It isn’t Abu Ghraib, but you could be forgiven for making the mistake when you first see the picture of the hooded 17-year-old.
— Elise Worthington (@elisereports) July 25, 2016
In shocking footage made available to the public for the first time on Monday night, guards at a juvenile detention centre in Darwin are seen apparently systematically abusing the teenager Dylan Voller in a horrific timelapse.
The Australian investigative series Four Corners aired CCTV footage showing guards body-slamming him to the ground, punching him in the head, violently stripping him naked, and pinning him to the ground in a hog-tie position.
It continues, piling atrocity on atrocity from when he was a 13-year-old detainee in 2010, until he is shown shackled to the chair in the already infamous photo from footage this year. It is understood that Voller has long been the object of special animosity from the guards.
Voller was not the only child suffering in the Don Dale facility over the years; tapes also showed six boys being tear-gassed in August of 2014. They had reportedly been kept in tiny isolation cells for 23 hours a day, some of them for weeks, though laws limited such confinement to 72 hours.
At the time, the press was told that there had been a riot at the prison in its maximum security cells but the newly-released footage shows a markedly different set of events. Guards had left one of the boy’s doors unlocked, and he slipped out of his cell and broke a window. Just as he appeared to be surrendering, guards took the decision to gas all six boys in the wing, five of whom were in their cells.
This situation would be shocking enough, but attitude shown by the guards – who laughed when the would-be escapee soiled himself, calling him unprintable names – has sent the whole country into an uproar.
Australia has a complicated justice system; it is technically governed by the Crown and it’s made up of both states and Territories. Policies shift wildly between them, and the Northern Territories are governed by what Australians call The Intervention, a series of paternalistic policies meant to cut back on crime and violence in Indigenous communities.
In 2007, then Prime Minister John Howard announced that pornography and alcohol would be banned for Aboriginal peoples in the Northern Territories, and welfare spending restricted by item.
Though only 3 per cent of the general population, Indigenous people make up 28 per cent of Australia’s incarcerated adult population, and 54 per cent of jailed youth nationwide. In the Northern Territories that youth number nearly doubles to 97 per cent.
John Elferidge, who until yesterday was the NT Minister for Corrections, said that the trouble was due to a “lack of training”. Adam Giles, the NT’s Chief Minister, has sacked Elferidge and personally taken over the portfolio, saying he was kept in the dark about these events Giles has pledged to appoint a permanent Inspector General for the Territory.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has called for a Royal Commission into the allegations of abuse and torture by prison workers, to be completed by early next year.
This is in itself controversial, because Turnbull has taken the decision to limit the Commission’s scope to the Don Dale facility alone – in the interest of speed and efficiency, he says – instead of investigating the whole of the Territory. Given that some of these guards have since transferred to other facilities, many people are concerned that this narrow investigation will fail to remedy the horrific problems.
Dylan Voller remains in isolation in an adult prison. Peter O’Brien, solicitor for both Voller and another of the boys, has called for his immediate release, saying that three of the guards from Don Dale are still in charge of his welfare.
It is unclear how much of this abuse is actionable. In most of Australia the statute of limitations to allege abuse by staff is three-six years. In the Northern Territories, it is a mere 28 days.