Royal commission hears of abuse at juvenile detention center

Dylan Voller testified in December 2016 before the Northern Territory royal commission concerning the abuse he allegedly suffered while at the Don Dale detention center. I previously wrote about Voller’s situation, which came to light during the summer. Several videos taken from security cameras showed some of the abuse Voller experienced. However, it was footage showing Voller strapped to a restraint chair that broke the story.

The Australian government did its best to respond to the coverage, primarily by trying to minimize what was seen in the videos. As previously mentioned in those posts, there were prior reports of abuse at the Don Dale center and other juvenile facilities. The Northern Territory appears to have a higher rate of this abuse, particularly against Aboriginal youths.

The royal commission was held in an attempt to get a better insight into what the victims claim happened. Voller offered the following testimony:

Voller alleged guards charged detainees “rent” for staying at Don Dale, taking $1.5o a day from money the detainees had earned through good behaviour.

He also said he was forced to defecate into a pillowcase after guards at the Alice Springs juvenile facility refused to let him out of his cell to go to the toilet during the night. He said detainees would repeatedly be forced to urinate through the cell bars.

He was first strip-searched at about the age of 11 or 12, he said, and it would occur every time he was moved between facilities or in and out of isolation cells, or when he coming back from the bathroom because he had been throwing toilet paper at cameras to cover the screen.

Voller also alleged officers repeatedly stripped him of clothes and bedding for hours as a form of punishment, and denied him food and water.

One youth justice officer at Alice Springs noticed he was hungry in the middle of one night and threw muesli bars and fruit through to his cell, Voller said.

It did not stop there. Voller also testified that youths were transferred between facilities without warning. He stated that in once instance he was transferred against the recommendation of his psychologist. The guards handcuffed the boy in a vehicle for the two-day, 1,500 km trip, forcing him to urinate out the back of the cage.

Voller gave this testimony despite fear of reprisal from guards. However, his testimony was not without incident. The Northern Territory government repeatedly attempted to prevent the publication of part of Voller’s statements, arguing that they would not have time to prepare a response to the accusations. Those requests were denied.

Voller also testified about the tear gas incident and how he felt during his time in the restraint chair:

“I felt defenceless at the time, like there was nothing I could do. I could tell them it was hurting and I was even vomiting in my mouth a couple of times but they didn’t care,” he said. “I asked if they could turn the shower on me because I was getting dizzy from panicking a lot.”

Voller accused the officer who was holding the camera of ceasing filming in order to “agitate” him, before turning the camera back on.

“There were times I’d panic and I just wanted to get out of there and I’d do anything I could to get out of there … but there’s no way you can pull yourself out of it no matter how strong you are.”

He had earlier told the hearing he had been a known “spitter” at guards.

“It was a disgusting thing that I did. I do regret it, but it became a mechanism,” he said. “With the things they were doing to me, I had no defence.”

Voller was restrained in the chair for almost two hours.

“There was a point I was sick of fighting … I couldn’t even cry. At the end of it I couldn’t even talk. My body shut down, I couldn’t be bothered fighting any more, I just sat there.

“I felt scared. Being put in the restraint chair was one of the most scary things that’s ever happened to me. That and the teargassing.”

He said there was “no responsible person there to say ‘that’s enough’”, to get him out. “I couldn’t drink water, my mouth was getting dry, I was dehydrated. It was getting to the point I thought they were going to leave me in there all night.”

As I mentioned in my prior posts, none of Voller’s behavior was acceptable. Yet nothing he did appears to merit the treatment he received. When one looks at the videos, Voller is passive. He makes no attempt to fight, does not appear to struggle, and does not appear to argue with the guards. He complies. Unless the videos were edited, this makes it appear that all these acts were done to him with the explicit purpose of punishment and humiliation.

As Voller testified, it is as if he was “[…] being further punished whilst in prison. Being sentenced by the judge to do our time for our crime is our punishment, not the continued mental and physical abuse we continue to cop while we’re here.”

How does this help Voller become a better person? Few people, particularly children, come out of those situations with positive outlooks. Such treatment will either break a person or make them hate everyone.

Why was the government’s response to imprison an 11-year-old rather than try every other method first? Anyone working with children or working in the prison system could tell you that institutionalizing someone that young will lead to future problems.

Yet it seems that the response was to get Voller out of sight and out of mind, with little concern for what might happen to him if they took that approach. For example, the guards held Voller in an isolation cell for 24 days prior to his release in 2013. How does locking a child in isolation for a month prepare him to re-enter society?

If you were to take any one of these incidents and have it done by a parent, that parent would be in jail before you could finish explaining what they did. Yet because this was done under the auspices of the “law”, the guards get a pass. Indeed, even the commission process appears to be nothing more than optics. I say this because the royal commission is currently delayed until March 2017. The previous date was in February, yet all the above testimony was given in December 2016, and the inquiry began back in the summer of 2016. By the time the sittings continues, almost a year will have passed, and as best as I can tell, only Voller has testified. The other victims have not had the chance to speak.

This is absurd, but clearly the way the Northern Territory functions to protect itself from any scrutiny.

I highly doubt anyone will pay a price for what happened to these boys. I doubt Voller will receive any early release. I doubt that the commission will find anything criminally wrong. The most likely response will be recommendations to improve conditions, and probably a great deal of harassment by the government against the boys who testified. Many of them will still have to deal with the system upon release, and I would not be surprised to find that the government discovered cause lock some of them back in prison.

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