Members of the royal commission into the protection and detention of children in the Northern Territory have toured the current and former Don Dale detention centres, visiting the scenes of infamous riots and alleged abuses.
The commissioners, Mick Gooda and Margaret White, also heard from youth justice officers. They told them morale was low among staff who felt they had been tarred with the same brush after national outrage followed the broadcast of footage that showed guards mistreating and teargassing detainees.
Gooda, White and a number of departmental and commission staff toured both the current Don Dale juvenile detention centre – in what used to be a former adult prison – and the former facility just a few hundred metres away on Wednesday, in an effort to understand what went wrong and what may be working in NT youth corrections.
Both facilities have been the site of disturbances and escapes. There are now 20 detainees, including one girl – whose detention requires two staff members. Overnight she is not guaranteed to have a female staff member on duty. There is little privacy, with a flimsy curtain over the otherwise open shower cubicles.
The commissioners toured the visitor’s area and the medical centre before going to the school and the secure accommodation units, briefly meeting detainees. Separate security wings have their own classrooms; detainees take their lesson plans with them to maintain some continuity if they move between them.
The high-security unit has been reinforced after detainees trashed it and escaped last year. The cells are small concrete boxes along a concrete courtyard. A staff member corrected White when she asked how long detainees spent locked in their cells. “It’s a bedroom,” he said.
She was told a maximum of three weeks, depending on the stage of a detainee’s behavioural management plans. They are locked in the rooms between 6.30pm and 7.15am.
A cell used for at-risk juveniles was damaged last week, with the metal mesh screen wrenched from the window frame. Delegates were incredulous as they exited.
“They actually use this?”
“You’d think there was a better way of doing this.”
Much of the evidence the royal commission has heard in this public hearing and the previousone has centred on the need for program-based rehabilitative environments for young people to end the cycle of incarceration.
In June Don Dale’s new recreation area opened. A cool, large room with muralled walls and games tables, the area also includes a covered basketball court, a projector screen and a music room. A youth justice officer, Leon, told Guardian Australia he had noticed an improvement in behaviour since it opened.
Delegates appeared pleased with the area – it ticked the boxes for a therapeutic system they had long been told was needed but which they had never managed to establish.
The NT government has earmarked about $22m for new or improved facilities: $15m is allocated for Don Dale and $7m for a new youth justice precinct in Alice Springs. The head of Territory Families, Ken Davies, stressed that there would be wide consultations and that interim repairs would not be in lieu of a replacement facility.
He told Guardian Australia there was more exploration to be done but a more modern and therapeutic facility was on the cards. It would be far removed from the current Don Dale environment, except perhaps the recreation centre.
The old Don Dale, while dilapidated beyond use and too small, was at least designed for youth and the site could be repurposed, he noted.
Standing in an administration room of the empty former centre, two youth justice officers said morale was low among the staff since Four Corners aired its episode on guards teargassing, stripping and restraining detainees.
“A lot of the staff members involved in those incidents no longer work with us,” said Luke. “We’re what’s left over so we have to wear and cop it. I guess it’s the price we pay for where we work, but I personally enjoy the work.”
Both men are Indigenous and have worked in youth justice for a number of years. They said they had good engagement with the detainees. “There are two sides to the story, and eventually we’ll be able to tell ours.”
Much of that story centred on the escape of a teenage detainee from his isolation cell in the behavioural management unit, sparking a disturbance that guards responded to with teargas.
Gooda and Whilte – both visibly affected – inspected the cells where boys were teargassed, noting where one escaped by breaking through a hatch to reach a door handle that had accidentally been left unlocked.
A second cell bore the marks of further disturbance – a wide hole torn through the tough wire mesh, and a large circle of broken plaster surrounding the intercom.
“This is where that young fella was held,” said Gooda, sitting in one of the cells. “Still is somewhere, in a place like this.”
The commission will resume the public hearing on Thursday.