Northern Territory juvenile detention: ABC airs scenes likened to Abu Ghraib

ABC shows footage of teenagers beaten, hooded and restrained in Darwin detention centre and within hours 3,000 people sign petition for an inquiry
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The chief minister of the Northern Territory will seek advice on establishing a royal commission into the treatment of children in juvenile detention, after calls from lawyers acting for a number of youths whose shocking experience was shown on the ABC’s Four Corners program in Australia on Monday night.

The program revealed shocking vision of instances of apparent abuse of teenage detainees and examined long running issues and instances of mistreatment in the Northern Territory youth justice system. CCTV footage showed the restraint and spit-hooding of one youth, as well as another being stripped and physically held down by guards on more than one occasion.

In a scene the Four Corners presenter Sarah Ferguson compared with images from Guantánamo Bay or the Abu Ghraib jail in Baghdad, 17-year-old Dylan Voller – who was featured repeatedly in the show suffering apparent mistreatment at the hands of guards – was shown hooded and tied in a restraint chair for two hours.

The chairs are among items recently including in a widened list of “approved restraints” under laws passed by the NT government.

Within a couple of hours of the show ending, more than 3,000 people had signed a petition calling for a royal commission.

Late on Monday night the NT chief minister, Adam Giles, said he would seek advice on establishing a royal commission and hoped the process could begin before the government enters caretaker period before the 27 August election.

He said he was “shocked and disgusted” by the program, that “a community is judged by the way it treats its children and serious questions were raised”.

But he added: “Equally the Northern Territory government does not resile from its tough approach to those who don’t want to respect other people’s property or safety.”

Giles said he had asked the NT police commissioner to consider if the highlighted incidents were “in accordance” with the power of custodial officers, and indicated it would be expected any breach of the law would be “pursued rigorously”.

“I have full confidence in the majority of custodial officers working in Northern Territory’s institutions,” he said. “They have a challenging and difficult job, one that not many people wish to do.”

O’Brien solicitors, which is representing two youths in a suit against the NT government for assault, battery and unlawful imprisonment, said the abuse was “chronic and appears systemic”.

“A royal commission into the treatment of children in Northern Territory detention is essential to determine the extent and impact of the abuse, to determine why this abuse was allowed to occur, and who knew about it,” Peter O’Brien said.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander justice commissioner, Mick Gooda, called for the federal government to sack the NT government.

The Federal Government has to intervene and sack the NT Government

— Mick Gooda (@MickGooda) July 25, 2016

The Red Cross expressed concern that the system was not reforming juvenile detainees but instead “setting them up for a lifetime of crime”.

“The justice system needs urgent review, both for the safety of children in detention, but also the long-term safety of our communities,” said Red Cross community services director Kerry McGrath.

“Research has shown that incarcerating young people for nonviolent and non-serious crimes is detrimental for the individual and makes it harder for them to reintegrate into society.”

The human rights commissioner, Gillian Triggs, told the ABC’s Q&A program on Monday the juvenile detainees were “out of sight and out of mind in the Northern Territory in these detention centres”.

Coalition MP Craig Laundy, an assistant minister, told the program he was horrified and would be speaking to the prime minister and relevant ministers about what the federal government could do.

Ken Wyatt, a federal MP and assistant minister for health, said he was “angry, stunned and ashamed” that such treatment could occur in Australia.

I am angry, stunned and ashamed that this is happening in our Country and those responsible must be held accountable.

— Ken Wyatt MP (@KenWyattMP) July 25, 2016

Despite the horror expressed at the newly revealed footage, details of the incidents having been in the public domain for some time, and legal groups have been pushing for action for years.

Much of the ABC program focused on a 2014 incident falsely described at the time as a “riot”, in which a number of youths were teargassed. The aftermath included the use of restraints, hoods and the unlawful transfer of a minor to an adult prison. Before the incident the teenage boys had been held in isolation for between six and 17 days. One boy escaped from his cell into another part of the prison, but the public and media were told in the aftermath that a group had broken out.

Teargas was sprayed 10 times into the small room, and guards were overheard laughing and threatening detainees. The incident was the subject of a damning inquiry by the NT children’s commissioner. Another report by former prison boss Michael Vita, commissioned by the government, found the response “justified” but was also critical, and found the system to be in “a climate of daily crisis”.

John Elferink, the NT attorney general, minister for justice, minister for corrections, minister for children and families, and minister for health, continued to defend his role overseeing the justice system. He told the ABC he had not seen a number of the videos until recently, including one which caught a guard saying “I’ll pulverise the fucker” about one detainee.

A full transcript of the recorded conversation and that statement was included in a report made available to government last year, and was also widely reported.

Last week the Making Justice Work campaign – a coalition of social service and justice groups – released its list of six “asks” for the upcoming NT election. Among their priorities was the establishment of a specialist youth court in Alice Springs, to replicate one already established in Darwin and which the group said had had success.

Elferink, who is not contesting his seat in August, rejected the suggestion, telling Guardian Australia there were no plans in place. He accused the Labor opposition of relying on the advice of the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (Naaja) “to prevent anti-criminalisation legislation being passed in parliament”.

“Labor’s approach, supported by Naaja, will be to keep criminals out of custody,” he said.

He has previously dismissed criticism of the treatment of juvenile detainees by pointing to a “core” group of youths at the centre of incidents, suggesting they should not be treated as children because some were “grown men essentially”.


Helen Davidson in Darwin

The GuardianTramp

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