Northern Territory youth detention: no excuse for not knowing of abuse

Footage screened on Four Corners was shocking but what occurred has been in the public domain since not long after it happened

“It’s hard to tell you what’s going in this block.” So wrote one young boy on a cell wall inside the Don Dale youth correctional facility after a group of detainees trashed the B block wing in June last year.

It may have been hard for those inside, but anyone in authority in the Northern Territory or federal governments has had no excuse for not knowing.

At least three inquiries have been held into youth detention and reports delivered to the Territory government since 2011.

The footage screened on Four Corners on Monday of the 2014 events was shocking. Much of it – particularly the Abu Ghraib style vision of 17-year-old Dylan Voller shirtless, hooded, and tied by his limbs and neck to a restraint chair – had not been seen by the public before.

But the details of what occurred, and the subsequent relaxing of laws which further allowed such restraints, were in the public domain not long after it happened.

The Territory government has been relentlessly questioned by local media, endlessly lobbied and pleaded with by justice agencies, commissioners and regulators, and subject to damning findings by numerous inquiries – including one it commissioned itself.

In October last year the director of Human Rights Watch wrote in Fairfax newspapers: “What happened at Don Dale and [the adult jail used for juveniles at] Berrimah is a classic example of how not to deal with troubled youth. Excessive use of force, isolation and shackling of children is barbaric and inhumane. What makes it even more appalling is that the Northern Territory’s children’s commissioner exposed some of these issues last year, and yet the abusive practices persist.”

Each time a new incident in youth detention came to light, the Country Liberal party government – a scandal-plagued unicameral parliament – has responded defensively and unapologetically.

John Elferink, the NT attorney general, who on Tuesday
John Elferink, the NT attorney general, who on Tuesday was stood aside as corrections minister, told Four Corners he had not seen the video of guards teargassing the youths. Photograph: ABC

Howard Bath, the former NT children’s commissioner, told ABC radio on Tuesday he had shown the 2014 footage of Voller stripped and beaten to the government. The existence of that footage was reported by the ABC at the time. Bath said he believed the government would have also had access to the rest of the footage shown on Four Corners.

But John Elferink, the NT attorney general, who on Tuesday was stood aside as corrections minister, told Four Corners he had not seen the video of guards teargassing the youths and remarking they would “pulverise the fuckers”.

Even if he had not seen it, he had heard the exact words, seen them printed in black and white in Bath’s report, heard them repeated back to him at press conferences and in media reports.

Presented with evidence of abuse allegations at press conferences, or questioned after yet another escape or incident, Elferink has followed a pattern. The government does not resile from its tough on crime approach, these “little darlings”, these “thugs”, these “grown men essentially”, have brought it upon themselves with their repeated criminal behaviour.

Speaking on ABC radio on Tuesday morning, newly elected Labor senator and Indigenous leader Pat Dodson said the “tough on crime attitude” could make it difficult for a royal commission to expose the real root of the problem, “because it’s operating within the framework of those existing legal structures”.

Those structures include legislation introduced by Elferink to widen the scope and freedom of mechanical restraints, such as the chair seen on Four Corners.

The bill, proudly introduced by Elferink and which did also increase oversight measures, left the definition of “approved restraints” undefined – allowing new inventions to be easily ushered in.

The Northern Territory goes to an election on 27 August. Facing a predicted heavy defeat, the CLP has pushed its tough on crime approach. It may help – comments on the NT News Facebook post about the Four Corners program were decidedly less sympathetic towards the children than the reaction elsewhere in the country. Darwin residents have lived with the consequences of high rates of property crime, car theft, break-ins and assaults for some time. But many comments also made the obvious point that does not justify abuse.

The federal government responded to the Four Corners program immediately by announcing a royal commission. Its response suggested it too was hearing about what went on at Don Dale for the first time, despite all the inquiries, reports and media coverage.

On Tuesday the deputy prime minister, Barnaby Joyce, said he was certain the federal Indigenous affairs minister, Nigel Scullion (a Northern Territory senator), would have acted “had he known about this”.

“The issue we had is that we didn’t know.”

When Malcolm Turnbull expresses his surprise and says the royal commission needs to examine “the culture which allowed it to occur”, that should not be confined to the culture of the detention centre alone.


Helen Davidson

The GuardianTramp

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