For Australia to begin to regain the moral authority it once had on human rights, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has his work cut out for him. A new report from the Northern Territory's children's commissioner is a stark reminder to add juvenile detention to his list.
The commissioner's report reveals just how abysmal things are. In August 2014, a 14-year-old boy opened his unlocked cell, threatened staff with a weapon made from a plastic plate, and damaged other parts of the isolation unit in a Darwin juvenile detention facility.
"Let the fucker come through," a camera recorded one staff member saying to another when the 14-year-old tried to climb through a broken window, "I'll pulverise the little fucker."
Later, the 14-year-old asked to speak to a staff member. "Nah, you've had your chance," another staffer replied. Instead of talking the youth down, staff fired tear gas into the unit. They hooded and handcuffed six boys, including two who had taken no part in the disturbance, and moved them all to an adult prison.
Prior to the incident, five of the six boys had been held in cramped, dark, and hot isolation cells for between six and 17 days.
The report could serve as a checklist for how not to handle troubled youth.
"[The disturbance] wouldn't have happened if they didn't keep them in there so long," one of the staff members later commented to the Office of the Children's Commissioner.
But the Northern Territory is just the tip of the iceberg. Western Australia has mandatory minimum sentencing laws for young offenders. In Queensland, 17-year-old children are treated as adults in the criminal justice system instead of the globally recognised age of 18. The impact of these practices falls disproportionately on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, who are substantially over-represented in the juvenile justice system throughout the country. It's a national problem, and clearly needs national leadership.
The isolation cells in the Darwin detention centre's euphemistically named "Behaviour Management Unit" were not fit for that purpose. The cells had no water for drinking or washing hands, no windows to allow ventilation or natural light, and no fans or air conditioning. The children had to shower in view of each other. Four of the six boys had been doubled up in cells designed for one person, so two of them slept on mattresses on the floor.
The detention centre made no effort to provide anger management or any other behaviour management counselling or other rehabilitative services for boys in isolation. They had no chance to attend school while in the unit, and they were not given any educational materials until they left isolation.
Decisions taken by staff and management throughout the time the youths were in detention suggest that they were ill-prepared and perhaps disinclined to work with troubled youths. Instead, as this report and others signal, they relied on isolation as a principal means of controlling behaviour.
When they protested, that day the boys had just been told they would be isolated for another 24 to 72 hours. There are no clear records for how long they were let out of their cells, but the children's commissioner estimated that they were locked up at least 22 hours a day, every day.
If anything, prolonged isolation increases the risk that youths will act out, and there's compelling evidence that isolation is particularly harmful for children.
When Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union examined the use of solitary confinement of children in five US states in 2012, children spoke about cutting themselves with staples or razors, having hallucinations, and losing touch with reality. Several said they had attempted suicide multiple times.
For these reasons, Juan Mendez, the United Nations special rapporteur on torture, has concluded that children should never be subjected to isolation. He regards solitary confinement for children as cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment – and even, in some cases, torture.
Children are no longer held in this particular facility – they're now at a repurposed adult prison, the former Berrimah Correctional Centre – but that's no guarantee against continued over-reliance on isolation and other abusive practices.
Real change requires better alternatives to incarceration and training for the staff on better ways to manage unruly behaviour. And that's where the federal government's leadership can come in, linking improved practices to its funding.
Australia needs to do more to comply with its international human rights obligations regarding children. Isolation, excessive use of force, and holding children in adult prisons are inappropriate, ineffectual, and inhumane. This is an area where Turnbull can show real leadership, and many young lives depend on it.