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Ever-present scandal surrounding the incarceration of indigenous Australians

by Mélinda Trochu

The images have been seen around the world and have shaken Australia: teenager Dylan Voller hooded and strapped to a chair in the Don Dale juvenile detention centre near Darwin, in the north of the country.

It is an image, along with others recorded between 2010 and 2014, that inevitably calls to mind those from Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib.

<p>Passers-by pose in front of a mural in Melbourne, on 26 January 2016, with the slogan: “Always was, always will be, Aboriginal land”.</p>

Passers-by pose in front of a mural in Melbourne, on 26 January 2016, with the slogan: “Always was, always will be, Aboriginal land”.

(Mélinda Trochu)

Taken from video surveillance cameras, they were shown on 25 July 2016, on the Four Corners investigative news programme of the public TV station ABC, under the heading “Australia’s Shame”.

Australians have since been expressing their disgust, on Twitter and other social media, at the mistreatment of juvenile detainees, and the abuses suffered by Indigenous youngsters in particular.

Disturbing footage shown in the documentary includes Don Dale guards tear gassing child detainees. One of the guards exclaims: “I’ll pulverize the little fucker!”.

The boy he was referring to was Jake Roper, aged 14 at the time. This young Aboriginal talks in the report of how he felt “angry, depressed and alone”. His reason for speaking out is to “make sure the same doesn’t happen to other young people”. Since it was broadcast, Minister John Elferink, who was in charge of correctional services in the Northern Territory, has been stripped of his role.

Although they only account for 3 per cent of the population, Indigenous Australians represent 27.7 per cent of the national prison population, and almost 15 per cent of deaths in custody in Australia. They are 15.4 times more likely to be incarcerated than other Australians. This figure rises to 21.6 for Indigenous Australian women. And Indigenous children are 26 times more likely to end up in juvenile detention.

In the Northern Territory, 96 per cent of youth detainees are Indigenous.

Amnesty International has been denouncing this state of affairs for years. Julian Cleary, an indigenous rights campaigner with the organisation, explains: “Our government has been ignoring what is a real national crisis for far too long, leaving the states and the territories in charge of the situation. It is high time these human rights violations were stopped. We are delighted that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has stated his intention to make it one of his priorities from now on. So we remain optimistic.”

The Prime Minister has, in fact, decided to launch a Royal Commission to investigate the abuses in the detention system for young people, who can be incarcerated as of age 10. But its scope is limited. Only the Northern Territory is covered by this high-level inquiry, although the whole of Australia is affected by the problem.

Already in 1991, a Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody delivered a report and 339 recommendations, after having investigated 99 Aboriginal deaths in detention between 1980 and 1989. Twenty-five years later and the picture is no less grim. The incarceration rate among Indigenous Australians rose by a staggering 57 per cent in 15 years.

“That’s why practical measures need to be taken immediately,” insists Julian Cleary. “Australia must ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, which would enable independent inquiries in prisons. Indigenous Australians suffer enormously from poverty, racism and social disadvantages. Fortunately, there are Indigenous people doing fantastic things in their communities. But, all too often, they are not heard and their expertise is ignored.”


“A violent world”

Keenan Mundine grew up in Redfern, a poor inner-city suburb of Sydney. At the age of seven, he was orphaned and separated from his two brothers. That was the start of a slow descent into the underworld for this young Aboriginal from the Biripi Nation. He was imprisoned on several occasions between the age of 14 and 27. “There were a lot of problems linked to drugs, alcohol and domestic violence in Redfern. And there was a large police presence.”

Now aged 29 and a father, he is rebuilding his life. He has become a youth worker in his former neighbourhood. “I wasn’t able to watch the Don Dale report to the end,” he sighs. “What shocked me the most was seeing that teenager strapped to that chair. It was completely futile. The footage of a boy being stripped and left naked is also very hard.”

For the former detainee, “The detention system for minors is shocking; it’s a violent world.”

Keenan is convinced that solutions should come from the communities, not the government. “If we’ve reached this point, it’s because they don’t have the solution. They don’t listen to the Aboriginal people on the ground. We have people in government who are disconnected from the communities and who think they know what’s best for us without consulting us.”

Gerry Georgatos, a human rights defender who has visited many Aboriginal communities, points out: “The fact is that Aboriginal people are sent to prison for crimes for which non-Indigenous Australians are not jailed. Just one example: a few years ago, a 12-year-old boy was arrested and jailed for having stolen a piece of chocolate.”

The Perth-based activist nonetheless recognises: “The Royal Commission is an opportunity, because it’s the most powerful tool in our country. If it doesn’t make a difference, then there are few other solutions.”

In Sydney, 57-year-old Vickie Roach from the Yuin nation is a former prisoner who fought a legal battle with the government over voting rights for prisoners. She also watched the Don Dale report. “It was very hard. I cried for several days.” 

“It was as if it was happening to me, to my son, my grandson. It was really disturbing, and I’m sure many Indigenous Australians who have been in detention were also traumatised by these images. In Australia, people think Indigenous people are a waste of space. And in prison, we are not seen as human beings. There is still, in 2016, this idea that Indigenous people need to be controlled and managed. They still see us as a problem that needs solving.”

Vicky, who belongs to the “Stolen Generations”, also recalls that the prison conditions were worse in the juvenile system than in the adult one.

“They apply the same procedures as for adults, but in a more draconian manner. They think that if they make detention a truly horrific experience, we will do everything we can to stay out of prison.” 

“But it doesn’t work like that. We know, thanks to decades of research, that punishment has absolutely no dissuasive effect.” 


This article has been translated from French.

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Your comments

  • On 18 August at 12:27, by Claire Replying to: Ever-present scandal surrounding the incarceration of indigenous Australians

    Excellent article, Mélinda. Looking forward to the next instalment.

    Ngalla Maya

  • On 18 August at 20:16, by Sue Barstow Replying to: Ever-present scandal surrounding the incarceration of indigenous Australians

    Don dale continues a legacy of harassment and control that saw atrocities and cruel treatment as a common practice and with no consequences for actions that were hidden from the mainstream . I was in a community when a young child was savaged by a dog . She had many stitches but the dog was still allowed to roam free and we were warned to walk with our niece who was black American as the dog may attack . Recently we saw a young 14 year old who had tried to jump off a Bridge and commit suicide put in the adult watch house as there was a dispute over who should be looking after her.Regularly children returning to remote areas are put in the adult watch houses .I am a member of the Deaths in Custody Watch Group in Far North Queensland and find that protocols that were recommended after the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in custody are not monitored for effectiveness. We see young people swallowing razor blades and punished. Other suicide attempts or actions due to mental illness are seen as bad behavior.No-one is really watching and staff who want change are seen as traitors. The mainstream do not have any idea and basically try to deny the undeniable as shown by this ABC coverage.

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