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Despite a 2016 royal commission, conditions in youth detention in the Northern Territory remain cruelly punitive, exacerbated by even harsher restrictions due to Covid-19.  By Esther Linder.

Children isolated and ‘fed through a hatch’ at Don Dale

Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in the Northern Territory.
Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in the Northern Territory.
Credit: Supplied

Donna Hunter is concise on the phone. Her voice cracks only slightly when she calls for an end to a system that has harmed her grandson. “What are we actually thinking?” she asks. “What – are we going to wait for the unthinkable to happen before they do anything about it?”

Donna’s grandson has been incarcerated three times in the past year and a half, each time at the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre. He was first arrested for stealing by police at age 10, but Donna stresses his understanding of harm is only that done to other people – not the sense of community harm as punished by a judge.

After being denied bail due to a lack of electronic monitoring devices at the Palmerston watch house outside Darwin, he was again sent to Don Dale for three weeks last year.

Seven days of that stint were spent in total isolation as part of the centre’s Covid-19 protocols. This has become common practice. Therapeutic care was limited, and he was often kept in his cell for 23 hours a day. The facilities are old, unhygienic and in need of repair.

 

“They’ve got issues, trauma,” Donna says. “They need therapeutic care and they need a bit of love and attention – not to be locked up by themselves for hours.”

She says her grandson was fed through a hatch while in isolation. “They’re not in a concentration camp. They’re supposed to be rehabilitating the children.”

Overcrowding, extended periods of isolation, stringent bail requirements and a lack of adequate staffing throughout the youth justice system have been identified by multiple sources as creating conditions for potentially fatal incidents to occur in youth detention. Most if not all of these issues were raised in some capacity during the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory in 2016.

One of the first findings of the royal commission was that the detention centres in Darwin and Alice Springs were not fit for purpose, with conditions described as “severe, prison-like and unhygienic”. The authors noted that the facilities did not meet either international or Australian guidelines for holding children on many occasions, and that they created unsafe working environments for staff.

Community advocates, the Northern Territory Office of the Children’s Commissioner and families of children who have been through the system all describe an abrogation of the duty of care by the Northern Territory government, one that has had a traumatising effect on hundreds of children.

The arrival of Covid-19 made things worse. The Northern Territory’s borders were largely closed to the rest of Australia throughout the Delta wave of 2021. As of December 20, interstate arrivals were no longer required to quarantine on arrival and testing requirements were eventually dropped. Coronavirus case numbers exploded in January with the arrival of Omicron, with the latest seven-day average falling to about 400 new infections a day.

As a result, enforced isolation in cells for up to 23 hours a day in both the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre and the Alice Springs Youth Detention Centre has become a method of dealing with Covid-19. Chronic understaffing within the centres makes appropriate therapeutic care nigh on impossible.

Despite these protocols, nearly one-third of the children detained at Don Dale Youth Detention Centre tested positive for Covid-19 in February, according to the Department of Territory Families, Housing and Communities.

Since then, ongoing lockdowns within both youth justice centres have meant that families are unable to visit in person, services have been suspended and stringent isolation requirements have been maintained.

Monitoring visits from the Office of the Children’s Commissioner in 2020-21 found that both centres lacked a therapeutic framework for operations, while persistent staffing shortages had restricted basic medical and education services. The commissioner’s report found that some children were left for almost 24 hours in solitary confinement while awaiting medical assessment.

The issues in the youth justice system overwhelmingly impact Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. More than 96 per cent of children incarcerated in the Don Dale and Alice Springs centres are Aboriginal, and most are boys. Many with experience of the system describe a deep-running apathy towards Indigenous issues in the Territory, as well as in broader Australia, particularly when it comes to youth detention. A representative of one of the minors incarcerated at Don Dale labelled the situation as institutional and ongoing racism.

John B. Lawrence, a barrister who represented two former detainees of Don Dale at the royal commission and a former director of the Law Council of Australia, told The Saturday Paper: “This could only happen to First Nations people. None of this could ever have occurred if these were white children.”

The Department of Territory Families, Housing and Communities’ response to a series of questions from The Saturday Paper stated that “all young people receive services that are appropriate to them and are provided in a culturally safe manner”. The written statement noted face-to-face visits from support services not onsite were paused during Covid-19 outbreaks but that virtual visits and assessments were available.

However, there is evidence from a number of families, including Donna’s, that the services available are failing to provide even basic care to children such as her grandson.

Following the images released in 2016 of children being placed in spit hoods and manual restraints and the ABC’s Four Corners investigation into the youth justice system, then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull announced a formal inquiry. The Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory made 147 findings and 227 recommendations.

One of these was to ban the use of spit hoods in youth detention facilities. A recent investigation by the NT News found that police were still using the devices on minors in police watch houses, often the first step for a child entering police custody and a location that is not included under the ban. Advocates across the country have excoriated the NT government and police for making use of such a loophole.

Another key recommendation of the royal commission was the closure of the Don Dale centre. This was not adopted by the government, which has since spent about $3 million upgrading the centre with new CCTV systems and other improvements. John B. Lawrence notes the site is a former adult prison and intrinsically unsuited to holding children.

The royal commission also recommended the age of criminal responsibility be raised from 10 to 12 years in the Northern Territory, with children under 14 exempted from serving time in detention unless under serious circumstances. If this were enacted, Donna’s grandson would never have been incarcerated.

In May 2021, the Northern Territory’s Labor government passed legislative reforms that automatically revoked bail in cases of serious breaches by offenders. The presumption of bail for first offenders was also scrapped.

David Woodroffe, the principal legal officer at the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency, described the situation in youth detention as a “continued disaster of injustice” directly linked to the government’s lack of action following the royal commission.

He noted that Aboriginal children are being sent to detention at increasingly younger ages, which he sees as a consequence of the “punitive” bail laws. “The failure to enact the recommendations of the royal commission has exacerbated the deficiencies in youth justice,” he said.

A plan available online from the Department of Territory Families, Housing and Communities, entitled “Back on Track: Cutting Youth Crime”, describes measures taken by the department as ensuring that young people who “commit crimes face the consequences of their actions”.

Statements from the Office of the Children’s Commissioner note that “the detrimental impact of solitary confinement on young people is well known” and have urged the department to find alternatives to remanding children in detention.

Donna’s grandson was on remand in Don Dale. He is yet to be sentenced. As part of the push against the youth justice system’s failings, Donna is part of a community action group that protests regularly to call for the closure of Don Dale. She says the royal commission’s findings have been ignored and that the government has failed her grandson.

Donna remembers a phone call from her grandson during his three weeks in Don Dale, when she was unable to visit due to lockdowns.

“Hello, Nanna. I’ve missed you. I’m okay, Nanna, don’t worry. Don’t worry,” Donna recalls him saying.

“It just breaks your heart. We cannot wait for a child to die.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 23, 2022 as "Failing the children".

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Esther Linder is a photojournalist and The Saturday Paper’s digital content assistant.

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