Behind high walls

There is no sign to mark the turnoff to Cleveland Youth Detention Centre in Townsville. The road that snakes in front of it is only guttered on one side. The bitumen breaks away to the left, into the dry earth of a vacant block. This is a forgotten place. 

Inside, behind high wire fences, is another sorry chapter in our treatment of young prisoners.

A boy sits at a table, refusing to shower. He is neither abusive nor intimidating. A staff member radios for back-up. Fourteen people respond. Five guards force the boy to the ground, cuff his hands and ankles. One guard uses a Hoffman rescue knife to cut his clothes from his body. The tool is designed to cut down people after they have hanged themselves.

The boy is left for an hour, naked and shackled. Five days earlier, he had attempted suicide. The on-call manager erroneously describes him as “extremely aggressive”.

In the past year, children here have attempted suicide 31 times. The reports describe “ligatures around their necks”.

Elsewhere in the centre, eight Indigenous children are held in isolation for 10 days. For the first 48 hours, they are not allowed to leave their cells. For the remaining eight days, they are locked up and alone for stretches of 22 hours.

At the prison’s swimming pool, private guards arrive with an unmuzzled dog on a long leash. As a girl tries to get out of the pool, the guard lets out the leash. The dog runs forward, barking, pulled up onto its hind legs. Apparently these private guards do not have authority to touch the children.

In searches, it is alleged, guards force children to undergo a program of “squatting and lifting” banned in adult prisons. Young girls are told to lift their breasts for inspection; young boys to hold up their genitals as they squat down and are checked.

Another prisoner is mocked for his skin, a child humiliated by adult guards. “They used to call me ‘black dog’, ‘caged monkey’, ‘abo’. All sorts of filthy names. ‘Motherfucker.’ It used to hurt me.”

He says he was beaten until it hurt to stand. He says a guard spat in his food, then called through on an intercom to taunt him with this fact.

There is closed-circuit television footage of some of this abuse. The Queensland Youth Detention Inspectorate has inquired into other parts.

A recommendation was made to review the treatment of the boy cuffed and stripped naked by guards. The centre responded that it did not have the staff to carry out the investigation.

The government knows about this mistreatment. These accounts are drawn from reports sitting on its desks. They are only public because they have been released under freedom of information laws.

There is a crisis in youth detention in this country, a crisis of numbers and of conditions. A generation of prisoners – too many of them, and too many of them First Australians – are being brutalised by a system in a state of deep dysfunction.

Cleveland Youth Detention Centre is not a rogue institution, just as Don Dale in the Northern Territory is not unique in its cruelty. Both facilities reflect the realities of youth incarceration.

The difference is that Australia has now seen over their high walls. We have been confronted by a punitive system apparently built to protect us. It is a reminder of how cynically narrow the royal commission announced last month really was.

No doubt there are fiendish problems among the young people who find themselves imprisoned. But those problems are made only worse by a system that tortures children, that punishes instead of rehabilitates. We have to ask, is it worth it?


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 20, 2016 as "Behind high walls".

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