Every Friday, a crowd of protesters gather on the side of the road outside the now-infamous Don Dale youth detention centre on the industrial outskirts of Darwin.
WARNING: This story includes racist and offensive language.
Some have children or grandchildren held inside the facility, an old adult jail condemned years ago as fit “only for a bulldozer”.
More children and young people are now held in the still-operating centre than when a royal commission recommended its closure five years ago today.
Documents leaked to the ABC show the number of young people entering Don Dale and its Alice Springs counterpart had increased 94 per cent towards the end of last year.
The spike was the intended result of “tougher than ever” changes to youth bail laws made by a Labor government elected on promises to reform the Northern Territory’s “broken” youth justice system.
When the royal commission handed down its final report in 2017, then Chief Minister Michael Gunner said its findings “will live as a stain” on the territory.
“For this, I am sorry,” he said.
“But more than this, I’m sorry for the stories that live in the children we failed.”
The royal commission — and the ABC Four Corners investigation that triggered it — made headlines around the world.
Other Australian states were put on notice of “wider implications for all jurisdictions” and Mr Gunner vowed that his government would follow the commission’s “expert advice”.
When she heard that, Larrakia woman and then-social worker Nicole Hucks said she was hopeful — even optimistic — about the promise of change.
She is now the NT’s Acting Children’s Commissioner.
“Five years on, I have to say, I’m still quite disappointed and disheartened at the progress, or lack of progress, that has been made,” Commissioner Hucks told the ABC this week.
Instead of improvements, her national counterpart, Anne Hollonds, said there was a youth justice crisis across the country that was not making communities safer.
“Australian kids as young as 10 are still locked up. Bail laws are tougher so new children’s prisons are being built to meet the demand,” she wrote on Twitter.
“I fear we have lost our way.”
Don Dale is still open, closure set to be delayed again
After years of delays, the NT government quietly revealed this week that construction of the new youth detention facility to replace Don Dale now looks unlikely to be finished next year.
The news came in the wake of this week’s follow-up Four Corners youth detention exposé, which focused on WA’s Banksia Hill youth prison and tough-on-youth-crime crackdowns across the country.
The episode aired fresh CCTV vision of Don Dale guards using what Commissioner Hucks deemed “excessive force” against a teenager at risk of self-harm.
Commissioner Hucks said she provided the vision — “by no means the most concerning” incident she said had been referred to her — to give insight into “current conditions” inside the very centre investigated by the royal commission.
NT Chief Minister Natasha Fyles said the incident shown was “unacceptable” and “disturbing”.
When the ABC confirmed an internal review had made no excessive force findings and recommended no sanctions, Ms Fyles said the incident “[was] certainly thoroughly investigated”.
The replacement for Don Dale, Ms Fyles revealed in the same press conference, may now not be completed until early 2024.
When it does open the centre will be bigger than initially planned.
The government was last year forced to increase capacity in the centre’s designs by 30 per cent to accommodate the higher numbers of detainees expected as a result of its youth bail changes.
In breach of royal commission recommendations, the centre is being built alongside Darwin’s massive adult jail, further away from the city itself.
The system has changed, Labor says, despite youth bail backflip
Pressed this week by Four Corners on the failure to implement royal commission recommendations, the minister now responsible listed some of the changes that have been made.
“I am absolutely confident that we are not the system we were in 2016,” Territory Families Minister Kate Worden told the program.
“We are not there anymore.”
A number of key reforms have been implemented by Labor since the royal commission.
- Bans on the use of spit hoods and restraint chairs
- Introducing laws to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 12
- The transfer of youth justice away from adult corrections and into the Territory Families department
- Substantial expansion of youth diversion programs
- Increased training requirements for youth justice officers
- Child protection practice reforms
Critics and youth justice advocates have also spoken positively about the therapeutic “model of care” designed for the yet-to-be-opened replacement for Don Dale.
But the same critics, who defended Labor’s progress after the royal commission where they could, despite backflips and go-slows, say the government’s resolve for reform buckled at the start of last year.
The youth bail crackdown reversed royal commission changes and was raced through parliament despite criticism even from within Labor itself.
Similar laws announced the month prior in Queensland were reviewed after six months, with the results only publicly released this week.
Preliminary monitoring data leaked to the ABC confirms the NT’s changes saw a doubling of the number of young people remanded in detention and a decrease in numbers accessing youth diversion.
But could the tough-on-crime talk be losing impact?
As with similar moves in other states, the crackdown came from a government back under sustained pressure over crime rates, especially in Alice Springs.
A tabloid TV special was followed by an NT News editorial calling for “some hard discipline and harsh consequences” for “these little darlings” instead of more youth engagement efforts.
But some of the loudest demands for action — and criticisms of the royal commission’s work — found voice on community Facebook pages filled with crowd-sourced mobile phone footage and home security camera vision.
Like on similar pages in regional towns around the country, the posts and comments include distressed accounts from victims of crime, suspicions shared by neighbours and passers-through and racist commentary ranging from relatively low-level to extreme and violent.
The popular ‘Action for Alice’ page in Alice Springs, created by bakery owner Darren Clarke, was also loaded with criticism of former Chief Minister Mr Gunner’s perceived inaction on crime.
With Mr Gunner now gone, Mr Clarke was last week invited for a meeting with the new Chief Minister, which he was “really happy to do”.
“My first question off the bat to Natasha was — do you really know how bad this is?” he said.
Statistics from NT Police show a significant increase in almost all crime types in Alice Springs over the past two years, including already-high rates of domestic violence.
Frequent home and business break-ins and dangerous driving of stolen cars are the biggest concerns online — as well as discomfort about large numbers of children and teenagers hanging out on the streets at night.
The town was rocked when a local disability support worker and motorcyclist died in a hit-and-run in late 2020, involving a stolen car carrying five teenagers including a 13-year-old boy.
The bail changes were announced early in the new year.
Mr Clarke said he believes Labor does not understand the experience of Alice Springs locals.
But he has more recently lost faith in the opposition Country Liberal Party’s (CLP) proposals, which would revert things to pre-royal commission policy settings.
“They say these things like ‘oh, we’ll be tough on crime, we’ll put victims first’ — yeah, but where’s the detail in all this?” he said.
“I think some of the time they look like they’re [just] going to lock kids up and throw away the key, and I don’t support that.
“I’m not saying ‘lock ’em up’, that is not the answer. That is not the answer.”
Mr Clarke said he was uncomfortable with the recommendation to raise the age of criminal responsibility but the issue was “probably not [his] expertise to speak on”.
He does support Labor’s still-developing idea to empower police to take kids on the streets at night and deemed at-risk to a “safe place” for a child protection assessment, and potential removal, instead of returning them home.
The contentious proposal — which was not a royal commission recommendation — was let slip last week after another chaotic night in Alice Springs, when Territory Families minister Kate Worden was asked what she had to “announce” in response.
“When we got broken into, we [were] here at 2 o’clock in the morning, 3 o’clock in the morning and we had five-year-old kids, eight-year-old kids running around here,” Mr Clarke said.
“You look at the car thefts the other week — some of these kids are eight, nine, ten, 11, 12.
“I don’t care what your politics are — those kids aren’t safe. I don’t care whether it’s Alice Springs or the streets of Melbourne, it should never happen.”
Apparently exhausted, Mr Clarke becomes briefly emotional when voicing hope that his dealings with Ms Fyles, or federal MPs Marion Scrumgour and Jacinta Price, will lead to improvements.
“They’ve got to win this one, there’s so much at stake,” he said.
Raising the age debate due in parliament next week
The racist online comments are acknowledged by Mr Clarke. He said he believes many come from non-Alice Springs residents and that he deletes what he can from his page.
Under a post from Wednesday featuring a photo of several young teenagers in a car park, a local account makes a mocking comment about traditional artwork. An account based in Victoria posted an image of a sniper aiming a rifle.
Calls for a “cull” of Aboriginal people in Darwin were highlighted last week on the social media page of a business owner organising an anti-crime meeting in Palmerston.
Alice Springs-based MLA Chansey Paech, who has Eastern Arrernte and Gurindji heritage, was emotional when he raised the issue in parliament after his party’s youth bail laws were passed.
He was disgusted and “alarmed” to see comments like “‘chop their hands off’, ‘sterilise their parents’ and ‘let’s just gas them'” on community and individual pages.
“That is not the Territory I know, or want to know,” he said.
As Attorney-General, Mr Paech will steer the passage of the raise the age legislation through parliament over the fortnight of sittings beginning next week.
The government’s bill will raise the age from 10 to 12. It does not limit the detention of young people under 14, as the royal commission recommended.
Labor has the numbers to pass the legislation despite the CLP’s opposition, but has not said when it would come into affect.
A confidential report obtained by Four Corners shows every justice department in the country recommends the age should be raised to 14, but there is political opposition in multiple states.
In Darwin, the protesters stay they will return to Don Dale every Friday until the centre is shut down.
The vigils began after the youth bail crackdown and when a 10-year-old boy was detained in the centre for the first time since the royal commission.
When the Territory Families department was briefing frontline services about the changes, they were asked how young people in the prisons would be kept safe as the centre’s populations increased and conditions worsened.
Chief executive Ken Davies told the meeting the issue kept him awake at night.
A spokeswoman told the ABC it was a general comment about the department’s responsibility to the children in its care, and not a comment on the youth bail changes.
After the changes, there was a 500 per cent increase in self-harm incidents in youth detention.
Note: The thumbnail image for this article is used with permission.
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