Unjust treatment of Aboriginal youth in Northern Territory Youth Detention centres

January 22, 2016
Aboriginal elders perform a smoking ceremony at Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in May last year to free the spirits of those wh

The Northern Territory has the highest rate of youth detention in the country. The detention rate of young people is six times the national average and 97% of those detained in the juvenile justice system are Aboriginal youth.

There have been a number of reports and investigations in the past two years into the treatment of Aboriginal youth while held in custody. They show quite clearly that by deliberate design and policy Aboriginal youth in are treated in a barbarous, inhumane and illegal way.

Multiple incidents have been reported of handcuffing, gassing, shackling, spit hooding and solitary confinement in a cell for 22 out of 24 hours, lasting from 7 to 17 days, which included eating their meals (some hot) with their bare hands.

The Human Rights Law Centre's Senior Lawyer, Ruth Barson, said the recent case of a 17-year-old boy being hooded and strapped to a chair for close to two hours shows there is a pattern of mistreating young people in the Northern Territory's Don Dale Youth Detention Centre.

“It is deeply concerning that yet another case of a child having their human rights violated has emerged,” she said. “The Northern Territory must once and for all commit to treating children in detention humanely. These types of punitive practices must end.

In January last year a review of the Northern Territory Youth Justice system conducted by Michael Vita found there was a “lack of understanding and coordination of how risk assessment, case management, classification, pro-social modelling and the incentive scheme should work together to provide an environment that is conducive to stability, harmony, safety and security”.

He found the juvenile detention system's management is incompetent, staff are undertrained, operational practices are haphazard and overly-punitive, and there have been cover-ups when things go wrong. As well the system is doing nothing to rehabilitate the young people it locks up.

An additional report following the Vita report conducted by NT children's Commissioner Howard Bath, inquired into the practices occurring at the Don Dale Youth Detention centre found evidence of inappropriate reactions from staff employed in these facilities. An example is the tear gassing of six teenagers while they were sitting in their cells playing cards. The report also made a list of recommendations including addressing the lack of accountability, training of employees working in youth detention centres and improving the facilities of the detention centre.

Late last year the Human Rights Law Centre sent a request to the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture for intervention, with a view to ensuring the Northern Territory Government comply with its international human rights law obligations.

Barson said: “You have to question whether the Northern Territory Government is taking its obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child seriously.

“If it's genuinely committed to the wellbeing of vulnerable children in its care, it needs to seriously rethink the way it's treating them. It is clear that the Northern Territory's youth justice system needs a thorough overhaul.”

Indigenous Rights Campaigner at Amnesty International Julian Cleary said: “Young people are fundamentally different to adults and must be treated in a way that prioritises their best interests.

“Evidence shows that the best way to keep our community safe in the long run is to focus on the rehabilitation and education of children. The Northern Territory's current youth justice system is failing these children and the wider community.”

In November the NT Government announced that all children detained in the Alice Springs Youth Detention Centre would be transferred to Darwin. This means children as young as 10 would be taken thousands of kilometres from their families and communities.

In 2014, all children detained in Darwin were moved from the former Don Dale Youth Detention Centre, to the Berrimah adult prison, which has since been re-named Don Dale.

Barson said: “We have received reports that children are being locked down for up to 15 hours per day in prison cells that have no air conditioning, and that are reaching temperatures of 35 degrees. A decommissioned, run-down, adult prison is clearly not an appropriate facility for children.”

The unjust treatment of Aboriginal youth in custody is not accidental but merely a by-product of the continued systematic racism towards indigenous Australians. The punitive and inhumane policies against Aboriginal children is a disgrace and a blight on the entire Australian legal system. It has to end immediately.

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