Few things enrage me as much as prisoner abuse, particularly the abuse of child inmates. I will entertain no excuse for it. I feel no sympathy for the guards to commit the abuse. I do not care what the child did prior to the abuse happening.
You do not get to torture children.
Yet this is something that most countries allow when they imprison children. A recent case in Australia shows frequently this occurs.
Guards at the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre repeatedly stripped, choked, and restrained Dylan Voller over the several years he was imprisoned at the facility. His abuse has only been taken seriously due to the release of a video showing guards strapping Voller into a restraint chair, which they left him in for two hours:
It is part of a chilling catalogue of vision released for the first time showing the repeated stripping, assault and mistreatment of the boy, who was one of six children tear-gassed at the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in Darwin in 2014.
The boy in the chair is Dylan Voller, who was a detainee at the Youth Detention Centre in Alice Springs at the time.
The footage, along with other instances of mistreatment highlighted on Four Corners, prompted Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs to call for a formal inquiry.
On the day of the incident, he was transferred to the adult prison and strapped into the chair for almost two hours after threatening to hurt himself so that he would be taken to hospital.
In the vision, Mr Voller, who is handcuffed and hooded, is being ordered by guards to walk backwards, hunched over, into an isolation cell before asking the guards why his mattress was taken away, telling them he has been treated like a dog.
Prison officers on duty can be heard saying Mr Voller had misbehaved by chewing on his mattress and threatening to break his hand.
The guards offered an explanation for their actions:
Earlier this year, after the video was filmed, the Northern Territory Parliament moved to amend the Youth Justice Act to ensure “that modern mechanical devices of restraint or advancements in technology” could be legally used on children.
In Parliament, NT Corrections Minister John Elferink said the restraints were necessary.
“I acknowledge that the proposed amendments may incite commentary from legal and youth services professions as to the perception that mechanical devices will be used to excess or in such a way that is not appropriate to the risk posed by young people in detention,” Mr Elferink stated in Parliament.
“I make no excuses for the proposed amendments. They are crucial in providing detainees, members of staff at youth detention centres and the public with greater safety and security.”
As I stated before, I do not care what the guards deal with it. I am not naive. I live with high-risk children, some of whom have history of violence against others and themselves. I am well aware that there are some children are difficult to control.
None of that justifies the attitude these guards take. They do not see these people as children. They do not see them as people. They do not even see them as animals. They see them as things. They humiliate the children. They strip them of their humanity. They treat them like garbage and then expect respect in return.
It should come as no surprise that anyone, particularly a child, treated in that manner would lash out.
That thought likely never crossed Corrections Minister John Elferink’s mind. Elferink has a history of supporting “tough love” against child inmates, using his experience of child abuse as an excuse:
At the debate, Mr Elferink argued for the affirmative, telling the audience of his own story of sexual torment at the hands of a number of abusers and how he came close to a life of crime.
He said the “moment that you challenge a person with their conduct … you are making them do something very simple indeed. You are making them think about three individual words: ‘I am responsible'”.
“I grew up in an alcoholic home. My father was an alcoholic, he struggled with it,” he said. “During my childhood I went wayward, I broke into a few houses, stole money, was sexually abused as a child. Increasingly sexually abused, not inside the home, but from a family friend. […] You can imagine that I was a pretty screwed up kid. So I know the kid that you’re talking about … I know him, I’ve been him.”
Mr Elferink described his younger self as “a thief, I was dishonest human being”.
“During the process of growing up and facing those challenges, which I might add I faced extremely badly indeed, I was confronted by people who had the courtesy and the integrity to say to me ‘what are you going to do about it?” he said. “People have mistaken the belief that I have in tough love as a belief in brutality … nothing could be further from the truth.”
I agree. It appears he is re-enacting his abuse on the children in his care, projecting his sordid feelings about himself as a child onto them and then punishing them as he appears to think he should have been punished. That is far worse that believing in brutality; it is justifying brutality. Once you begin to rationalize it, it becomes easier to commit and easier to push to extremes.
Ben Kelleher, a former Don Dale guard, proved that this is what occurred in that prison:
Ben Kelleher, a former youth justice officer, said: “I know of three times he was in the restraint chair.”
Each time he was locked in the restraints he was “never so still, never so sheepish as he was when he was in that chair”.
“I turned up for one shift and Dylan was in the chair and the other two times they were on incident reports I read once I got to work,” he told the ABC.
He worked in youth detention centres between 2011 and 2014. At first he didn’t think strapping Voller to the chair was wrong — but now he does.
“I truly believe no matter how misbehaved a young man or lady is, they shouldn’t have their right to movement taken away like that.
“It’s very hard for the individual and a worker to draw a line between your safety and the safety of the kids.”
No, it is not. Again, I live with high-risk children. I am aware that some children can be very violent and it would stupid to lower your guard around them.
However, you are the adult. You are the one charged with the child’s life. It is your duty to protect them from others and themselves. If you find yourself in a position where you have to choose between your safety and the child’s, there is only one choice and if you pick yourself you made the wrong one.
Some people will present the “bad apple” argument. They will argue that some of these boys are so bad that only violence will work. To that I say watch the videos. Watch what guards did to Dylan Voller in full context. Watch as a guard takes Voller by the neck and throws him into a cell. Watch Voller stand against a wall as guards rush in, pin him to a mattress, strip him naked, pick up the cards, and race out of the cell. Watch a guard ask Voller for the phone and when Voller does not comply takes the phone from him, knees him, and smacks Voller to the ground. Watch as guards rush into a cell, strip Voller, and leave him crying on a mattress. Watch as guards strap Voller into a restraint chair. Watch as a guard attempts to cover the camera in the cell before he intimidates Voller.
In every instance, Voller makes no attempt to fight back. He shows no sign of violence or threat. Instead he cowers in fear and cries. Based on the available information, the worst Voller did was threatened to harm himself.
The first linked video resulted in a charge against the guard, but he was found not guilty of assault and his contract was not renewed. The second linked video led to an investigation, but in two separate cases the guard was found not guilty of aggravated assault. In the third video, guard was again found not guilty. His contract was not renewed, however, he was later employed at a different juvenile prison over objections from the Professional Standards Command.
This treatment is not limited to Voller. It happened repeatedly at the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre. True to the typical government response to such prisoner abuse, the Australian government knew about it and did nothing.
This is not to say that Voller is an angel. He is not:
[On] February 7, 2014, Voller got drunk and “high on ice” and with two other young men went on a 24-hour crime spree, attacking two men and a police officer.
It was during his incarceration following being found guilty for this series of incidents that Voller was placed in restraints and the spit hood in the now infamous Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in Darwin.
Voller’s spree began in Alice Spring’s iconic Todd Street, where he and the two other young men tried to rob a man walking to work.
A court later heard that Voller, then a slightly built teen, ran bare-chested at the man, yelling “you fat white racist dog. You yelled at us”.
The three teens took the man’s wallet, knocked him to the pavement and kicked him in the ribs.
Still high on drugs the following day, the boys ambushed Luke McIntyre near a store where the 17-year-old was trying to buy cigarettes.
Voller struck him with a mop handle, punched him in the face and stole his wallet. Mr McIntyre was bashed unconscious, then his three assailants fled in a Holden Commodore.
Voller was behind the wheel and tried to run down a “terrified” Constable Gerard Reardon who had ordered the trio to stop.
The situation, however, is not entirely his fault:
But Dylan was always angry, [his sister] Kirra said, as a consequence of being mistreated by his father. The trouble started when Dylan was at primary school; teachers would lock him up as punishment.
As a youngster, Dylan came to see himself as a naughty child, and later fell in with a bad crowd.
“That was his crowd, because that was who he was as a person,” Kirra said. “That was who everybody had told him he was.”
Things got worse after the siblings’ mother moved to Alice Springs when Dylan was about eight years old.
He smashed windows on the family home, but when child services took him for respite as a response, he came to see that as a reward.
Dylan, now 18, is in an adult jail, waiting to be paroled next month.
Kirra Voller said he had been in and out of custody many times.
“He would’ve been inside the jail more than he has been outside in the past seven years,” she said.
Millions of people experience tough, tragic childhoods and do not hurt others. Being a victim does not give anyone the right to victimize others.
That said, there is a major failure by the system if the child they took into their care has spent almost half his life in and out of jail since they took him. It is also disturbing that Voller has faced some form of imprisonment since primary school.
Imprisonment messes with a person’s mind. It fractures the way the brain functions. It irreparably changes how a person thinks. This is devastating to most adults. It can be catastrophic on a child, not only because they lack the life experience to begin to cope with the ordeal, but specifically because their brains are not fully formed yet. To do anything of this nature to a child will fundamentally how they develop. You will ensure they maintain a prison mentality for life if you subject them to prolonged imprisonment.
That does not mean every child incarcerated will forever be a criminal. It does mean that their way of understanding the world is shaped primarily, if not solely, by that situation and there will be little one can do to change that.
Given that, Voller’s behavior is not that shocking. From his perspective, nobody cares about him. The few who might either do not stay long or turn on him. All he knows is that if he is violent he gets some attention, some respect from other boys, and can to a degree protect himself. This is how someone in his situation will likely behave because this is only thing he can control.
This basic knowledge anyone working with children should understand. However, it appears that the guards at Don Dale and other juvenile prisons were utterly ignorant of this:
Mr Kelleher said serious shortcomings in staff training and a lack of resources contributed to problems at the centre.
“You can see why workers get fed up when there’s no clear pathway to fixing the problem. It’s shift after shift, and incident after incident. There’s no support system,” he said.
“There’s a one day training course and everything else is off the cuff.
“You can walk in off the street, apply for a job and the next day you’ve got a kid’s wellbeing in your hands and that is not good enough.”
The problem appears worse in the Northern Territory. According to a report, the Northern Territory has triple the number of children detained compared to other parts of Australia. That holds true for adults as well. It also incarcerates 30 times the number of indigenous people compared to the non-indigenous people.
The problem is not just a lack of general concern for inmates or unpunished prisoner abuse or altering the laws to condone torture, but also a clear bias in favor of gross incarceration and blatant racism. The only thing missing is a sexual abuse scandal.
While there is an ongoing government investigation into the incidents, some officials do not mind showing how little they care about the situation. They are prepared to share their lack of compassion, all while remaining anonymous:
But while Mr Turnbull’s ministers supported his decisive action, others within the Coalition are not so full of praise.
“This is not good government,” said one backbencher from the conservative right of the party who wished to remain anonymous.
“This is a knee jerk reaction and is very reminiscent of how Labor in government overreacted to the Four Corners program about the live cattle trade.
“I assume this is a captain’s call because it could not have gone before Cabinet. And why are we calling it? It should be left to the Northern Territory government.”
Another conservative MP, who also asked not to be named, said if the allegations were true then an inquiry should be held – but not from a rushed response.
“Why did a decision on a royal commission have to be made within 18 hours of the program airing?” the MP said. “Why not 48 to 72 hours and socialise it a bit.”
Another Coalition backender stated:
“A prudent prime minister would take a more considered and consultative look at the allegations first, get a report from the NT, take it all to Cabinet for discussion before embarking on an instant royal commission.”
If this is attitude people hold in the government, it is doubtful that Voller or any of the children subjected to this torture will ever receive justice.