Don Dale Royal Commission – Australia’s Shame

A revealing Four Corners report last year showing many incidents of mistreatment over a five-year period sparked the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory. Although the $54 million inquiry revealed the atrocities of Don Dale Youth Detention Centre, several Northern Territory Government Ministers were aware of the abuse and chose not to act. Systemic cover-ups brushed over previous inquiries into the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre and so the horrific maltreatment of these vulnerable children continued. Tear gassed, shackled, forced to wear spit hoods, dared to commit violent acts and put in isolation for an unbearable number of hours, the children in Don Dale suffered while NT ministers ignored their plight. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention Against Torture were disregarded in Don Dale with commissioners Margaret White and Mick Gooda stating that, “shocking and systemic failures occurred over many years and were known and ignored at the highest levels.” Indeed, it was not until the Australian public were alerted to the abuse in Don Dale via the Four Corners program that the Government was forced to launch a Royal Commission. In 2012, the Northern Territory Children’s Commissioner Howard Bath investigated the mistreatment of one boy in Don Dale but the report was never made public. Again in 2015, tear gassing, hooding and overuse of solitary confinement were detailed in a 60-page report to the NT government by the Children’s Commissioner Colleen Gwynne, but were ignored. Moreover, even the media was used to hide the truth about Don Dale. Four Corners obtained footage from August 2014 showing six boys being tear gassed after one boy escaped his unlocked cell; in the media, it was reported as a ‘riot’ in which multiple boys had escaped their cells and threatened staff with weapons. How could the Australian public really know the atrocities of Don Dale when various parties were so determined to hide the truth?

The Royal Commission’s final report took 15 months and six volumes to address the changes needed to prevent further mistreatment in Northern Territory detention centres. Most notably, the report concluded that the NT Government should shut down Don Dale within three months. If implemented, this would be the government’s first step to truly accept their failure to protect young people in youth detention centres. As Northern Territory Chief Minister Michael Gunner said, “it will live as a stain on the Northern Territory reputation.” While this may be true, this stain can be learned from and will act as a poignant reminder that such maltreatment must never happen again in Australia. The report also called for a new children’s court and the implementation of an early intervention family support program. These recommendations are terrific as preventative measures which will not only help support communities, but also help identify and aid vulnerable youth before they commit a crime, and thus keep them out of detention centres. Although these recommendations are great preventative measures for keeping children out of detention centres, there must be legislation to protect those children from abuse who do end up in detention. The Royal Commission’s recommendation for the development of a specialized commission for children and young people will act as a safeguard to protect youth in detention and to act on their behalf.  If the government enacts these recommendations, children will no longer be alone in detention without someone to stand up for their rights. Furthermore, the report recommended guards wear body-worn video cameras in youth detention centres. This will ensure that both guards and youth are protected as any maltreatment will be filmed. To ensure that this recommendation is effective, there must be regular checks of this footage by an independent commission for children to ensure that any maltreatment or abuse of power is identified and addressed quickly.

Indeed, even though the Royal Commission was in absolute need and long overdue, it was not without fault. Particularly concerning is the fact that many NT ministers were consulted in devising the terms of reference for the commission. This hinders the independence of the report which is crucial in investigating such a systemic and ingrained violation of human rights. Furthermore, the Australian Government could have put in place safeguards to prevent the longstanding situation at Don Dale years ago. In 1955 the United Nations adopted the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners which was designed to protect basic human rights. Considering Australia is a first-world country it should have immediately met these standards, yet the government chose not to. Further, due to the number of countries failing to meet these standards the UN adopted the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture in 2002 which created a system of inspections and training to improve conditions in prisons and detention centres. Although Australia has signed this convention it has not ratified and thus, is not bound by the convention. Perhaps one of its biggest failures, the abuse at Don Dale may never have occurred if Australia had aligned with the United Nations to ensure there was a system of checks and balances in our youth detention centres to quickly identify and fix issues. As Labor Senator Pat Dodson said, “If we are too tardy in implementing the NT Royal Commission recommendations to meet the needs of young people we will be internationally condemned.” The report has also deemed that the age of criminal responsibility be increased from 10 to 12 years old, and while this may be a step in the right direction the Human Rights Law Centre is demanding that the government raise the age of criminal responsibility to 14 years old claiming it is breaking international law. The United Nations Committee has continuously advocated for the age of criminal responsibility to be set at 14 years which will allow children to be offered the correct guidance and supportive community measures which may prevent them from entering prison later in life. At such a young age, children will be more responsive towards positive community settings and preventative programs that provide them with a positive role model rather than youth detention – an environment that can associate them with a life of crime. Moreover, the tear gassing, denial of basic human amenities, shackling and hooding have been condemned by the commission which deemed these methods as inappropriate behavioural management techniques. This is a welcome recommendation as these techniques are foremost inhumane and cruel, but also ineffective and only prove to cause more behavioural and mental problems in children. Instead, these children need access to psychological help which would allow them to manage their anger and deal with trauma, thus resulting in less combative behaviour. Frequent visits from a qualified psychologist that specializes in youth detention should be made available to children to target the reason behind their crime rather than simply punishing bad behaviour. Chief Minister Michael Gunner has promised $50 million to set up juvenile justice infrastructure and has asked the Commonwealth to match the figure. However, this will not solve the problem of the number of youth in justice centres and this money would be better directed towards preventative strategies that will lessen the number of incarcerated youth. Commissioners White and Gooda said their recommendations would save almost $336 million over the next decade if implemented by the government. Ideally, these savings should be put into the preventative measures suggested in the report and injected at a community level. The Aboriginal Peak Organisation said they want resources for any new larger institutions to be redirected into early intervention and small therapeutic facilities instead, which is certainly a positive move.

Sadly, 35 children were still in Don Dale on the 17th of this month, six of them under 14 years. It is critical that every recommendation from the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Youth in the Northern Territory be implemented immediately. The government must take absolute responsibility for the continuous abuse at Don Dale by ensuring that this never happens to another child in an Australian youth justice centre. As Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said, “while most of the recommendations of this royal commission are matters for the Northern Territory, the Australian Government will now carefully consider those findings directed at the Commonwealth.” The Australian Government must now investigate youth justice centres nationwide, not just in the NT alone, to ensure that our children are receiving the best rehabilitation possible.

Olivia Reed

Olivia studies a Bachelor of Communication (Journalism) at Deakin University in Geelong, Australia.