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Documents obtained under freedom of information laws show how NT corrections officers violated official procedures at Don Dale. By John Power.

Exclusive: Don Dale training manual revealed

Northern Territory corrections staff broke multiple department rules governing the use of tear gas when they deployed it against a group of teenagers in a now infamous incident at Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in 2014, exclusively obtained training materials reveal.

Tear gas training provided to staff by the NT’s correctional services department outlines several procedures that were clearly violated or ignored when guards used the agent against six juvenile detainees, footage of which sparked an ongoing royal commission and civil lawsuit.

“The Chemical Agent Training Course”, obtained by The Saturday Paper under freedom of information laws, prohibits the use of tear gas – also known as CS gas – on people not involved in a disturbance or detainees who are “medically unsuitable”, and requires that compliant parties be allowed to evacuate – all guidelines that were flouted during the events at Don Dale.

The rare insight into the training of people who manage detainees, including children, runs to more than 50 pages, and covers a range of areas including the history of chemical agents and their typical effects, and procedures for authorisation, safe use, storage and decontamination.

“The management of certain prisoners may at times necessitate the use of particular interventions where all other options have been exhausted,” reads an opening slide of the course.

Later, a summary reads: “Ensure you can justify the use of CS gas.”

Manual contradicts official argument

They are measured words, but ones the NT government unambiguously failed to live up to at Don Dale, even though it continues to argue that its tear-gassing of juveniles there was legally justified.

Under a section titled “Operational responsibilities” staff are taught that gas must not be used on “prisoners who are compliant or physically restrained” or “non involved” in a disturbance, or those who are “medically unsuitable.” Apart from the stipulations directly relevant to the actions of staff at Don Dale, the guidelines also state that gas should not be used as a form of punishment or in unsuitable weather conditions.

Guards resorted to tear gas in 2014 during an incident at the facility in which one juvenile detainee used interior fittings to try to smash his way out of an isolation unit after escaping from his unlocked cell.

Five of the teens who were gassed were securely locked in their cells at the time, however, and at least two were peacefully playing cards. In footage of the incident aired on the ABC’s Four Corners in July, the teens can be seen backing into their cells to escape, crying and gasping for air. Two of those affected had asthma, making their exposure to the gas potentially dangerous.

Corrections staff are taught in their training about tear gas’s “physiological effects”, which includes nausea, vomiting, dizziness, feelings of suffocation and second-degree burns. The effects of the gas, staff are told, vary according to an individual’s tolerance to pain, their exposure and their mental state.

The course also contains detours into the history of the ancient Chinese use of ground pepper to incapacitate opponents and Germany’s use of chlorine gas in the First World War. CS gas, corrections staff learn, was first used by the British Army in 1961 during the “War of Liberation” in Cyprus. Staff are directed to complete a 22-question quiz following the course material.

The emergence of the NT government’s training guide appears to contradict its official claims that its use of tear gas in Don Dale was justified. In its defence against a lawsuit filed by four of the teenagers with the Northern Territory Supreme Court, it has argued that staff responded appropriately given that the boys had an earned reputation for being dangerous. Former corrections commissioner Ken Middlebrook, who authorised the use of gas, told the NT Supreme Court in September that a “few moments of discomfort” for the inmates “was a small price to pay” for bringing the main instigator under control.

Potential for legal action

But George Newhouse, principal solicitor of the National Justice Project, told The Saturday Paper that the revelations of the training course could have significant legal ramifications.

“I think it is inappropriate to ever use tear gas on children at all, and then if they have breached their guidelines, then I think there are implications for both criminal and civil law in the circumstances,” he said.

“If it’s true that they haven’t complied with the guidelines, then that might amount to an assault or leave authorities open to a negligence claim.”

The plaintiffs, who were aged 15, 16 and 17 at the time and cannot be named for legal reasons, are seeking damages on the grounds that their treatment was unreasonable, unauthorised and unnecessary, amounting to assault and battery. The teenagers’ lawyer Kathleen Foley has argued that no legislation authorises the use of tear gas at youth detention centres and that Don Dale staff may have violated the territory’s Weapons Control Act. The lawsuit also claims that the treatment of the juveniles after the tear-gassing, during which they were handcuffed, hooded and moved to an adult prison, was unjustified.

The parties are currently awaiting the final outcome in the case after making their final submissions in October.

“As we’ve seen, tear-gassing children can all too readily become a form of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment,” the director of legal advocacy at Human Rights Law Centre, Ruth Barson, told The Saturday Paper.

“Detention centre staff should be required to go through proper training in child-friendly de-escalation techniques – they should know how to respond appropriately in difficult situations,” she said. “It’s hard to imagine any circumstances which would justify the extreme and very dangerous measure of using tear gas on children.”

Commission evidence

A royal commission, launched by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in direct response to the Four Corners report, is also under way to examine the overall conditions of youth detention in the Northern Territory. On Monday, Keith Hamburger, a former director-general of Queensland Correction Services who examined conditions within the NT corrections system for the territory government, told the inquiry that he had been so shocked by what he found at Don Dale that he felt compelled to inform NT Commissioner of Correctional Services Mark Payne ahead of his report’s completion. Don Dale, he said, was marked by “disrepair and despair”.

The royal commission, which is headed by Indigenous leader Mick Gooda and former Queensland Supreme Court justice Margaret White, is expected to deliver its final report at the end of March.

The training materials obtained by The Saturday Paper indicate that prison guards are obliged to remove compliant prisoners from an area where tear gas has been used as soon as possible, yet it took eight minutes for the last inmate to be taken out of his cell during the incident at Don Dale. In court, Ken Middlebrook described this as a reasonable time span as inmates had to be removed in pairs as a security precaution.

Correctional staff are also required to check “medical records of prisoners involved (if possible)”, although the guidelines do not explain how such a possibility would be judged.

Former deputy superintendent of Don Dale, James Sizeland, who recommended the use of gas to Middlebrook, and correctional officer Philip Flavell, who sprayed the gas, have both admitted in court to being unaware that two of the teenagers had asthma.

Further, in October, Flavell told the court he had recorded fewer sprays of the gas in his official incident report than in an affidavit submitted to the court, although he denied any attempt to downplay his actions. In September, Wayne Phillips, an Immediate Action Training officer, testified that only “several” of 14 decontamination steps had been carried out on the juveniles affected by gas.

Need for child-friendly techniques

The Saturday Paper understands that the educational materials, described as aimed at ensuring staff have the “knowledge and skills required to safely and effectively” use tear gas, have been in use since at least 2004, with chemical agent training of some description provided since the 1990s. All trainee correctional officers are required to take the course and complete a related assessment. Qualified officers redo the training every three years.

The gas used by the territory government is manufactured by a Florida company, Defense Technology, whose “material safety data sheet” for the department was also obtained by The Saturday Paper via an FOI request.

Two private Australian companies, Sydney-based Grycol International and BLP Group in Brisbane, have supplied the US-made product to the territory.

The legal team representing the teenage plaintiffs declined an opportunity to comment when contacted by The Saturday Paper.

Territory Families, which recently took over responsibility for youth detention from the department of corrections, declined to answer a list of questions, citing the ongoing civil case and royal commission.

“As such, it would be inappropriate to comment,” said director of communications Cheryl Schmidt.

Attempts to reach correctional staff for comment through NT government lawyer Trevor Moses were unsuccessful.

Barson said the department’s failure to follow its own guidelines demonstrated the need for the introduction of child-friendly techniques to control unruly behaviour in youth detention centres.

“The nation was right to be outraged when we saw young boys being tear-gassed on the Four Corners Don Dale exposé earlier this year,” Barson said. “It’s now clear that the officers involved weren’t acting in accordance with their own procedures. This begs the immediate question of what training these officers received in the first place, and the broader question of whether the use of tear gas on children in detention should be permissible at all.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 10, 2016 as "Exclusive: Don Dale training manual revealed". Subscribe here.

John Power
is a Melbourne-based journalist.

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