The fallout over Australia’s torture of juvenile prisoners

The torture of Dylan Voller brought international attention after media outlets showed footage of repeated assaults against Voller, the most recent involving guarding strapping the then 17 year old into a restraint stair. In each instance Voller shows no signs of resistance, and reports suggest that at best he spat on guards and threatened to harm himself. None of his actions appear to justify the level of force used against him, nor do they explain the repeated instances of force over the years.

Voller told his lawyer that he now fears for his safety following the media coverage:

Alex Tighe, a member of Voller’s legal team, said: “His name is now national and international, he now has a huge target on his head just because it’s such a big issue.”

Three of the guards at Berrimah were officers at Don Dale and one has allegedly told Voller: “You deserved everything you got in those videos”, News AU reports.

Mr Tighe added: “He is in a segregated part of the prison, but the guards have all-area access.

“If you’re a person in prison you can’t protect yourself from the guards.”

Any guard who dares to assault Voller would only cause more problems for the Australian government. The Australia government must already deal with backlash from its own community. Hundreds people protested over the weekend in various cities. Some noted the the racial component to Australia’s prison population. According to the statistics, Aborigines make up only 3% of the total population, yet represent 27% of the total prison population and 94% of the prison population in the Northern Territory where the abuse occurred.

Australia must also deal the international community, particularly the United Nations. In a statement released following the news reports, the UN called for monetary compensation for the children subjected to the abuse:

“We are shocked by the video footage that has emerged from Don Dale youth detention center in the Northern Territory,” the UN Human Rights office of High Commission said in a statement.

“We call on the authorities to identify those who committed abuses against the children and to hold them responsible for such acts… Compensation should also be provided”.

The Commission also called on the government to ratify the Optional Protocol to Convention Against Torture, which would allow independent investigators to inspect detention facilities.

The Australian government seems unlikely to compensate anyone. However, it will sue them. Six children filed a lawsuit against the government following the gassing incident at the Don Dale Youth Detention facility. The children alleged repeated beatings by guards and the use of teargas. The state responded by counter-suing two of the children:

But the NT Government’s response, filed on July 4, is seeking damages for an escape attempt in which the two boys stole a car, before using it to ram a roller-door and re-enter the prison.

The Government claims the two boys escaped from Don Dale on May 31, 2015, causing $89,000 in damage.

It says they caused $74,025.60 damage when they rammed a roller-door at the prison using a stolen car on the following day.

The Government also says one of the boys caused $45,320 in an earlier escape attempt on February 24, 2015, when he stole a vehicle and drove at speed into an internal perimeter fence.

It appears the government kept the counter-suit hidden. However, within six hours of the above article releasing, the government withdrew the counter-suit. Adam Giles, the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory also refused to settle the case, as each child could potentially receive $250,000 (Australian). He stated:

“I’m standing up for Territorians. I don’t believe taxpayer money should be going towards windfall payouts to prisoners,” Mr Giles said.

Giles called for the commission investigating the abuses, yet he does not appear to support the investigation to the fullest extent. In another interview he accused the lawyers of the boys alleging abuse of politicizing the issue.

The UN also stated that what occurred in the videos could violate international rules against torture:

UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez, told Australia’s Radio National on Thursday that the video suggested that torture may have taken place and welcomed the inquiry but warned against limiting its scope.

“It’s hard to tell only from the video or the press coverage but I do think that it’s a very worrisome development that can amount to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment under any circumstance…,” he said.

He said that there was no question that very severe pain and suffering had occurred and that the perpetrators seem to be representatives of the state. If others knew and did nothing, they too could be punished alongside those who actually committed the violence, he said.

While we must welcome the concern, we must also acknowledge that these acts occur all the time across the world. Here in the United States we repeatedly report on cases of prison abuses against children. Numerous inquiries, studies, and reports found that the abuse occurs in virtually every state, usually with the tacit permission of state officials, and yet little happens to those who abuse children or adults. Like in the US, Australian guards know of the abuse and the few who complain often find themselves punished or ignored.

What becomes of the media coverage hinges on how the Australian government and its citizens respond. As one commentator noted, many of the children subjected to this violence came from violent and neglectful homes. Many already suffered mental, physical, and sexual abuse before entering the system. The welfare and childcare systems, despite their good intentions, only worsened the problem as they lacks the resources, wherewithal, oversight, and care to adequately help these children. The youths must also deal with the community they harassed with their bad behavior and crimes. That community lacks any pity for them, and this too results in the current situation.

How then do we respond to the situation? Here in the US, we typically pay attention for a few weeks and then fall back into our usual routines. Victims of youth violence show no concern for those abused by the system, and those in the system find them stuck there in the majority of the cases. No one wants to take the time or the money to set up programs that will actually help these at-risk and high-risk children break the cycle of abuse and poverty.

As much as I would like things to differ in this case, I suspect the same thing will happen in Australia. I suspect that the commission and inquiries will either find next to nothing or find abuse but result in no charges. I suspect that whatever changes occur will amount to little real change when it comes to preventing and prosecuting abuse. I suspect that children and adults in the prison system will face greater levels of cover-up to avoid further international coverage.

One could deal with this by charging people like John Elferink, current NT Attorney-General and former Minister for Corrections, with criminal negligence for ignoring and covering up abuse. One could find guards guilty of crimes rather than twisting the system in such a way as to condone even the worst offenses. Real penalties may prevent these crimes or at least provide an actual severe outcome rather than the typical slap-on-wrist most of these cases receive.

Yet that requires us as a community to actually care, and unfortunately I do not think that we care at all.

5 thoughts on “The fallout over Australia’s torture of juvenile prisoners

  1. Pingback: The fallout over Australia’s torture of juvenile prisoners –

  2. ” According to the statistics, Aborigines make up only 3% of the total population, yet represent 27% of the total prison population and 94% of the prison population in the Northern Territory where the abuse occurred.”

    What percentage of the northern territory population are aboriginal? About 30% ( So the fact that the stats for the NT are more appalling than the stats for the rest of the country isn’t too much of a surprise.

  3. Pingback: Dylan Voller’s mother regrets calling police | Toy Soldiers

  4. Pingback: Royal commission hears of abuse at juvenile detention center | Toy Soldiers

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