Fresh calls to close Don Dale after latest violent incident
Another violent incident at the Don Dale detention centre has sparked widespread criticism of the Northern Territory government for continuing to operate the maligned facility, a year after the royal commission called for its closure.
The NT government said on Wednesday it couldn’t guarantee there wouldn’t be a repeat of the previous night, after young detainees allegedly attacked a staff member, stole keys and burned down the facility’s school room.
It was the second time in three weeks that young detainees had stolen keys and caused damage, and was the latest in a long line of violence at the centre in recent years.
All 25 young people are now being held in the Darwin police watch house, and their lawyers are applying for immediate bail, saying it is an unsafe environment, the ABC reported.
Reports that the centre has been closed indefinitely were incorrect, Guardian Australia has confirmed, and it’s understood police are likely to return the unburned majority of the centre to the control of Territory Families once inspections are completed.
NT barrister, John Lawrence SC – a former crown prosecutor who also worked for Aboriginal legal services, and is a former director of the Law Council of Australia and the NT Bar association – represented one of the families involved in the royal commission.
Lawrence said he’s not surprised the children appeared to be trying to “burn Don Dale down”.
“I don’t think there is anything other than the bleeding obvious. It’s not a proper place for a human being to be.”
Don Dale is a retired adult prison, widely acknowledged to be unsuitable for children, and a chief recommendation of the royal commission into the protection and detention of children in the NT was to close it down as soon as possible.
However construction of its proposed $70m replacement is not scheduled to begin until the middle of next year.
“There shouldn’t be any children in an advanced country interned in a condemned derelict former adult male jail, and yet that’s what has been going on since 2014,” Lawrence said.
Lawrence said it was “obvious” the only reason it occurred in Australia was because the detainees were Aboriginal.
“Because there’s no way in the world white children would be kept in a condemned former adult jail. That’s reality.”
The Human Rights Law Centre said the NT government had been “all words and little action” after agreeing to all 226 royal commission recommendations.
“We keep getting told that things are improving at Don Dale – we are either being lied to, or authorities don’t actually understand what is going on there,” said Amnesty International Australia’s Rodney Dillon.
The general manager of youth justice for the Territory Families department, Brent Warren, told media in Darwin on Wednesday there had been “significant focus on making the [Don Dale] facility as good as it can be”, increasing training and staff numbers, and making structural improvements to the centre.
“Territory Families has inherited a retired adult prison, which was retired a number of years ago, and we’re trying to make do with what we’ve got.”
He said there were fewer detainees than before, but the cohort is “complex”.
Colleen Gwynne, the NT Children’s Commissioner, told the Australian she had viewed CCTV footage and the initial assault was extremely violent and premeditated.
Around half the youths surrendered to police within two hours, but officers deployed tear gas to disperse others who allegedly gained access to building equipment and used an angle grinder in an attempt to cut through an outer perimeter fence.
The royal commission recommended tear gas be banned inside juvenile facilities.
Warren said Territory Families had ended its use in day to day operations, and NT Police commander Matt Hollamby said it was used “from a distance” on Tuesday night.
“It was a very dynamic situation, the decision was made at the time to prevent the youth from escaping and in real terms to minimise the need to use force on escaping detainees.”
The Strong Grandmothers of the Central Desert, a group of senior Indigenous women campaigning against child removals and for greater Indigenous involvement in addressing social issues, laid blame with Territory Families and its minister, Dale Wakefield.
“There is a duty of care,” said the group.
“Those kids have been moved to the watch house which is not fit for children. We need to know if the kids are OK. Who’s looking after their safety and wellbeing in the cells now?”
Dylan Voller, a former longterm detainee at Don Dale who was awarded compensation from the NT government by the Supreme Court for his treatment, said the recent behaviour of those now inside was a “cry for help”.
“Kids don’t act up for nothing – they act up when they are scared and they can’t be heard,” he said.
Gerry Georgatos, suicide prevention researcher, said Don Dale housed some of Australia’s most vulnerable children, but didn’t adequately support them.
“They need validation and trauma recovery rather than being hit with compounding trauma where their distress or aberrant behaviour – cries for help – are responded to with abominable maltreatment and abuses such as being locked down, caged, for 15 hours a day, day after day.”
The NT police association accused Territory Families of putting its officers in danger, and the public service union criticised the decision to keep building equipment and angle grinders in a room accessible with keys.
Two independent MPs, both of whom were former Country Liberal party members, called for youth justice to be handed back to Corrections, for new facilities to be built away from residential areas, and for a “balanced tough love” approach.
The Territory Families department took control of youth justice from the Corrections department in 2016.
“Anything less than a tough response will be viewed with contempt by young tough offenders,” said Robyn Lambley and Terry Mills.
Lawrence rejected calls for more “tough on crime” action around youth justice and crime issues in the NT.
“These shallow interpretations are politically motivated, they don’t bear scrutiny and quite frankly they’re boring,” he said.
“It’s about time we moved on to something that is intelligent, effective and less costly.”
Violence broke out at Don Dale Dentention Centre in Darwin a year after the royal commission recommended it be closed.
“Kids don’t act up for nothing,” said formerDon Dale detainee Dylan Voller.