Abuse of children in Don Dale and other prisons is a national shame

Our children need to be strong in culture and have opportunities to thrive, not be locked up and bashed, says Amnesty Indigenous Rights Campaigner Roxanne Moore.

Barbaric injustice system

“Systemic and shocking failures”; “regular, repeated and distressing mistreatment”; “ignored at the highest levels”: these are the findings of the royal commission into the protection and detention of children in the Northern Territory, which on Friday released their report describing a brutal and barbaric injustice system for kids.

As awful as the findings are, the truly horrific thing is that they are all too familiar. In the past year these same kinds of abuses of children have been reported in every child prison in this country.

The Abu Ghraib-style hooding in Don Dale that horrified the world? The WA independent inspector found 14 instances of spit-hoods used in Banksia Hill from 2014 to 2016, which were only banned after the ABC’s Four Corners report.

“Hogtying” is the sickening practice where Don Dale guards tied or cuffed children’s hands and ankles behind their back, joined together. In Townsville, this is exactly what Cleveland children’s prison staff did to kids at risk of self-harm, hogtying and then sedating them.

In NSW, documents leaked to Fairfax showed four kids were held in isolation for 23 hours a day for 10 days straight at Cobham child prison.

Locking up children in solitary confinement breaches international law, but Don Dale and other Australian children’s prisons do it routinely. This year the Victorian children’s commissioner revealed 50 instances of solitary confinement of kids for more than 36 hours at a time. In some of these cases, children had to urinate or defecate on the cell floor. In NSW, documents leaked to Fairfax showed four kids were held in isolation for 23 hours a day for 10 days straight at Cobham child prison.

There are clear parallels on racial abuse, with evidence from Aboriginal kids in both Don Dale and in ACT’s Bimberi prison that guards called them “black c—-”.

Treatment of girls

Girls, in particular, suffered at Don Dale, with unjustified solitary confinement to separate them from boys; personal hygiene restrictions; sexual abuse and inappropriate touching by guards. Similarly, in WA a girl was found drenched in her own urine after 72 hours in solitary confinement. In Queensland, girls have been forced to cough and squat in search procedures, which can be re-traumatising for the many girls in prison who are survivors of sexual violence.

Then there’s the physical violence. Children in Don Dale, including girls, were put in chokeholds or head locks, thrown to the ground, had guards’ body weight pushed down onto their chests. In Canberra, a Bimberi ex-staff member told the Canberra Times: “I had watched and been involved in uses of force where the young person screamed for their mum or dad.”

Girls, in particular, suffered at Don Dale, with unjustified solitary confinement to separate them from boys; personal hygiene restrictions; sexual abuse and inappropriate touching by guards.

In Queensland, a child at risk of self-harm was pinned to the ground, put in handcuffs and legcuffs, and had his clothes cut off with a knife. Dogs were also used to frighten children. Last year in WA, special forces units were sent to Banksia Hill, including pointing firearms at children, and using chemical agents.

Our governments allowed these atrocities – breaches of the UN Convention Against Torture – to happen to our kids behind bars.

Abuse of children

Perhaps this is not surprising, as these abuses are mostly happening to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander kids, who are over half of all children in prison across Australia. Children as young as 10 years old. I wonder how quickly change would have happened if these abuses were mostly happening to white kids – not that it should be happening to any child at all.

I’m furious that some of these kids who were abused in Don Dale and other prisons have been charged with assault, yet the guards who abused them and breached their rights walk away without consequence. Some of these guards still work at Don Dale, Cleveland, Banksia Hill, Bimberi. Where is the justice for these kids?

Our governments allowed these atrocities – breaches of the UN Convention Against Torture – to happen to our kids behind bars.

Advocates for change

On Saturday, I sat down with mob in Alice Springs; grandmothers who have been fighting for this change for most of their lives. I heard the same concerns and calls for change as I have in many other yarns with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities across the country.

Bring our kids back to us. We can heal our kids on country. We can give our kids the support they need, with their families, in their communities. Our kids need to be strong in culture and have opportunities to thrive, not be locked up and bashed. The police need to stop targeting our kids.

We say these words again and again. No one listens.

I am in awe of young people like Dylan Voller who have been through the worst that this injustice system has to offer, and yet become strong young advocates for change. We went to Canberra together, where I heard Dylan tell politicians how the Bushmob program is the reason he is still out of prison. He wants programs like that made available to more kids.

I am in awe of young people like Dylan Voller who have been through the worst that this injustice system has to offer, and yet become strong young advocates for change.

I’ve listened to so many incredible First Nations people who are creating this change in their communities. Wirrpanda Foundation in WA; Tribal Warrior and Maragnuka in NSW; Mona Aboriginal Corporation’s cultural horsemanship program in Mount Isa; Red Dust Healing and Yinda Program in Townsville; and so many more across the country. They often struggle for funding, but do it out of the love in their hearts.

Indigenous-led solutions

We owe it to all of the children, families and communities who have re-lived these horrors and trauma for the royal commission to overhaul this youth injustice system. There is a better way: one with Indigenous community-led solutions at the centre.

Today, almost 100 organisations have joined forces to call on prime minister Malcolm Turnbull to work with state and territory governments, in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, to end this national shame.

The PM needs to listen to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations’ calls for a national plan of action. This is the only way to make sure that change happens in every state and territory, so that our children can, at last, be free to be kids.

This article was first published by Guardian Australia.

 

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Roxanne Moore, Indigenous Rights Campaigner
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