The use of Guantanamo Bay-style hoods, restraints and tear gas at the notorious Don Dale Youth Detention Centre was just the tip of the iceberg for the child inmates of the Northern Territory facility, the final report of the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the NT has revealed.
In a grim picture of life inside NT juvenile justice centres, the commission revealed children as young as 13 were strip searched, deprived of food, water and a toilet, kept in isolation, bribed to fight each other, subjected to racism and verbal abuse, and given “wedgies” as a means of control by justice officers.
The Commission’s final report was released early this month, presenting wide-ranging findings and recommendations.
Some matters have been referred to police.
In its report, the Commission said force used by youth justice officers ranged from choke holds to throwing or tackling children to the ground and applying pressure to a child’s genitals
“The Commission was required to consider whether treatment in youth detention may have breached the law,” it said.
“The Commission has found that many of the uses of force outlined … may have breached the law as is outlined in this report.”
The Commission said strip searches of inmates were frequent.
Between January 2007 and June 2015, 4898 strip searches were recorded as having been conducted at Don Dale. Only 29 resulted in contraband being found.
At the Alice Springs Youth Detention Centre from November 2008 to August 2016, 1478 strip searches were recorded, only 12 finding contraband.
Girls and young women were also inappropriately physically handled, restrained and stripped of their clothes by male youth justice officers.
They were also subjected to “inappropriate sexual attention” by staff, the report said.
It said the use of the spit hood, the restraint chair and tear gas were “symptomatic of a youth justice system in crisis” and recommended they be banned from youth facilities.
The Commission said the failures of the NT system were “shocking and systemic” and were known and ignored “at the highest levels”.
“Perpetuating a failed system that hardens young people, does not reduce reoffending and fails to rehabilitate young lives and set them on a new course is a step backwards,” Commissioners Mick Gooda and Margaret White said in a joint statement.
Their key recommendations include:
- Closing the current Don Dale Youth Detention Centre and High Security Unit — a recommendation the NT Government is set to implement.
- Raising the age of criminal responsibility to 12 and only allowing children under 14 years to be detained for serious crimes.
- A 10-year strategy for child protection.
- A shift in the youth justice system to more therapeutic approaches.
- Increasing the role of Aboriginal organisations in child protection, youth justice and detention.