Above: Dylan Voller (left) giving evidence to the Royal Commission. Screen capture from the commission’s live streaming.
By KIERAN FINNANE
A remarkably composed and articulate Dylan Voller today spoke of his experiences in detention at the Royal Commission into Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory. He summed them up at the end – reading from a hand-written statement – as the “mental and physical abuse we continue to cop while we’re here”, on top of doing “our time for our crime”.
He acknowledged his criminal history, some of it involving serious offending, as something he is “definitely not proud of”. He said he was “sorry for it” but it was “done already”.
He also described his habit, in his younger years, of spitting at officers as “disgusting”. He said he regretted it, but it became a “mechanism”, a “reaction” because he was “defenceless”. When three or four officers were holding him down and hurting him, he couldn’t tell them to stop, they’d only “go harder”.
But, as his institutional reports show, he said, with maturity he has grown out of spitting.
He has had no consistent schooling since the age of 10, often being excluded from class in the detention centres. He accepted that he had often made things difficult for his teachers, but said it was “not on purpose, I couldn’t control my behaviour”.
He did not hesitate to speak well of a handful of individuals who had helped him along the way. One, an Indigenous youth worker at Don Dale, tutored him in his school work. Mr Voller said he’d always had problems with concentration and this man helped him out with one on one attention.
He had appreciated the visit by Larrakia Nation, one of the only “cultural programs” he’d experienced while in detention. He said it was “good for us” to talk to people from the outside, not only to see people from the gaol.
He named three officers from the Department of Children and Families who “came to work to do their job” – they would try to talk to him, make an effort. “They cared about us young people and wanted to help us.”
In particular they were “helping us have stronger family relationships”. This in contrast to others who just came to work “to get paid”, and one caseworker in particular who told him his family didn’t care about him. He had “started believing it”.
This was the only time Mr Voller became upset during the proceedings. Senior counsel assisting Peter Callaghan (left), who was taking Mr Voller through his statement, asked if he wanted a break at this point, but Mr Voller gathered himself and shook his head.
“You know it’s not true,” said Mr Callaghan, referring to family members present in the court. Mr Voller agreed.
In the course of one of the worst experiences he related – his transfer by road transport from Alice Springs to Darwin, made without notice and against the advice of his psychiatrist – he said he was lucky enough to get a couple of good officers for the leg north of Tennant Creek. “They broke a few rules”, opening the side of the car and letting him sit there to get some fresh air, having conversations with him, turning on the air-conditioning and providing him with cool drinks and snacks, even buying him MacDonalds in Katherine.
Not so the leg from Alice to the town 500 kms north. Shortly after his transfer to the adult gaol, he was woken early one morning and told he was going. He travelled in a van normally designed, he said, for taking people to and from court, not for long distance travel. He was hand-cuffed. There was no water, no air conditioning, no windows to let in outside air, the two youth justice officers smoked, which gave him a headache and made him feel sick. He was very agitated, trying to choke himself with his seatbelt, trying to break the seat he was on. There was no provision for going to the toilet. His request for a toilet stop was ignored. Eventually he had to defecate in his shirt. He remained shirtless for the rest of the trip.
He had earlier spoken of another incident in the Alice Springs Youth Detention Centre when he had been refused a toilet visit and had to defecate in a pillow slip. At other times, instead of being taken to the toilet, he was told to urinate outside, through the door or a window. This happened “plenty of times”.
There was no privacy in the bathrooms and toilets. Doors were removed from the stalls. Officers watched while you were on the toilet, he said, which he found “scary”.
Strip-searching was a frequent occurrence, before and after each visit to court, to the doctor, each time he was “placed at risk”. This happened from the time he was first detained, at age 11 or 12. Officers “wouldn’t let you cover your private parts”, he said. He described the routine, including probing of his mouth and ears with the officer’s finger, and the “squat and cough” inspection.
At one stage, when he kept covering his cell camera with toilet paper, he would be strip-searched every time he went to the toilet.
During his now infamous spell in the restraint chair, wearing a spit hood – shown on the Four Corners program, “Australia’s Shame” – he had again been refused the opportunity to go to the toilet and he ended up “pissing in the restraint chair”. The footage, in which he looks to be pacified, was far from a complete picture, said Mr Voller.
He said during the two and a half to three hours in the chair (“it felt longer”) he had struggled and complained and tried to get out of the chair: the restraints at his wrists were very tight; he was getting dizzy and agitated; an officer, who was making fun of him, would turn the camera off and then on again when he became angry. The elastic on the spit hood was around his neck, instead of, he said, as it is supposed to be – across the nose. He said this showed that the hood was being used to punish him, rather than just to prevent spitting. He had vomited in his mouth and kept it there.
This was one of the “scariest” things that had happened to him, that and the tear-gassing incident, which also featured on Four Corners.
Not being able to do anything about it, there being no responsible person to say “that’s enough” – these were the worst aspects of the experience.
When he was not yet 13 he had been placed in a residential house by child protection, along with his sister. There he had come into contact with older youths, who encouraged him to smokee marijuana. Somehow they were able to get hold of it and get away with smoking. It was one of those youths with whom he later got into more trouble, on the inside and outside.
He gave accounts of being denied food as a punishment while in detention, and in some facilities having no access to water in the cells, having to wait to be given a drink.
He spoke of being left in his cell in Alice Springs for a whole night with no clothes, no mattress, the air-conditioning going full blast. He was “freezing”; his requests for a blanket ignored. This was in response to him having ripped up his mattress and sheets. He saw it as “punishment”.
He spoke of a certain officer purposely leaving the light on in his cell all night which stopped him from sleeping. When he asked if it could be turned off, the officer said no.
He spoke of the “token economy” that operated, where good behaviour could earn you a maximum of $4.50/week, from which $1.50 would be subtracted as “rent”. The remainder would be saved to buy essentials like underwear and toiletries, as well as, he said, Walkmans or CDs (which would have taken quite some saving).
He spoke of the classification system for detainees. You were marked by the colour of your t-shirt, red for high security, orange for medium and so on. He spent 95% of his time, he said, in a red shirt, although he had never tried to escape from custody. Being a “red shirt” meant he didn’t have access to many programs and to activities like running on the oval at Don Dale.
It was very hard to change his classification. One or two incident reports would nullify his attempts at better behaviour.
Was there any consistency to the system? he was asked. “Definitely not,” he answered. And he was told there was no possibility of appeal.
He spoke of the use of isolation, for non-compliance, swearing, fighting, threatening, being deemed “at risk” – “anything they want to put you in for”.
Why was he deemed at risk? he was asked. What had he done?
There were occasions, he said, when he felt depressed – he didn’t want to be in Don Dale, he was lonely, he was being bullied, officers didn’t care, and so he would do things that meant he could be isolated from others. He cut his wrists, he put sheets around his neck to the point of being taken to hospital. He’d done that five times.
When he was serving the sentence before the current one, he was in isolation for the last 24 days of his term. He went straight from isolation back into the world outside. Mr Callaghan was off camera but could be heard heaving a sigh of incredulity, although Mr Voller remembered, with a smile, that his mother and sister had driven up from Alice and were there waiting for him.
He was asked about various incidents, some of which had been shown in the Four Corners report. One of the more notorious showed an officer throwing him to the floor, after apparently telling him to get off the phone. That officer was later charged but found “not guilty”, although apparently nobody told Mr Voller this. When he returned to detention (on a subsequent sentence) he discovered the officer was still employed there.
At left: Mr Voller as he watched footage of one of the incidents described.
He was asked what had happened to him immediately after the incident. Answer: he was restrained and placed in an isolation cell, with this same officer walking up and down outside it, checking on him through the cell door.
In another incident, footage that the commission viewed apparently showed him, in his words, “tucked up in a ball”, protecting his face, from an officer who was standing over him, threatening to break his arm as well as threatening to kill him. (The live streaming out of the Darwin courtroom did not show the footage and it appeared to be screened without audio.)
Mr Voller concluded his evidence by reading his written statement (that had been shown first to the commissioners). In it he called for an end to the additional punishment, the “mental and physical abuse” that is meted out by officers in prison – in the adult system where he is now as well as the juvenile system. Things such as the humiliation of Aboriginal prisoners for not being able to speak English properly.
“That’s not fair and needs to stop,” he said, and “young people need love and someone to talk to, not being locked in a cell for days on end with nothing. Trust me.”
The commissioners thanked him for his evidence, with Commissioner Mick Gooda commending him for his “bravery in coming forward”.
Note: Because he is a “vulnerable witness” Mr Voller’s evidence was not subject to cross-examination but that does not mean that it will be uncontested in all respects, as legal counsel representing past and former employees of the NT Government were keen to make clear.