Junk Explained: Will The Royal Commission Into Juvenile Detention Change Anything?

You missed one hell of a 'Four Corners' last night.

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Last night the ABC’s Four Corners aired shocking footage of children held at Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in Darwin being tear-gassed and strapped to mechanical restraints by prison guards. The incidents occurred in 2014 and 2015 and were first reported last June, but it took an in-depth Four Corners report before politicians were compelled to take serious action.

This morning Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced he would establish a royal commission into juvenile detention in the Northern Territory. Turnbull said he was “shocked and appalled” by the Four Corners report.

“We want to know how this came about, we want to know what lessons can be learnt from it. We want to know why there were inquiries into this centre which did not turn up the evidence and the information that we saw on Four Corners last night. This is a shocking state of affairs and we will move quickly to establish what happened,” the Prime Minister said on ABC radio this morning.

So what’s actually going on in juvenile detention facilities that warranted such a swift response from the Prime Minister, and will a royal commission fix anything?

A Timeline Of “Torture” From Four Corners

When reports of young detainees being hooded and gassed in a NT detention centre first emerged last year they were brushed off by the NT Corrections Commissioner, who argued a heavy-handed response was necessary given the prisoners were “rioting”. According to the Commissioner, the detainees had armed themselves with weapons and barricaded themselves inside the detention centre.

At the time, the ABC reported that tear gas was used to subdue six prisoners who had escaped from their cells, then armed themselves and smashed windows. This account has been contradicted by Four Corners. CCTV footage aired last night showed that only one young prisoner had escaped his cell, after a guard left it unlocked. The remaining five children were locked in an enclosed area when guards fired tear gas at them. Two of the boys were playing cards when they were gassed.

You can watch the footage from Four Corners here. It shows the children crying as they attempt to escape the gas. Some of the boys try to hide behind their sheets and mattresses while others are bending over their toilets. The CCTV footage appears to contradict the statement made by the NT Corrections Commissioner that teargas was only used to subdue a violent riot.

Separate video footage obtained by Four Corners shows a 17-year-old detainee at the Youth Detention Centre in Alice Springs being shackled to a chair. After the incident occurred, NT Parliament passed legislation to ensure “that modern mechanical devices of restraint or advancements in technology” could be used on child detainees.

“I make no excuses for the proposed amendments. They are crucial in providing detainees, members of staff at youth detention centres and the public with greater safety and security,” said the then NT Corrections Minister, John Elferink.

Elferink has now been sacked as Corrections Minister by NT Chief Minister Adam Giles. Giles declared that “A culture of cover-up” is prevalent across the NT’s youth detention facilities, and installed himself as the minister responsible for detention facilities. However, Giles has been criticised for attempting to wash his hands of the incidents and journalists have called out his suggestion that the upper echelons of the NT government weren’t aware of what was going on.

In the aftermath of the tear gassing incident, the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre was closed down and juvenile detainees were moved into an adult prison. But the NT Children’s Commissioner told Four Corners that “there are still ongoing issues with youth detention in the Northern Territory” and “urgent and dedicated resources” were needed to fix the problems.

The Response So Far

Immediately after the Four Corners report went to air last night, a number of human rights experts called for an independent investigation into juvenile detention in the NT. Speaking as a panellist on Q&A, the president of the Human Rights Commission Gillian Triggs called for a full inquiry.

“If one of us were to have been found to have treated our children in this way we would probably be charged with a criminal offence and the children taken away from us,” she said. “I certainly think we need some kind of government-based independent commission, whether it’s a full royal commission or not I don’t know.”

Amnesty International, the Australian Bar Association and the Human Rights Law Centre also condemned the actions taken against the children and called for an inquiry. In response to the public outcry, the Prime Minister announced he would set up a royal commission into juvenile detention in conjunction with the NT government.

What Is A Royal Commission And What Will It Fix?

Royal commissions are powerful, independent public inquiries that have wide-ranging powers to collect evidence and hold hearings into a particular matter. Recent royal commissions have been set up to look into trade union corruption and institutional child sex abuse.

The terms of reference, which will lay out the full scope of the latest royal commission, have yet to be released but will likely focus exclusively on juvenile detention in the NT. The government will appoint a commissioner and set out a timeline for when the commission has to deliver its final, and any interim, reports.

The commission will likely present a number of recommendations to both the federal and NT governments in response to the evidence it hears. Once it concludes, it’s up the government to decide whether to implement those recommendations or ignore them.

Should The Royal Commission Only Focus On The NT?

In 2012 the Victorian Ombudsman, an independent government investigator, found that child detainees were incorrectly placed in adult prisons more than 24 times over a period of six years. In one instance, a 14-year-old boy was placed in an adult prison after his birth certificate was read incorrectly. The ombudsman declared that these incidents breached the Victorian human rights act.

Because of instances such as this, some human rights experts are calling for the royal commission to go further than just juvenile detention in the NT. There are concerns that unless the government commits to implementing serious structural change across the board, the commission’s recommendations might just “gather dust”.

The issue of systemic racism in the Australian justice system has also been raised following the Four Corners report. One human rights lawyer, summarising ongoing criticism of Australia’s prison system, has declared: “Racism is at the heart of the mistreatment of Indigenous youths in detention”.

“If you were seeing non-indigenous children being treated this way, there would be a swift response from the community and the government to the problem, but when it’s mostly indigenous … the government seems to be entirely dismissive of them,” said Professor George Newhouse, principal solicitor at the National Justice Project.

Australia’s Indigenous incarceration rates have been declared a “national crisis”. Indigenous people make up 27 percent of the total prison population but only 3 percent of the total population. In the NT, a massive 85 percent of the prison population are Indigenous. There is clearly a systemic, racial problem with the way our justice system treats the Indigenous community.

Human rights experts are right to be concerned about potential government inaction too. In 2014 the Human Rights Commission published a report called The Forgotten Children: National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention. The report collated “compelling first-hand evidence of the negative impact that prolonged immigration detention is having on the mental and physical health” of children locked up in immigration detention. What did that report lead to? Pretty much nothing.

Tony Abbott, the Prime Minister at the time, criticised the report, ignored its recommendations and said “the Human Rights Commission ought to be ashamed of itself”. Malcolm Turnbull refused to condemn Gillian Triggs and the Human Rights Commission but as Prime Minister he has perpetuated the policy of locking up children indefinitely in offshore immigration detention.

A royal commission into the incidents exposed by Four Corners should be welcomed, but it certainly exposes the government’s hypocrisy. If the alleged torture of child detainees in the NT is “appalling”, as the Prime Minister put it, why have all the reports and inquiries into the detention of asylum seeker children been ignored by this government?

The brutal treatment of children under the care of our governments, whether they are juvenile detainees in the NT or asylum seekers on Nauru, warrant serious investigation and exposure. But the government doesn’t need to wait for the findings of a royal commission in order to protect children. It could instead immediately implement the recommendations of various different inquiries conducted over recent years, including the NT Children’s Commissioner’s report into juvenile detention and the Human Rights Commission report into the offshore detention of child asylum seekers.

Malcolm Turnbull has an opportunity to right the wrongs of previous state and federal governments on the issue of children in detention. He can start by promising to implement the recommendations of the royal commission in full, and act to protect all children in detention, including children under Australia’s care on Nauru and Manus Island.