This week Australia will be given a roadmap to ensure children are never again abused as they were in the notorious Don Dale youth prison. After twelve months of hearing evidence, the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory is due to release its report and recommendations on Friday.
Shahleena Musk, Senior Lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre, who previously worked as a youth justice lawyer in Western Australia and the Northern Territory and represented many children in Don Dale, said that the Northern Territory Government must implement each and every Royal Commission recommendation.
“This is not the time to pick and choose. Children’s lives are at stake. The Northern Territory Government must commit to wholesale implementation and the Federal Government must help fund it. Anything less will be a sign that our governments are not serious about ending the abuse of children in youth jails,” said Ms Musk
The Royal Commission was announced after the ABC’s Four Corners program aired a shocking expose showing horrifying footage of children in the Northern Territory’s youth detention facilities being abused, including being hooded, tear gassed, stripped naked, threatened with dogs and held in solitary confinement.
Children in the Northern Territory are still being detained in Don Dale - a decommissioned maximum-security adult prison, that Ms Musk says is inherently unfit for children.
“The Royal Commission laid bare the devastating cost of removing children from their families and locking them away behind bars. Prisons fail children. Governments should invest in small, age-appropriate facilities located close to communities that foster connection to family. All children should have the opportunity to grow up safe and be supported to reach their full potential.” said Ms Musk.
Jewel Wheeler, a twenty-year old woman from Darwin who is an advocate for children in out-of-home care, was taken from her family when she was a baby and drawn into the criminal justice system when she was eleven years. Ms Wheeler said the cruelty of the system robbed her of a childhood.
“I was so vulnerable. Instead of helping me, the system harmed me. I often wonder how different my life would have been if I had actually been cared for – if I hadn’t been hauled before the courts and locked up in a concrete cell. I was labeled a criminal before I even knew what that word meant. Children this young should never be arrested and put behind bars. There are better ways to respond to kids who make mistakes and it involves love, care and support,” said Ms Wheeler.
Ruth Barson, Director of Legal Advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre, who previously represented children in Don Dale, said all states and territories currently have archaic laws that breach international law and allow children as young as ten to be drawn in and trapped in the criminal justice system.
“Ten year olds should be supported in primary school not syphoned into prisons. Australia needs to get in line with the rest of the world and raise the age of criminal responsibility – the age when children can be charged, brought to court and imprisoned – to 14 years,” said Ms Barson.
Ms Barson said the Royal Commission’s recommendations will give Australia the toolkit to close the dark chapter of Don Dale.
“The children who suffered in Don Dale, the children who have been abused in youth jails across Australia, deserve to know that our governments will listen to their calls and take action. The only thing more horrifying than the abuses we saw in Don Dale would be if our governments fail to do everything they possibly can to make sure it never happens again,” said Ms Barson.
For media inquiries:
Michelle Bennett, HRLC’s Director of Communications: 0419 100 519
The Human Rights Law Centre made four submissions to the Royal Commission, available here:
HRLC’s recommendation to prohibit solitary confinement (4 October 2017)
Reforming the Northern Territory’s youth justice system (10 July 2017)