A video has surfaced showing Aboriginal teens being tear-gassed, stripped naked and shackled to a chair.
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA—Australia’s prime minister ordered a sweeping investigation Tuesday into alleged abuse at a juvenile detention centre after video emerged of Aboriginal teens being tear-gassed, stripped naked and shackled to a chair.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said he would launch a Royal Commission — Australia’s highest form of inquiry — and suggested that there had been an institutional cover-up of the scandal. Rights groups, however, scoffed at the cover-up claim, saying officials had ignored evidence of abuse in the corrections system for years.
The footage, which aired Monday on the Australian Broadcasting Corp.’s investigative program Four Corners, was filmed largely at a youth detention centre in the Northern Territory city of Darwin between 2010 and 2015. Its release triggered a national uproar, with officials from the local level all the way up to the prime minister denying they had ever previously seen it.
“We are determined to get to the bottom of this, we’re determined to examine the extent to which there has been a culture of abuse and, indeed, whether there has been a culture of a coverup,” Turnbull told reporters. “Why was this abuse, this mistreatment, unrevealed for so long?”
When the tear gas incident occurred in 2014, officials said guards used the chemical to subdue six teens who had staged a riot. But closed circuit television and video footage filmed by staff at the centre appears to show that the tear gas was used after just one teen escaped his cell, while the other five remained locked in their cells. The guards are heard laughing as the teens cough and cry after multiple shots of tear gas were fired into the isolation wing where they were housed. One of the detainees can be heard saying he can’t breathe.
In another video, a guard is seen picking up a 13-year-old and hurling him across the room onto his bed. The same boy is also seen in footage from a different Northern Territory detention facility being stripped naked and held face-down on his bed by three guards after he apparently threatened to hurt himself. In yet another instance, the teen was shackled to a restraint chair with a hood placed over his head, before being left alone for hours.
Human rights activists accused the government of ignoring the issue until it became public because the teens involved were indigenous. The Northern Territory has the highest rate of youth detention in the country, and 97 per cent of its juvenile detainees are Aboriginal.
“Amnesty International has repeatedly raised concerns of abuse of children being held in youth detention centres in the Northern Territory,” Julian Cleary, Indigenous Rights Campaigner at Amnesty International Australia, said in a statement. “As this program shows, these are not isolated incidents.”
Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion said the footage was particularly shocking because the guards involved appeared cavalier about their actions. He said the officers should face criminal charges.
“They knew . . . that their behaviour was clearly not right, it was evil, but they also knew they had absolutely no chance of that being a problem to anyone,” Scullion told reporters in Canberra, the capital. “Such was the culture of coverup, such was the culture of brutality.”
The Don Dale Youth Detention Centre has been the subject of complaints for years. Last year, a review of the facility by the Northern Territory Children’s Commissioner found an excessive use of solitary confinement and inappropriate use of restraints.
Northern Territory Chief Minister Adam Giles said he had never seen the footage before it aired on Monday, also blaming a coverup within the corrections system for the government’s previous inaction. He said he had removed Northern Territory Corrections Minister John Elferink from his position on Tuesday.
“I sat and watched the footage and recognized horror through my eyes,” Giles told reporters in Darwin.
But Priscilla Collins, CEO of the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency in Darwin, said officials knew about the footage for years.
“There is no coverup. They’ve been fully aware of what’s been going on,” Collins told reporters. “The reports show it, the children’s commissioner’s report shows it. They had access to the footage.”
Australia has a checkered history when it comes to its treatment of child detainees. Human rights groups have long criticized the country for its indefinite detention of asylum seekers and their children in remote, offshore immigration detention camps; the government’s own human rights watchdog last year found that the policy violates international laws. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Australia is a party, states that the detention of children should only be a measure of last resort.
The Royal Commission is expected to begin holding hearings in September, with a final report due to be released early next year, Turnbull said.
Four Corners: Shocking vision of Dylan Voller being victimised in youth detention
WARNING: GRAPHIC FOOTAGE Four Corners reveals shocking vision of young boys being repeatedly victimised while in youth detention facilities in the Northern Territory. One boy, Dylan Voller, who was between 13 and 14 at the time, is forcefully stripped naked, carried by the neck and thrown across a room as well as being knocked to the floor by staff.
Vision of the tear-gassing of six boys being held in isolation at the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in Darwin in August 2014 has been obtained by Four Corners, exposing one of the darkest incidents in the history of juvenile justice in Australia.
The vision is part of an investigation featuring a chilling catalogue of footage revealing a pattern of abuse, deprivation and punishment of vulnerable children inside Northern Territory youth detention centres.
The tear-gassing incident was described as a “riot” at the time, with media reporting multiple boys had escaped their cells in the isolation wing of the prison, known as the Behavioural Management Unit (BMU), and threatened staff with weapons.
But CCTV vision and handy-cam recordings made by staff, obtained exclusively by Four Corners, show only one boy escaped his cell after it was left unlocked by a guard.
Former corrections commissioner Ken Middlebrooklast year defended the officer’s actions in the wake of a damning report by the Northern Territory Children’s Commissioner.
“I am not in the business of overuse of force. There were two sprays from an aerosol in the area. Now it wasn’t overuse of gas,” Mr Middlebrook told the ABC at the time.
But CCTV vision from the incident shows 10 bursts of tear gas being sprayed into the enclosed area over the space of one-and-a-half-minutes.
All six boys were exposed to the tear gas, five while still locked in their cells.
Not all the children were misbehaving — two boys can be seen on CCTV calmly playing cards before being exposed to the fumes. Another can be seen repeatedly smashing the wall of his cell with a broken light fitting.
The 14-year-old boy who escaped his cell can be heard repeatedly asking how long he had been in isolation and requesting to talk to staff.
Instead of negotiating with the boy, prison staff can be heard laughing and mocking him, calling the boy “an idiot” and a “little f****r”.
Four Corners has managed to track down several of the boys who were tear gassed. They describe being highly distressed, afraid for their lives, and say that two years on they are now suffering from disturbing flashbacks and nightmares from the ordeal.
The CCTV vision also shows the children’s reactions as they are affected by the gas, running to the back of their cells, hiding behind sheets and mattresses, gasping for air, crying, and bending over toilets.
One boy is left in his cell and exposed to tear gas for eight minutes. He is seen lying face down on the floor with his hands behind his back, before being handcuffed by two prison officers wearing gas masks and dragged out of his cell.
‘Ticking time bomb’ of potentially unlawful solitary confinement
The use of tear gas at the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in 2014 came after months of tension, repeated escapes and incidents at the centre, which was staffed with under-trained Youth Justice Officers, in what has been described as a “ticking time bomb” by former staff.
Three weeks before the tear-gassing incident, five boys had escaped from Don Dale.
When they were recaptured, they were placed in the isolation wing of the prison for between 15 and 17 days, in what were described by both children and staff as appalling and inhumane conditions.
They were kept locked in their cells for almost 24 hours a day with no running water, little natural light, and were denied access to school and educational material.
The boys being kept in isolation were accidentally discovered by a group of lawyers, including solicitor Jared Sharp, when they were taken on a tour of the facility in August 2014.
“We all sort of looked at each other in shock that there was kids in these cells, because there was signs of life in there but we didn’t know who was in there or what was happening, or how long they’d been there,” Mr Sharp told Four Corners.
“To what extreme is that, is to my view is torture. To my view that is treating kids in a way that is just entirely unacceptable,” he said.
Human Rights Lawyer Ruth Barson said the isolation of the children was a clear violation of the United Nations Convention against Torture.
“The UN’s expert on torture has said there are no circumstances that justify young people being held in solitary confinement, let alone prolonged solitary confinement,” Ms Barson told Four Corners.
“I think the NT and in particular Don Dale has a long way to go to ensure their practices are compliant with Australia’s obligation on the convention against torture and against the right of the child.”
In the days after the tear gassing, NT Corrections Minister John Elferink praised the actions of his staff and the prison security dog used on the night of the incident.
“I congratulate again, and place my support behind, the staff who made this decision. The staff worked hard, Fluffy the Alsatian worked hard and, as far as we are concerned, it was a problem that was solved quickly,” Mr Elferink told Parliament.
In the wake of the incident, the Don Dale centre was closed and the children were moved to the run-down, old Berrimah adult prison.
The NT Government commissioned an independent report into the incident by former Long Bay prison boss Michael Vita, which was released in January 2015.
Mr Elferink told Four Corners the Government had learned from the mistakes of the past.
“It was a system that needed improvement. It was a system that had fundamental problems, which is why I’ve worked so hard to improve it and it has been improved,” he said.
“That was a circumstance that clearly demonstrated to me that something had to be done, which is what the Vita Report was all about.
“Those circumstances have now been changed… we hope that they won’t be repeated.”
NT Children’s Commissioner Colleen Gwynne confirmed to Four Corners there are still ongoing issues with youth detention in the Northern Territory, with many of her 2015 report recommendations still not implemented.
“The response has not been as urgent as we would have liked. The issues raised in that report are extremely serious and I would like to see a more full response,” she said.
“[We need] some urgency and some dedicated resources thrown at this.”
ABC reporter Kate Wild has been covering the treatment of children in the NT juvenile justice system for years, from the gassing of children to the controversial use of restraint chairs. She explains why it has taken so long for politicians to take action.
There have been two very consistent responses from the Northern Territory Government over the years I’ve been covering this story.
The first has been ‘nothing to see here, there are no problems, we’re dealing with them, we’re addressing them’.
But over the top of that response has always been this very strong message from NT Corrections Minister John Elferink, and to a lesser extent from NT Corrections boss Ken Middlebrook up until late last year, that we’re not to feel too sorry for the young men in Don Dale because they are bad kids, tough kids, they’ve done terrible things to people in the community.
We can’t forget that yes, these kids have broken into people’s homes, they have stolen their cars, they have assaulted people, they have done some very serious things, some of them.
But the emphasis politically that has been put on the character of these kids and the bad behaviour of these kids has pushed a really, really strong law and order line in the Northern Territory to excuse any allegations or any reports of poor treatment of these kids in Don Dale.
There is a culture, and has always been a culture in the Northern Territory, that we’re a long way from anywhere, that we don’t have a lot of independent bodies outside of politics to keep an eye on things or to take action when poor behaviour or poor policy or overlooking important, serious issues happens.
There’s no-one really in the Northern Territory to take action.
Because the Territory’s a long way from anywhere, there’s a culture of ‘we’ll ignore it, it will go away, the rest of the country’s attention will turn somewhere else and we’ll get on with what we always do’.
And so, as a journalist who has been working here for a while, it does get very difficult to be reporting on these things continually for years and to not see things change locally.
The Territory rocked to the core
While people in the Northern Territory have been aware of these stories and these incidents in Don Dale for a long time, seeing the pictures of them last night on Four Corners I know has rocked some people absolutely to the core.
I had a phone call last night from a very senior bureaucrat who has worked in the Aboriginal medical space and the Aboriginal homecare space for a long time.
She was in tears, saying to me: “I can’t believe that finally something’s being done about this. I can’t believe that the pictures that were shown on Four Corners last night are finally going to take the lid off this and something is happening and people are paying attention.”
“I’m shocked, I don’t know what to do. I’m just so grateful that something has finally happened.”
This is a person who has seen and done it all and who has lived through the intervention, who has lived through a lot of difficult things in the Northern Territory, and her shock and her gratitude last night really said to me how big a deal this is and how big a change this might bring to the Territory.