The usual suspects from the liberal left, the Human Rights and Indigenous bureaucracy, and much of the media were out in force this week following the Four Corners programme into NT juvenile detention. There was an air of "what would the neighbours say" in relation to possible reaction overseas, and our politicians can always be relied on to react to bad press. Naturally, most commentators were taking the high moral ground, which is always the easiest position to adopt on any issue.
Among the reasons given for condemning the NT authorities were that "children" in custody were seemingly being routinely abused by being hooded, subject to excessive force, strapped to a mechanical restraint chair, and subject to pepper spraying. The programme, through selective presentation of facts, made a bad enough situation seem far worse than it really was. Detention conditions for children in the NT were compared to those in Abu Ghraib prison. Dylan Voller, the main inmate subject to the alleged excessive violence, was variously described by the media as a "child" or "football-loving teenager", even though he was aged 17 at the time of the most confronting footage and has an appalling criminal record.
According to the programme,"it almost defies belief but right here in Australia there is a prison system that locks up 10 year olds and places children as young as thirteen in solitary confinement". Aboriginal land councils, and legal and health organisations in the Northern Territory are calling for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to dissolve the Territory Government and force an early election. Mick Gooda, Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner has said that the Federal Government has to intervene and sack the NT Government.
The Four Corners programme was based neither on recent events nor on footage for a particular day or week, and entirely lacked balance. Four Corners had obtained officially recorded CCTV footage going back to 2010 (most relates to 2014 and 2015) and had clearly extracted and aired the most sensational bits. The footage used to damn the entire NT juvenile detention system focussed on the most belligerent inmates (a full six of them!), and on measures only used in extreme cases. Violent teenagers, especially Indigenous, fall into the category of "hard cases" where authorities are blamed if they do not act decisively, but risk condemnation by human rights activists if they take strong action.
The CLP was singled out for blame. It has been in power in the Territory since August 2012 but it is probably a fair guess that most of the procedures shown in the documentary had been approved and in place for some years (some at least dating from the earlier Labor period in power). The programme also failed to mention that the use of "spit hoods" (to protect officers from HIV and hepatitis) is common in other Australian jurisdictions, as well as in the US, Canada, and New Zealand, while the use of a mechanical restraint chair arguably is a legitimate tool in preventing an inmate from self-harming. Voller has a history of threatening self-harm.
The inmates featured are no angels. Ken Middlebrook, a formerNT Correctional Services Commissioner said on the 7.30 Report that (referring to Voller) "I understand the restraint chair was used twice; and I'm well aware the hood was used once". John Elferink, a former NT Corrections Minister went further, stating that "these kids have been pushing the envelope since they've come into custody. They see themselves clearly as some sort of hard-core little group of thugs. And they have behaved exactly in accordance with that self-image".
A notable feature of the footage is that the correction officers concerned knew that they were being openly filmed so that they were either very stupid or believed that their actions were within approved guidelines. It is also clear that Voller immediately before being pepper sprayed and restrained, was being violent to the extent of causing lacerations to an officer's arm, and had been engaged in an extended period of anger-fuelled vandalism.
Another matter that has been glossed over in media coverage is the extent of Dylan Voller's criminal record and his age.
Voller turns 19 later this year and is currently finishing his sentence in an adult prison in Alice Springs. Voller has been in and out of juvenile detention since he was 11 years old, for car theft, robberies and, more recently, assault. He is one of the Northern Territory's most notorious young offenders. In his most recent crime spree the NT Supreme Court heard that Voller, then 16, was drunk and high on the drug “ice” when he and two co-offenders went on a 24-hour crime spree, attacking two men and a police officer. Justice Peter Barr said the young man had been found guilty of more than 50 offences, including violence, in the past five years.
“You have not responded to the leniency given by the court (in the past).” A youth justice advocacy project worker reported that Voller had anger issues and a propensity to spit.
Voller and two co-accused tried to rob a man as he walked to work on Todd St, Alice Springs. Voller ran bare-chested at the victim yelling: “You fat white racist dog – you yelled at us”. The gang demanded the man’s wallet and knocked him to the pavement where they kicked him in the ribs. Good Samaritans came to his aid.
About 1am the next day, the trio ambushed a 17-year-old, who was tending his sick dad at Alice Springs Hospital when he went to buy cigarettes from a nearby store. Voller struck him with a mop handle, punched him in the face and stole his wallet. His accomplices bashed the victim unconscious. Two nurses found and treated the victim after the gang fled in a Holden Commodore. Voller was behind the wheel and tried to run down a “terrified” Constable Gerard Reardon as he ordered them to stop.