Teargassing, hooding, shackling, stripping. Twenty-three hours a day solitary confinement in a hot dark cell. When a 17-year-old threatens to hurt himself, guards hood him, strap him to a chair and leave him alone for two hours. This is not how anyone should treat a child ever. And yet this how staff treated children at a juvenile detention facility in Australia’s Northern Territory in 2014, exposed in disturbing CCTV footage this week in an investigation by ABC’s Four Corners program.
Many Australians were appalled and disgusted by this abuse. Within 12 hours of the program airing, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced a royal commission into the allegations. This is a problem for which it is important that Turnbull can demonstrate real leadership.
Much of the information is not new. A plethora of reports have documented abuses at this facility, the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre. The teargassing of six boys at the center, in August 2014, was the subject of a 2015 Northern Territory’s Children’s Commissioner report. That report urged the Correctional Services department to implement policies to ensure rights specified under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Australia is party. Of particular concern was the “use of chemical agents/dogs to gain compliance,” “appropriate use of force,” and “use of isolation and containment” – another term for solitary confinement.
But territory officials failed to act. When the commissioner’s report was released last year, we wrote about it for The Age newspaper, urging Turnbull, the then newly appointed prime minister, to do more.
It’s taken fresh, horrifying revelations broadcast on national TV for Turnbull to announce the royal commission to probe allegations made of the Don Dale center. And it seems short-sighted to limit the royal commission purely to one facility. According to the ABC, these incidents were only uncovered because a group of lawyers accidentally stumbled across the children in a visit to the facility. Which begs the question, how many other prisons or detention centers are meting out treatment like this to young people?
We know incarceration disproportionately affects indigenous children, a marginalized population who are substantially over-represented in the juvenile justice system. Western Australia has mandatory minimum sentencing for young offenders. Queensland law treats 17-year-olds as adults – ignoring the internationally agreed definition of a child as anyone below 18. This is a national problem that needs a national solution.
In the meantime, staff who abused children in the CCTV footage should be immediately suspended pending a full and impartial investigation. Turnbull should order an end to the practice of solitary confinement of children, and the prolonged use of restraints without the approval of doctors. And the government should grant the Australian Human Rights Commission immediate and unfettered access to all facilities where children are detained.