'If you treat youth like animals …'


p2422 NTRC welcome 450By KIERAN FINNANE
Many of the issues coming to light before the Royal Commission into youth detention in the NT were clearly outlined in an internal memorandum produced by the Professional Standards Unit (PSU) at the request of then Corrections Commissioner Ken Middlebrook.
At right: Arrernte elder Peter Wallace (seated) with Greg McAdam and Commissioners Mick Good and Margaret White. At the recent Alice Springs hearings Mr Wallace welcomed the work of the Commission for what “you are trying to do  for our young ones”. 
Mr Middlebrook had asked for a review of issues in youth detention after the tear-gassing incident at Don Dale (in which he himself took part) made notorious by the Four Corners report (image below) that sparked the Royal Commission.
That incident took place on 21 August, 2014. The review was handed to Mr Middlebrook one month later, on 19 September.
Undertaken by the director of the PSU, David Ferguson, it clearly pinpointed many of the issues that have since been brought painstakingly into focus by the taking of evidence at the Royal Commission.
In their interim report made last Friday, 31 March, the Commissioners sum these up as follows:

  • poor or inadequate staff recruitment, training and rostering
  • inappropriate communication methods used by staff with children and young people
  • a lack of understanding of the rules of the centre by the children and young people detained
  • a lack of direction from centre managers, and
  • insufficient programs and activities for the children and young people detained, resulting in boredom and escalation of difficult behaviours.

The conclusion of the PSU memorandum pointed clearly to the way forward:
“It should be obvious to anyone that if you treat youths like animals by not communicating, threatening, belittling them, withholding food and other entitlements they will react in an aggressive way. Most of these incidents were most probably entirely preventable with the use of appropriate communication and open interaction with the detainees combined with a regular routine to keep them occupied.
“The positive response of YJOs once provided with direction from prison staff, clearly indicates that most YJOs are capable of performing appropriately once they are shown what is expected of them and follow up is provided to them to reinforce that they are doing the right thing.”
p2345 Four Corners gasAt the time these words were written Mr Middlebrook had more than a year in front of him as Corrections Commissioner (he resigned in November 2015) and it took almost two years before Four Corners blew the lid off the broken system.
The existence of this memorandum and apparent failure to take up its learnings is yet another example of the NT’s pervasive “culture of commissioning reports as a substitute for action” that has been referred to by Senior Counsel Assisting the Commission.
The Commissioners note in their interim report that they expect to hear further evidence on this memorandum as public hearings progress. (Mr Middlebrook is expected to give evidence in the week commencing 24 April 2017, as is former Corrections Minister John Elferink.)
The present NT Government has started to implement reforms. The Commissioners note the new youth justice officer training period of six weeks and its focus on rehabilitation, including training about the impact of trauma on children and young people. They also note the recruitment of 25 new YJOs, including 11 women and 12 Aboriginal people.
However, they also note the complexity of the task that these YJOs will be confronted with: “Many children and young people enter detention with serious cognitive disabilities, mental illness, addiction to nicotine, alcohol and other drugs as well as physical deficits such as poor hearing and sight, and, in some cases, also functional illiteracy. These factors impact on their behaviour and ability to conform to the rules within a facility.”
Their acknowledgement of these reforms is not the same as “backing” them (as headlined in the Chief Minister’s media release in response to the interim report). They do, however, explicitly “welcome” the $18.2 million package of initiatives – including the provision for 52 youth diversion workers based in Darwin, Palmerston, Katherine and AliceSprings – to address crime and to break the cycle of offending, announced in February.  In contrast, they specifically warn against a commitment of funds at this stage to any immediate upgrading or building new detention centres before the Commission completes its work and makes final recommendations.
“While there is no doubt that the current facilities are not appropriate places to house youth detainees … decisions need to be made about the more fundamental question of what kind of facilities are required, and where they should be located. The Commission is examining these questions in its inquiry, including considering the most appropriate model for detention facilities in the Northern Territory.”
Their recommendations are likely to include specific remand facilities, separate to youth detention centres. They note that the majority of the youth detainee population today are on remand, awaiting trial or hearing, and a significant proportion are in detention for breaching the ‘non-criminal’ conditions of a bail order.
Alternatives to custodial orders and remand conditions as well as issues relating to bail will be examined in future public hearings.
The Commissioners note but do not comment upon the NT Government’s recent legislative amendments to expand the use of electronic monitoring bracelets.
They make clear that the goals of any youth justice system are to reduce youth crime and build safer communities. They acknowledge the high level of public concern about both, which to date the system has been failing to address. They have heard that a greater focus on rehabilitation and restorative justice is likely to lead to safer communities – an approach strongly backed by Aboriginal Peak Organisations of the NT. More evidence about this approach will emerge in coming hearings.
To date the focus of the Commission has been more on youth justice and detention than on the other half of its brief, which is child protection. Its attention will shift more to protection issues in the coming months.
In the interim report the Commissioners note that placement instability and having an experience of being in out-of- home care are strong indicators of potential involvement in the youth justice system. They note the difficulty of early intervention in remote settings and say “responding to the issues of remoteness in the Northern Territory will be a fundamental consideration” for their  recommendations.
They acknowledge “the continued impact of intergenerational trauma on Aboriginal people within the Northern Territory” and its link to the over-representation of Aboriginal children and young people in out-of-home care and youth detention.
They go into some detail on the impact of trauma on brain development, not only in early childhood but also in adolescence.  Health issues for children and young people will thus form “a significant part of the Commission’s considerations as it moves towards making its final recommendations”.  These considerations will undoubtedly include the NT’s per capita rates of alcohol and tobacco consumption – the highest in the country – and  high consumption rates of methylamphetamine (‘ice’) and MDMA.
The Commission’s final report, with comprehensive recommendations to guide the government in making sustainable change to both youth detention and child protection systems, is due on 1 August. As the Commissioners say, the task in front of them is “considerable”, but the objectives are clear:
“The Northern Territory deserves a safer community where youth crime is at a minimum.
“The children of the Northern Territory deserve to be treated with respect and dignity, with every child in out-of-home care or in detention given a real opportunity to reach their full potential.”


  1. There is an elephant in the room that I have yet to read being addressed.
    That elephant is known as Foetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorders.
    Do you remember a few years ago FADS was much in the news, with the focus being on new born children?
    Well, those children are now entering both the detention system, and the school system.
    It will always be hard reaching these children, and if they come from a broken family, it will be even harder.
    Something to think about when putting together a training manual.

  2. @ Hal Duell: you’ll be glad to know that the Commission does deal with FASD.
    They have been provided with evidence from Western Australia, which they say is “applicable across all Australian jurisdictions, that demonstrates the profoundly harmful effect of alcohol consumption, particularly in the early stages of pregnancy on the developing brain of an unborn child, leading to cognitive and behavioural deficits known generically as Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). Children and young people affected by FASD experience significant behavioural problems, including difficulty paying attention, learning and controlling their emotions and urges, and placing them at significant disadvantage in the context of the criminal justice system. It also adversely affects their educational outcomes and general well-being.”

  3. @Kieran Finnane
    Posted April 4, 2017 at 6:28 pm
    Thanks for that information. I’m relieved to hear that this issue is also being discussed.

  4. Why is it that most are focused on the excuses for the bad behaviour and ensure that criminal acts are ignored for the physical and mental issues of the young offenders.
    The elephant in the room are those who are employed in the department of corrections and police and believe that they have the right to abuse physically and mentality those who are incarcerated.
    We have major crime increasing due to the abuse within these systems that give rise to perceived rights to remove the basic human rights from prisoners.
    The abuse we see in the movies is not fantasy. That is the life style of these institutions.
    Whilst the saying goes there is good and bad everywhere, it is not acceptable to ensure those bad eggs continue in their employment in these roles.
    Rehabilitation training was removed and abuse of rights put in. Prison is not a place to be put for the whims of the brutal and sadistic prison guards and others.
    We need to improve our corrections service and ensure that rehabilitation is centre to everything that happens.
    I know many very good corrections staff. And like most industries the brutal corrupt ones are usually protected and the good ones forced to resign.
    People are normally incarcerated for crimes against society. We appear to be focusing on them as victims and ignoring those who were victims of the offenders.
    The too and fro is lost in its propaganda.
    We need to ensure our prisons and facilities are in line with basis human rights and rehabilitation.
    The time of human beings viewed as animals and used for entertainment as in illegal dog fights is over.
    Focus on the problem that is the Department of Corrections. Clean it up.

  5. Sadly, Janet, you don’t really have much of an idea on this one, but you cover all bases.
    You slam corrections staff with the descriptors of being brutal and corrupt, but then say you know many good ones. That’s a good coverall. A bit like saying I’m not racist, I’ve got a couple of mates who are Aboriginal!
    When was rehabilitation removed and abuse of rights put in?
    Please, Janet, remember that prison guards are not employed as youth workers.
    One group works in a prison, one group works with youth. Do you actually realise they are different?
    Brutal and sadistic? What examples can you give of prison guards acting like that, in light of the above.
    The gassing of the ones at Don Dale? Found by court to be lawful and reasonable.
    The youth worker allegedly grabbing a kid around the throat? Not guilty in the Supreme Court, and again on appeal.
    The youth worker that slapped a kid? Already dismissed.
    The body builder one at the commission the other day, already dismissed, all the above in the public record.
    You claim that the abuse we see in the movies is what the lifestyle is in these institutions is really like.
    How could you possibly know Janet?
    You must want to be seen as the voice of compassion and reason, but your argument is all over the place, and lacking in facts.
    You may want to appear as knowledgeable, but you are simply dog whistling for public acceptance of your point of view, and it is way off the mark.


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