Answers urgently needed about the teargassing of children in Darwin

The tear-gassing of children at a Darwin correctional facility last month is extremely alarming and must be urgently investigated.

Six boys aged between 14 and 17 were subdued with tear gas at Don Dale Detention Centre on 21 August 2014, after the teenagers reportedly escaped their cells, armed themselves with glass, injured a prison officer and smashed windows and light fittings. The dog squad also was brought in to respond to the disturbance.

Extreme response

“Using teargas and the dog squad is an extreme way to deal with kids, and it’s against international protocols. Don’t the authorities have better mechanisms for dealing with children?” said Rodney Dillon, Indigenous Rights Advisor at Amnesty International Australia.

“They’ve got this system of dealing with kids completely wrong. We should be helping to rehabilitate these young people and show them direction. Instead, they’re getting high penalties and being hit with tear gas. We’ve got to a very sad time if this is where we’re up to.“

Boys held in punishment unit

The boys had been held in the punishment unit prior to the disturbance, and Amnesty International is calling for an investigation into the circumstances leading up to the boys being transferred to this unit.

The NT Children’s Commissioner Howard Bath has said the Don Dale facility is inadequate, and the State Government had previously acknowledged the centre was at capacity.

Amnesty International echoes Mr Bath’s calls for a full investigation into the incident including an explanation for the use of tear gas.

Prison unsuitable for children

Amnesty International is also greatly concerned about the conditions in which the Northern Territory is detaining children. The Northern Territory Government announced that Berrimah Prison, an adult prison that was considered no longer appropriate to house adults, will be used for juvenile prisoners.

The North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency has flagged that the Berrimah prison is unsuitable for juvenile offenders, even with the planned refurbishments. The previous Labor government promised to demolish the prison, and in 2011 the Corrections Commissioner said in a coronial inquiry that the Berrimah facility was so run down it should be bulldozed.

“Berrimah’s not child-appropriate. If we’re genuinely interested in helping kids with repeat offending, putting them in an old run down jail, no matter what the refurbishment, won’t solve any problems. Kids need special services including recreation and education and somewhere to meet with family. I’m not sure this old jail can ever meet those needs,” said Rodney Dillon.

Longer term, Australia needs to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture and set up a National Preventative Mechanism that will allow the United Nations to inspect all places of detention, especially as the NT does not have an independent overseer like the Office of the Inspector of Custodial Services.