Australia's treatment of juveniles in prison questioned

Footage of children being abused in a juvenile detention centre sparks renewed criticism of Australia's treatment of Aborigines.

Photo by: AFP
Photo by: AFP

Footage from Australian Broadcasting Corporation's (ABC) Four Corners program allegedly shows a teenage boy hooded and strapped into a chair at a youth detention centre in the Northern Territory city of Darwin. (AFP)

Updated Jul 30, 2016

The use of hoods, restraints and teargas on Australian aboriginal children in youth detention centres by police, as shown in footage released on July 26, could violate the UN treaty barring torture, a top UN official said on Thursday.

Australia’ Northern Territory on Wednesday suspended the use of hoods and restraints on children after the broadcasting of CCTV footage showing guards at Don Dale Youth Detention Centre teargassing aboriginal inmates and strapping a half-naked, hooded boy to a chair.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has ordered a Royal Commission in the treatment of children in the detention centre, the most powerful inquiry in the country, rejecting calls for a national inquiry.

UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez, told Australia’s Radio National on Thursday the video suggested that torture may have taken place and welcomed the inquiry but warned against limiting its scope.

"It's hard to tell only from the video or the press coverage but I do think that it's a very worrisome development that can amount to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment under any circumstance."

He said there was no question that very severe pain and suffering had occurred and the perpetrators seem to be representatives of the state. If others knew and did nothing, they too could be punished alongside those who actually committed the violence, he said.

The footage, showing six aboriginal boys being stripped naked, strapped to a chair with a hood, thrown by the neck into a cell and held for long periods in solitary confinement, was shot between 2010 and 2014 at the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre near Darwin in the Northern Territory.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said it had long been urging the government to act on abuses in juvenile detention, and the Northern Territory was the tip of the iceberg.

Footages shows teenage boy (R) allegedly being pushed by prison guards at a youth detention centre in the Northern Territory city of Darwin. [AFP]

HRW Australia director Elaine Pearson said what happened at the Don Dale Centre was "a classic example of how not to deal with troubled youth".

"Excessive use of force, isolation and shackling of children is barbaric and inhumane. This is not only a matter of training. Better alternatives to locking kids up for prolonged periods must be found."

The centre was previously accused of mistreating youth when allegations emerged that teenagers were forced to fight each other and were offered junk food treats in exchange for eating animal faeces. 

Save the Children said "The solution to preventing future abuses is not to lock up children in the first place."

Alarming number of youth in prison

Although Indigenous Australian make up three per cent of the country’s population, they contribute up to 27 per cent of those in prison.

While 54 per cent of children aged between 10 and 17 in juvenile detention are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders. 

Critics have pointed out many reasons for the high number of youth in prison, particularly among the indigenous community but directed it back to inequality between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.

Footage shows what appears to be a teenage boy (top) being kicked by a prison guard at a youth detention centre in the Northern Territory city of Darwin. [AFP]

Shorter life expectancy, higher rates of infant mortality, poor health, low unemployment levels and lack of education are among the many disadvantages the indigenous communities face. Nevertheless, there are deeper roots to these issues.

A report titled Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage stated:

"The relatively high rates of violence in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island communities are influenced by immediate factors such as alcohol and illicit drug use, mental health issues and childhood experience of violence.

However, a number of researchers also suggest that deeper underlying causes include ‘intergenerational trauma’ resulting from the ongoing and cumulative effects of colonisation, loss of land, language and culture, the erosion of cultural and spiritual identity, forced removal of children, and racism and discrimination.”   

The Australian government is working towards addressing such problems through the ‘Closing the Gap’ strategy it introduced in 2008. Although there has been some improvement in access to health care, critics are still sceptical about actionable progress.

TRTWorld and agencies