Dylan Voller could be restrained in chair again, says Northern Territory's chief minister

Exclusive: In an interview with Guardian Australia, Adam Giles says Voller is now 18 and in an adult prison, where the chair is still permitted

Dylan Voller could be strapped into a restraint chair again under Northern Territory legislation because he is now 18, chief minister Adam Giles has told Guardian Australia.

Voller featured heavily in last week’s ABC Four Corners program on juvenile detention abuse, which prompted the establishment of a royal commission. The footage showed Voller allegedly being assaulted over a number of years while incarcerated. He was placed in a spithood and strapped by his wrists, ankles and neck to a restraint chair for an hour and 50 minutes last year.

Since turning 18 Voller has been held in the adult prison just outside Darwin.

Amid the outcry over the footage, Giles ordered a suspension of the use of restraint chairs and spithoods in juvenile detention. In legislation passed earlier this year the NT government had widened and strengthened the scope for their use, but this week new laws were gazetted to ban them in the restraint of juveniles.

But Voller is no longer within the juvenile detention system and the chair can still be used at the adult facility.

In an interview with Guardian Australia, Giles was asked if he was concerned that Voller could again be restrained in the chair. Giles said it was “an operational matter”.

“How old is Dylan now?” Giles said. “Well he’s an adult and he’s in an adult centre. Adult policies.”

Giles said he did not get involved in operational matters, and that he had to stand up for the rights of staff working in the facilities too.

“I mean, there’s a whole lot of things that were missed out of that report. There’s 15 staff right now who are on workers’ compensation. Eleven of them, I’m told, are permanently incapacitated so they’ll never be able to be a frontline prison officer again.”

Giles made the comments in an interview at the Garma festival on the long-running NT justice crisis, during which he defended his government’s record on justice reform. He refused to back away from questions he raised about links between lawyers who spoke out about the boys’ treatment and the Labor party.

Last week Giles said he was horrified watching Four Corners, in particular seeing staff “throwing kids around”.

The Vita review, commissioned by the government and released in February 2015, highlighted 33 serious incidents in the Don Dale and Alice Springs youth detention centres between 2010 and August 2014. Several were alleged assaults by staff on detainees. Asked if he had inquired about these particular incidents, Giles said he “took advice on the recommendations”.

“[John] Elferink was the minister. I took advice from the recommendations and said we need to [act on] the whole lot. Same with the children’s commissioners stuff.”

Giles has made conflicting statements about what exactly he was aware of before viewing Four Corners. On Friday he told local radio he had seen the teargassing footage, before backtracking from the comments later that day.

He told Guardian Australia he had not seen any of the footage before Monday night, including some which had previously screened on ABC bulletins, and had no awareness of the incidents that occurred before his party came to office.

“I mean I’m not complaining about this, but there’s been no recognition that five of the seven pictures or incidents were before we came to government,” he said.

“So to think that I should have seen those things, I mean, I’m not going to go through every CCTV camera that the Northern Territory government’s got and watch all footage back forever and a day, so I think we’ve got to be fair and reasonable in that.”

He took aim at Labor’s decision to build a new adult prison.

“When you were told you needed to build a new youth detention facility, why did you not do that and you only built an adult one?” he asked. “You shouldn’t be building concrete jungles any more, you should be having more community-oriented type centres. Why didn’t you do that?”

Asked why the Giles government did not build a juvenile centre when it came to office, if it was already known that one was needed, Giles said he was not aware.

“I wasn’t the leader at the time, which is no excuse, but I wasn’t aware, and no one had ever raised to me the need to build a new youth detention facility,” he said.

“Now whether it’s been hidden in a report somewhere as a particular line, it may have been, I’m not saying it’s not, but it’s not anything that had been raised as a particular issue which needed to occur ... Everyone [from Labor] is ducking for cover at the moment, saying they never knew about any of this footage at the time. Well, why did they commission a review around the time of these incidents? Surely someone knew something.”

Amid dozens of incidents, escapes assaults and allegations from within juvenile justice during its term, the current NT government has itself commissioned two inquiries – including the Vita review – and received one other from the children’s commissioner.

Giles pointed to a range of measures under his government which addressed issues in the justice system. The Northern Territory is the only jurisdiction with justice targets – seeking to halve incarceration and recidivism among Indigenous adults and juveniles by 2030.

He said a target of 50% was “pretty good” but “you can’t just do that by saying ‘let’s not send people to jail’”.

“That’s why I put a lot of effort into building economies, giving people jobs and making sure that there’s not two separate societies which there has been in the Northern Territory forever and a day.”

Giles said his government had worked to improve the detention centre system for both staff and inmates, including improved training for youth justice officers.

He said he acted “immediately” to find out what kind of health access juvenile inmates had, and determined to have health workers present at every inmate intake to perform assessments. He said the government had “done a deal” with Indigenous health service Danila Dilba.

Guardian Australia understands the organisation was in discussions with the Department of Children and Families to have staff on site for a three-month contract, but no details of what it would involve had yet been determined. Discussions began last Friday.

The Country Liberal party government has also run a successful trial of the Sentenced to a Job program, which Giles said had reduced recidivism rates among the 60 Indigenous inmates from 76% to 13%. It has not yet been replicated in the youth justice sector, but Giles suggested the recently proposed but unfunded youth correctional farm might be the way to address recidivism in juvenile detention.

“Many of these kids are broken and it’s going to take a long time. It’s pretty bad,” he said.

Giles denied he was accusing the lawyers who appeared on Four Corners of being politically motivated when he publicly questioned how many of them were members of the Labor party last week, but refused to clarify what he meant.

Asked why it mattered if they were members of the Labor party, Giles said it didn’t matter.

Guardian Australia: So why ask the question?

Giles: I never said it was politically motivated.

GA: You suggested it, though, by questioning whether they were members of the Labor party.

Giles: No you interpreted my comment as a suggestion. I didn’t say that.

GA: What was the actual meaning of the question then? Why do you want to know if they were members of the Labor party if it doesn’t matter?

Giles: I’ve got no comment on that. You can interpret it how you want. I never said it, I never suggested it, I never implied it. You interpreted it that way.

Giles said he was inquiring just for himself because it was of interest and would “probably make a good trivia question”.


Helen Davidson

The GuardianTramp

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