As the royal commission continues in the Northern Territory, a culture of brutal dysfunction emerges. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Don Dale guard Conan Zamolo’s disturbing testimony

Conan Zamolo in an image posted on his now closed Facebook page.
Conan Zamolo in an image posted on his now closed Facebook page.

Before Monday, the world hadn’t heard of Conan Lord Zamolo. A search of his name yielded nothing. His Facebook page – a stream of shirtless photographs and homophobia – was innocently open, a common enough setting for a person unaccustomed to scrutiny.

But by the afternoon, following hours of questioning, all that had changed. His social media accounts were closed or made private, and an internet search now prominently returned his image above lurid headlines: “Snapchat videos show Don Dale officer asking children for oral sex.”

Conan Zamolo began working as a youth justice officer at the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in 2012. He did so with no requisite work experience, either with children or in correction facilities. His training, he said, was inadequate. For a while, he had worked for a security firm in Adelaide. A large but “chubby” man, Zamolo grew self-conscious of his body and began lifting serious weights – he seemed as committed to the gym as he was to documenting his physique.

In separate interviews with police and the office of the children’s commissioner, Zamolo said of all the guards employed in his time there, he probably had the best rapport with the detainees. He liked them, he said, and had earned their trust by being straight with them. Other guards, he said, were indifferent; were happy to sit around and watch television. “It was just a pay cheque for them,” he said.

On Monday, Zamolo fronted the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory. His hair held back with a headband, a tattoo scrawled across his neck, Zamolo wore a shirt that could barely contain his body. In September 2015, police had found illegally sourced steroids in his home. Zamolo explained that the vials were to supplement his negligible testosterone levels – which caused serious lethargy – and that he had sourced them from a “mate” because multiple doctors had refused to prescribe it. “I did try the doctors,” he told a police officer in March last year. “I did try to do the right thing.”

The September 2015 search warrant was executed by police after receiving allegations that Zamolo had filmed Don Dale detainees masturbating in the shower – a claim Zamolo has stridently denied, and for which no evidence was ever found. No charges were laid. When the allegations were first raised with him, Zamolo seemed surprised that the children he had once worked closely with would suggest such a thing. 

But Zamolo’s phone did contain a number of other disturbing videos, which were played during the hearings this week. It was these videos, shot by Zamolo himself, that ensured his infamy. Although the videos seemed to have been filmed with a childish complacency, the legal counsel for boys included in the images suggested it was something other – a particularly dark form of intimidation. In one video, a group of guards and detainees can be seen excitedly encouraging one boy to consume a pellet of something from a table. It is allegedly peacock shit. Zamolo can be heard bellowing: “Go, go, go. Eat it. Eat it. Eat that shit. Eat that little bit of shit.” It resembled a school playground, if the patrolling teachers had the maturity and professionalism of their charges.

In another video, Zamolo enters the centre’s bathroom before coming across a cubicle door containing a urinating boy. Still filming, but the screen now black, Zamolo can be heard saying: “Oi, what are you doing, you little gay dog?”

In perhaps the most disturbing footage, taken as Zamolo enters a cell, the guard says to two boys, both in bed: “Which one of you boys wanna suck my dick?” And then: “Oi, come suck my dick, you little cunt.” The boys, still under their sheets, call Zamolo a “motherfucker”. They ask to be left alone.

Zamolo had taken these videos in breach of a prohibition on Don Dale staff taking their phones on the floor, but evidence this week suggested the policy was rarely enforced. Nor were others.

Counsel assisting the royal commission Peter Callaghan asked Zamolo why he thought that this behaviour – which Zamolo testified would have been obviously improper in any other circumstance – would be acceptable in Don Dale. After each video aired, Callaghan put the same question to Zamolo: What was it about Don Dale?

Zamolo didn’t come close to answering the question. Regarding the video in the toilet, Zamolo offered that he was just “familiarising” himself with his new smartwatch. His other defence was to suggest the behaviour captured in the videos was just “goofing” and a way of cultivating rapport with his detainees.

“There’s a difference between goofing around and doing something as clearly inappropriate as that which was occurring here – would you accept that?” Callaghan asked Zamolo.

“Yeah,” he replied. “At… at the time it was just… it was just seen as goofing around. I can see now it was inappropriate.”

“And that’s what I’m trying to get at,” Callaghan said, “is why was it, do you think, that you didn’t see it as clearly as you do now?”

“I don’t know. It was just, like I said, it was just something that the kids would do. I don’t know the basis. It was just… just mucking around.”

On Thursday, the head of the professional standards unit of the NT’s Department of Correctional Services, David Ferguson, told the commission a “boys’ club mentality” had been allowed to develop at Don Dale.

Ferguson had earlier prepared a report into Don Dale that found a group of guards who called themselves “Jimmy’s boys” had set up around former deputy general manager James Sizeland. Ferguson found some suggestion they were regular drug users or dealers.

Ferguson also found staff had given up complaining about these guards, had begun to feel the detention facility was “falling apart” and that there was no direction or support. He found guards abusing detainees, throwing fruit at them and in one instance covering a camera before threatening to bash a boy in his cell.

He found that the poor behaviour of detainees was preventable: “It should be obvious to anyone that if you treat youth like animals by not communicating, threatening, belittling them, withholding food and other entitlements, they will react in an aggressive way.”

This didn’t seem to occur to Zamolo – who we are not suggesting was part of the group described by Ferguson. Nor did it seem to have occurred to him that some of the detainees may have been sexually abused on the outside, and that sexual references – however intended – could be damaging. A colleague of Zamolo’s pointed that out this week: “Look, any sort of sexual connotation in regards to referring to a young person as a gay person or, you know, ‘Come and do this sexually to me’, or whatever, is just not appropriate, especially if that person has been abused on the outside. As everyone knows, it doesn’t help mentally for that particular person to recovery in any way in the short time that they have.”

Grunting and guileless, Zamolo didn’t do himself any favours on the stand. There seemed a kind of innocence in his failure to grasp the sordid imputations of the footage. There was little pre-emptive defence. The sum of the headlines that followed did not merely suggest a gross unprofessionalism, but something more perverse. 

Zamolo is owed some fairness. During the hearings, there was no evidence – or even suggestion – of physical sexual abuse. In isolation, the footage might suggest depravity, but what emerged in the evidence was a dim-witted, immature and poorly trained man whose vulgarity, in his mind, constituted rapport. Callaghan’s line of questioning never assumed degeneracy in Zamolo, it was interested in the kind of culture that would permit, or even encourage, such gross professional misconduct.

In Zamolo’s mind, homophobia was currency, ingratiation. So, too, the rampant swearing and play-fighting. It’s all rapport, mere goofing – that word again. Wherein lay the story: how could this man, with no experience and little training, be allowed to persist with such notions? Zamolo wanted to be liked, he said; he wanted to be good to the “kids”. It appeared he did so by assuming a similar level of maturity as them. And it is damning, but not for the reasons suggested by the immediate news stories.

“Zamolo was a clown,” Leonard de Souza said this week. De Souza was a senior youth justice officer, whose job it was to design training programs and refine the centre’s standard operating procedures.

Zamolo himself seems to agree. Regarding the videos, he told police last year: “I’m an idiot and I joke around and prank a lot, even at my new job. That’s all I do is prank and just… and goof around and be stupid, and that’s all that is. It’s just me being stupid and – how the kids would put it? – being kid-brained.”

Kid-brained. This was the state of Don Dale after about 2009, when – according to the evidence of de Souza – the quality of management and training declined starkly. De Souza testified that he was “embarrassed” by outdated and irrelevant operating procedures, and the indifference he faced when he demanded reform. He said he was disheartened at the scrapping of certain programs he had helped implement – music, electronics and gym, for instance – and the fact that understaffing was offered as a reason to never drill the fire evacuation procedures. De Souza also believed that the quality of staff had declined. Conditions were deteriorating, both physically and professionally.

“This sort of behaviour continued and there was a big push from myself to [make changes] – especially the play-fighting, which was really, really out of control,” de Souza said this week. “The name-calling, it was quite common in that area, trying to control behaviour by name-calling and trying to build a rapport which is unprofessional with a detainee, against code of conduct, against all the training I’ve delivered – yeah, absolutely disgraceful.”

There were much worse allegations than play-fighting. One former detainee gave evidence that some guards would arrange fights between the children, rewarding their participation with soft drinks and fast food. De Souza testified that some guards taught the children how to kick and punch. Zamolo, in his 2016 interview with police, denied he had been involved in organised fights, but said he had heard of it happening, and believed he knew one of the guards who was involved.

This week the commission heard of a female guard at Don Dale punching a detainee, and calling her a “fucking slut”. She was counselled and her employment maintained. De Souza was amazed.

De Souza gave another incredible bit of evidence alleging an Orwellian ploy had been executed by management. Following a 2011 riot, de Souza felt that control was being lost through a combination of poor training and professionalism. He said senior management decided to increase their powers by merely altering a section’s name. The name of the back cells – used for detainees if they had been violent – was changed to the Behaviour Modification Unit. The reason, de Souza alleged, was that the designation “cell” was strictly defined in legislation. The Youth Justice Act stipulated they were to be used only for violent detainees. By abandoning “cell” and replacing it with the conveniently flexible “BMU”, staff could condemn detainees to the area for any infraction. 

It was the Behaviour Modification Unit that staff have variously called a “shithole” and “unbearable”. Zamolo testified that he would’ve “lost it” himself if he had been confined there.

Earlier, the commission heard allegations of abusive and inappropriate behaviour from guards in other centres across the Northern Territory. One had attracted 18 complaints over four years. This was a guard who had allegedly flirted with a female detainee and explained to his colleagues that she was “legal” – a reference to the age of consent. He had been expansive on the subject of a young male detainee’s “well hung” penis, and been cautioned for writing an internet post that was derogatory towards former detainees. Elsewhere, he had allegedly thrown a chair in anger, yelling at detainees to, “Fuck up, you little dickheads.” The guard was briefly moved away from working with children, but regained his position. The former acting general manager of NT youth detention, John Fattore, described him as a “loose cannon”.

As the commission continued, four past detainees of Don Dale won a civil suit against the NT government and received a $53,000 payout. The suit was inspired by their tear-gassing in the shambolic response to the 2014 riot, footage of which featured in the Four Corners episode that prompted this commission. Guards were forbidden from being interviewed for that program. The testimony they are now giving, though, paints the picture of a violent and juvenile culture – of a near-anarchic system, where the distinction between inmate and warder was often blurred.

Presiding over the civil suit, Justice Judith Kelly found guards had wrongfully applied shackles and spit hoods to detainees, and caused “considerable distress and humiliation”.

But Kelly found this was not “knowingly malicious, violent, cruel, insolent, high-handed or an abuse of power or indeed knowingly wrongful at all”. In the context of the culture inside Don Dale, these were just “unnecessary precautions motivated by fear”.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 25, 2017 as "The men who made Don Dale".

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Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s associate editor.

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