Kids on country, not in custody

When I first saw footage on Facebook of Darwin’s Don Dale detention centre in flames after a rebellion I was heartbroken and very scared for the kids inside. The video showed riot police entering the prison with shotguns and tear gas. This was despite the fact the recent Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory said clearly that tear gas should never be used against children, and that Don Dale should be closed once and for all.

I knew what the kids were going through, what they must have been feeling. They would be sick of the abuse, sick of being held in cages. They would be terrified of what would happen to them, as punishment, after the prison burnt.

The media and politicians have focused on the violent acts of a small number of people who took part in last week’s rebellion. These actions are a cry for help. They are desperately trying to get someone to pay attention to what is going on inside there. I don’t condone any harm done to guards, but I won’t turn my back on these kids, either.

Where is the outrage from politicians that the guards and administrators responsible for torture in Don Dale have never been brought to justice? No one was ever charged, no one was ever even sacked. The message is clear – it’s okay to brutalise black kids without any consequences. If we step out of line, though, they will destroy our lives.

Some of these kids have been denied the ability to contact lawyers, or anyone who might help. I recently had a mother of one of the detainees ringing me up, asking me for help and advice. Her 12-year-old son was being refused calls to lawyers and visits from family members. A young child, complaining about being stripped naked, being threatened as well. I can tell you from experience that being a small child getting stripped like that does serious damage. I am still living with the mental health consequences of the damage.

There were riots when I was in Don Dale, too, and I took part in them as a young kid. If we didn’t riot, if we didn’t bring attention to the situation that way, all of these abuses would still be hidden out of sight. No one would know what goes on in Don Dale.

We brought the truth out into the light, but it seems that people still don’t care. Why are we even still talking about Don Dale? This facility was condemned in the eyes of the world – first by Four Corners, and then by a royal commission, which exposed the terrible torture and abuse being perpetrated against child inmates like myself.

But despite all the money spent on the royal commission, all the witnesses, all the recommendations, despite the election promises of Chief Minister Michael Gunner, these children are still being held in an old, condemned male adult prison that makes you feel like you are a caged animal. They are still being held for lengthy periods in solitary confinement.

I spoke with George Newhouse, a lawyer from the National Justice Project, about what happened inside Don Dale. Newhouse campaigns for black children in detention and also for refugees. He explained to me how the recent Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse also condemned youth prisons as facilities that will always have a tendency towards secrecy and abuse.

He told me the royal commission found “there is a tendency of ‘total institutions’ like detention centres to constitute alternative moral universes for their staff and inmates”.

“This tendency can insulate perpetrators, their victims and third-party observers of abuse from structures in civil society that might otherwise inhibit the abuse, speed up its detection and enhance responses to it.

“These institutions embrace degrading assumptions about inmates and this tendency can endorse the psychological, physical and sexual abuse of children. If you operate detention centres as a moral universe where children are seen and treated like beasts then they will fulfil that prophecy and they respond to their oppressors with the same brutality that is meted out to them.”

Statistics from October this year show that 19 of the 25 children and youths held in Don Dale are on remand – they have not been convicted of any crime. Every single one of those children is Aboriginal. I agree with Johnny Lawrence, a barrister who has represented some of my friends and who always speaks the truth about what we suffer. He told Guardian Australia that “there’s no way in the world white children would be kept in a condemned former adult jail – that’s reality”.

I’ve got a young cousin who’s in Don Dale right now. He was taken up there from Alice Springs, almost 1500 kilometres away. His family can’t visit because it’s just too far to travel. That’s one reason why the young people in there have reached their breaking point. They’re getting separated from their culture, separated from their land and everything they know. Then they are expected to just behave, just listen to adults bark orders at them. To sit in cells for hours on end and cop abuse. It’s only a matter of time before something happens again.

Growing up black in the Northern Territory, these kids are still living under the Intervention laws that treat Aboriginal people as second-class citizens. They have no jobs to look forward to – all there is is the government’s Community Development Program that makes people work for less than minimum wage, paid on a BasicsCard. The Australian Council of Trade Unions has called this a racist scheme, similar to slave labour. The government has said that, ultimately, it wants to close down remote communities. But there is nothing for these kids in the towns either, for many it’s just homelessness and despair. There’s lots of money for police and prisons but no serious investment in opportunities for our youth. What they do have is family, but years in detention centres rob them even of this. No matter how much these kids are demonised, though, I will never give up on the idea that every child deserves a future.

When we managed to finally draw attention to what was happening inside Don Dale, in 2015 and 2016, there were protests around Australia. I was still in prison then and many people demanded that I be set free. When I did come out, I was determined to use my voice for change. I have tried my best to support families with kids still inside. This week in Sydney I will be speaking at Macquarie University about my ideas for change. I don’t claim to be a big leader, or that I’m better than anyone else, but I have suffered from this system and I’m passionate about making a change.

My message is simple – kids on country, not in custody. This is the slogan that my nannas and other respected elders in Alice Springs have been rallying around. I support them 100 per cent. The Strong Grandmothers of the Central Desert held a rally last week in Alice Springs after the police went in and tear-gassed the kids. They are always watching and caring for us and they have the solutions.

There are plenty of kids who are traumatised, who will act out and hurt other people. These actions are not acceptable, but the answer will never be prison. They need love. They need support, guidance and opportunities. They come from a beautiful culture, the oldest continuing culture in the world, with so much to teach about how we can live in harmony together and with the land. But, right now, their elders have been pushed aside by a government hungry for land and power.

I look at the refugee children our government locks up on Nauru and in detention centres in Australia, feeling the same suicidal thoughts that I felt when I was locked up. I believe the Australian government uses brutality against children for their own political ends. To show its power, it punishes black and brown children, to show that anyone outside of the typical white “Aussie” culture can be punished without mercy.

The Grandmothers put forward some important demands and I will be raising my voice in support when I speak at the forum. Shut down Don Dale now. All children on remand must be released immediately and returned to country. The NT government must drop all charges against children resisting these inhumane conditions. The police and guards responsible for using tear gas must be stood down. The violence against our children must stop. There must be no more solitary confinement. Families must be able to contact and visit their children at all times and must be notified of any incidents. Territory Families Minister Dale Wakefield needs to resign.

Ultimately, we need all youth detention centres shut down and resources and power given to Aboriginal community leaders to develop alternative programs and facilities based on country, to help children who are caught up in violence and trauma to heal.

The change won’t come from these governments. It will only come from us, standing together and fighting for change. I am proud to raise my voice as part of that struggle.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 17, 2018 as "Kids on country, not in custody".

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Dylan Voller is a proud Aboriginal activist and former detainee of Don Dale.

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