it was on a “law and order” platform. It closed down diversion programs for youth, as well as drop-in services and rehabilitation programs, further contributing to a rise in the number of young people being involved in the criminal justice system.
If the commission is to seriously deal with these issues, and improve the conditions for young people in the NT, then Labor and CLP government policies need to be in the dock.
The commission is set to begin hearings again in March.