Structural racism must be at the heart of what is examined by the royal commission into the treatment of children in the Northern Territory’s youth justice system, Indigenous advocates have said.
There has been movement to expand the terms of the royal commission to include children in immigration detention but advocates say the focus needs to be on the mistreatment of Indigenous people.
Cabinet is set to discuss the terms of reference for the commission on Thursday and the prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, says it will be narrowly focused on abuse at Darwin’s Don Dale youth detention centre, exposed by the ABC’s Four Corners program on Monday night.
Amnesty International’s Australian Indigenous rights campaigner, Roxanne Moore, said it was “not a mistake that this is happening to Indigenous children”.
“This is part of how the system is made up and we need to be very clear about how that is contributing to harm,” she said.
Moore said Indigenous children and their families had been raising concerns of abuse for decades, in all Australian jurisdictions, and their complaints should not be sidelined in a royal commission.
“Watching that footage as an Aboriginal woman … it’s hard to describe the feeling but it’s just shocking,” she said. “It’s so frustrating because none of this is new to us. It’s frustrating because we are back to the days where Aboriginal children are being treated like they are less than human.”
Andrew Jackomos, the commissioner for Aboriginal children and young people in Victoria, the only state to have such a position, said the problems seen at Don Dale went beyond the youth justice system to the relationship Australia had with its Indigenous peoples.
“This could only happen in a situation where there’s a lack of recognition, a lack of respect, between Aboriginal people and the rest of Australia,” Jackomos told Radio National.
He said the inquiry should look at issues of racial bias in sentencing and racial bias in policing, and the extent to which that contributed to 96% of children behind bars in the Northern Territory being Indigenous.
“To me it is a much bigger problem than those guards that we saw on TV and those children that we saw being tortured by those guards on TV,” he said.
The Northern Territory’s chief minister, Adam Giles, told Lateline on Tuesday that he took “umbrage” to the suggestion that youth justice policies allowing the use of spit-hoods, teargas, handcuffs, shackling and solitary confinement were “against Aboriginal people”, saying: “There is definitely no policy particularly against Aboriginal people.”
Giles, who on Wednesday praised his attorney general and former corrections minister, John Elferink, for his “amazing” efforts to turn around the justice system, maintained he had not seen the footage and said the royal commission should examine a “culture of coverup”.
Four Corners documented a long-running culture of abuse and “torture”, including one incident where five boys were sprayed with tear gas after one of them got out of his cell.
One of the boys was Dylan Voller, an 18-year-old Aboriginal man whose history of abuse at the hands of guards at the Alice Springs and Don Dale youth detention centres dates back to 2010. His lawyer, Peter O’Brien, wrote to the attorney general, George Brandis, on Wednesday saying the commission should be wholly managed by the commonwealth because the NT government had “lost all credibility” on this issue.
“So much has been exposed as to the sheer incompetence of the territory government in relation to their dealings with children … that it would be extremely poor form and I think very very detrimental to the integrity of the findings to have a royal commission which is other than an entirely commonwealth one,” he said.
O’Brien said he was in the process of applying for parole for Voller, who fears for his safety in an adult jail in Darwin since Four Corners went to air.
Moore said the frequency of complaints by Aboriginal people had made Australia numb to the mistreatment of children in youth justice facilities, but the Don Dale footage had cut through because “there’s rarely footage, there’s rarely evidence”.
“I think that this is a moment as a nation to stand up and say: we can no longer ignore this,” she said.
Debbie Kilroy, founder of prisoner advocacy group Sisters Inside, said the royal commission needed to expose “the fundamental racism that runs through the veins of all these institutions”.
Kilroy told Guardian Australia she wanted the inquiry to include female detainees at Don Dale, saying similar abuse – including the use of spit-hoods – was seen at women’s prisons in Queensland.
“I wasn’t shocked because we hear stories, Aboriginal people talk about these stories, these kids tell these stories but no one believes them,” she said. “Everyone turns away.”