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‘Shocking’ Detention of Australia’s Aboriginal Children

Royal Commission Report Needs Swift Action

A still from the Australian Broadcasting Company’s program “Four Corners,” showing 17-year-old Dylan Voller strapped into a mechanical restraint chair on March 2015 in the Northern Territory. © 2016 Australian Broadcasting Company

The camera shows a slightly built 13-year-old boy pacing in a tiny cell, pausing every so often to lean against the wall, his head buried in his arms, his body trembling. Three guards rush in and quickly overpower the boy, stripping him naked. It was one of at least five instances when detention center guards in Australia’s Northern Territory used excessive force against him between October 2010 and August 2014, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s “Four Corners” reported last year.

These and other images appalled many Australians. Perhaps most disturbing of all was a photograph of the same boy, Dylan Voller, at age 17, strapped tightly to a restraint chair, a hood over his head; he had been left in that position alone in a cell for two hours. Within 12 hours of the “Four Corners” report, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced the establishment of a Royal Commission to examine the treatment of detained children in the Northern Territory – the majority of whom, like Voller, are Aboriginal.

The commission released its findings on Friday, concluding that the territory’s youth detention centers are “not fit for accommodating, let alone rehabilitating” the children they lock up, and calling for their closure.

The “systemic and shocking failures” identified by the commission could be a checklist of the worst practices in juvenile detention.

Guards verbally abused the boys and young men, including with racial slurs, and sometimes deprived them of food, water, and the use of toilets, the report found.

Bored staff dared children to eat bird excrement, rat feces, and cockroaches for rewards and coerced youth to fight each other. Staff also employed disproportionate and often dangerous use of force when restraining children. Guards were captured on video lifting and throwing children to the ground by the neck, among other abusive practices.

Some girls were strip searched by male guards and, the commission found, subjected to “inappropriate sexual attention by staff.” They also had less access than boys to showers and toilets, recreation, and education.

Isolation of 21 or more hours per day, sometimes for weeks, was used as punishment, contrary to law and in ways highly damaging to youths’ mental health.

Failures to safeguard against self-harm, inadequate security, unsanitary facilities – the list goes on, documented extensively in four thick volumes. Much of this was already known to local authorities, who failed to act.

Australian federal and territory officials should immediately put an end to these practices and ensure the individuals responsible are held accountable, including by bringing criminal charges as appropriate. They should take the commission’s recommendations as a roadmap for a thorough overhaul of the Northern Territory’s juvenile detention system. 

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