On youth prisons: grandmothers, reformers, revolutionaries


p2495 Prisons Kngwarraye sisters 430By KIERAN FINNANE 
UPDATE, 6 October 2017, 4pm, police respond to allegations, see at bottom.
Police violence and arrests, particularly of Dylan Voller and his mother Joanne, at last week’s Shut Youth Prisons protest have overshadowed the group’s broader messages.
The night before at a discussion panel they had organised, a group of Arrernte women, all Kngwarraye kin, had joined the group’s call for youth prisons to be closed and no more to be built.
Their demand came as the Territory Government were sending any local youths to be detained to Darwin, while they refurbish the Alice Springs youth detention facility, as a temporary fix costing $1.3m.
The Kngwarraye women (above) were, from left, back row, Veronica Lynch, Pamela Lynch, Sabella Turner, Margie Lynch, and, seated from left,  Amelia Turner, who chaired the meeting, as well as Christine Palmer who was on the panel.
Veronica Lynch read a prepared statement on behalf of the group, invoking their culture as the ongoing source of their strength, and their authority as apmereke-atweyes (custodians), before turning to the matter  at hand:
“As grandmothers, we care for our grandchildren. We want the government to listen and acknowledge us. Kids need to be in country, not in custody.
“Kids don’t need to be behind bars, they need to be out on the homelands, where we as grandmothers and grandfathers can teach them their cultural responsibilities.
“We demand that youth prisons are shut and no more built; that the guards … and police found to be abusing, assaulting, murdering and sanctioning abuse of prisoners are sacked and no more; that community led and culturally appropriate alternatives to prison are rigorously pursued and invested in, teaching our kids language, teaching kids how to read country and landmarks, holding them strong in our kinship system.”
They were supported in their call by their Kngwarraye brother, Benedict Stevens: “Kids need growing up, need to learn more with us first. If they do go into prison, how will they learn our cultural way?”
More pointedly, Mrs Palmer urged the women to take matters into their own hands.
“Education starts at home,” she said more than once, describing the “beautiful system” of Arrernte family organisation, where (ideally) children are raised by many mothers and grandmothers.
It is being destroyed by “all this money-making”, she said, and she urged the women not to turn to government for money to support their cause. If they do, they will have to do things the way government wants.
She also spoke of getting parents involved, not only grandmothers, however Amelia Turner, in the chair, made the point that sometimes parents are “fairly young themselves” and that’s when “the kids turn to their grandmothers”.
Aboriginal people are allowing this money-making to happen, for instance, by people working in the youth detention and protection systems: “We need to take care of our grandchildren ourselves.”
At the same time, Mrs Palmer was scathing about the police and broader community’s attitude towards young Aboriginal people.
All over Australia as well as in Alice Springs “our children are provoked on the street by police”, she said. Amelia Turner agreed with this.
Mrs Palmer told a story about police calling out to her grandson, “Come here, you little black c***!” When her grandson answered, “Well my name is not a black c***, my parents named me Andrew”, she says he was put in the lockup for the day.
Racism is the norm in Alice Springs, she said: “As Aboriginal people every day we go out there’s racism, systemic bias, stereotyping, abuse by white people in this community.” Though she acknowledged that not all white people behave in this way, she said the community is not safe for Aboriginal people and especially not for kids.
This puts the shoe on the other foot, when much of the popular conversation is about Aboriginal kids making the community unsafe for others.
p2495 Prisons Christine Palmer, Debbie Kilroy 430As strong as their statements were, they fell short of the sweeping rhetoric of the organisers and interstate visitor, Debbie Kilroy (speaking left, alongside Mrs Palmer).
Anna McCauley, one of the organisers, opened the meeting, acknowledging that it was being held on Mparntwe, the land of Arrernte traditional owners where “invasion, dispossession, genocide and assimilation” are ongoing. She urged “settlers and beneficiaries of this imperialist regime” to cease their complicity in “this oppression and fight against the economic and social structures that enforce it”. One such structure is the prison system.
Ms Kilroy is the CEO of a Brisbane-based advocacy group called Sisters Inside, which works for the human rights of incarcerated women. She herself spent six years in prison for drug offences, but has since qualified in social work, gestalt therapy and law and was introduced as the first and only former prisoner  to work as a legal practitioner in Queensland. She has received an Order of Australia for her work with women prisoners and was a finalist in the 2016 Australian of Year awards.
She described Australia as a “capitalist, neo-liberal, racist society” that ensures the “prison industrial complex” and the welfare industry actually thrive.
She said many people are making money “on the backs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children”, referring not only to private prisons, but to all the “tentacles” reaching out from them – the police, the courts, the homeless industry, the mental health industry, the black industry (black money taken by white NGOs and religious NGOs).
Prisons are violent environments, she said, that only make things worse: people’s mental and physical health  will get worse and they’ll be angry when their released. The true purpose of prisons is “to dispose of most marginalised, the throwaway people” –  Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, the poor, the abused women, the children in care.
“Prisons are a dumping ground to get rid of social issues, but they don’t, they get rid of human beings. That’s why we have to abolish them, to imagine our communities without prisons.”
She urged the group to stop talking about reform, because reform only widens the net. Instead the group should make a stance, responding to the fact of “stolen land” and of the poverty that capitalism has created, with all its flow-on effects for mental health, addiction, suicide.
The land should be given back to its Traditional Owners and poverty should be addressed: “We live in a rich country, we can stop poverty overnight.”
Also on the panel was criminal defence lawyer Russell Goldflam, a well known peace and social justice campaigner in Alice Springs, and outspoken on matters of criminal justice and alcohol policy reform.
He agreed that prisons have become dumping grounds for thousands of people around Australia who suffer various disabilities and cognitive difficulties, who’ve fallen by the wayside and should not be in gaol.
But there are a small group of people who are extremely dangerous and some people who must be punished, in his view, including people whom he has acted for “who’ve done the most unspeakably horrible things you can imagine”. Prison is the place for them.
However, he deplored the NT’s imprisonment rate, almost six times that of the rest of country, and particularly its doubling in the ten years from 2005. The increase has come to a halt over the last 12 months, he said, for reasons nobody yet really understands, but this offers a “glimmer of hope”.
Studies around the world have found that locking people up has no deterrent effect on crime, he said, and while incarceration in the short term protects the community, by reducing the opportunity to commit a crime, in the long term it leads to more crime: “There’s no question, the effect of being incarcerated makes [offenders] more likely to reoffend.”
p2495 Prisons Benedict & Russell 430Mr Stevens (speaking left, alongside Mr Goldflam) agreed: “In some ways [prisons reduce crime], but really they make young fellers, by looking at the walls inside the prison, you’re sort of encouraging them as well, making them more mad. They’ll only come out saying, ‘Oh, I’m a man now, I can do any crime, I’ll go back in’.”
The panellists were asked to respond to these questions: “How do structures of racism, patriarchy, and colonisation inform the prison system? How can we move towards dismantling these structures?”
Ms Kilroy repeated her analysis of Australian history and power relations, but she also talked about the consequences of a stronger police response to domestic violence. Operating with “degendered” legislation, it has led to increased incarceration of women for breaches of DV orders.
In Townsville women’s prison, for example, 20% of Aboriginal inmates are in there for such breaches.
She spoke of the importance of asking women the right questions: not “Did you hit Billy?” to which an Aboriginal woman might simply nod; rather “Tell me about Billy.” This open invitation then leads to the woman disclosing “all the violence perpetrated against her and her children and raises every defence in the criminal code and then we run jury trails and win them.”
That’s the work the lawyers must do, she said, attack the system with “decarceration strategies”.
Mr Goldflam didn’t dissent from the underlying analysis of the question– “these structures do contribute to understanding why we hyper-incarcerate Aboriginal people” – but he rejected its “demonising language”. He has spoken a lot about the “danger and toxicity of demonising children in the NT, a terrific hobby of the previous NT Government’s leaders”. Similarly, the question as framed “demonises the people we don’t agree with”. It also embraces “a language of victimisation”.
“It’s not to say it’s not true, but what does it achieve tactically when we are trying to bring about change?” he asked.
He urged the group to adopt a language of persuasion and take advantage of a new government being in power with a different point of view: “We’ve got to stop pissing outside the tent and make ourselves the sort of people who are invited into the tent, to be part of the process of getting things changed.”
Amelia Turner in the chair expressed her appreciation of his contribution, saying “from my point of view, Russell tries his best to try to make sure our young fellas are out of gaol, or our families, thank you, Russell.”
p2495 Prisons Russell & Amelia 430The incarceration of young people in the NT would be reduced by a simple remedy, the abolition of ‘breach of bail’ as an offence, said Mr Goldflam (speaking left, alongside Amelia Turner). Police can arrest an offender for breaching their bail conditions without it being an offence, he said.
His legal aid office sees children whose original offence was something like stealing from a shop but who end up with 27 charges, 26 of which are breaching bail and “they can’t get out of the system”.
Some of these children end up in custody.
Breach of bail is the most common offence in both justice in NT – “I’m disgusted and embarrassed to say”, said Mr Goldflam. He expects the government will “get rid of it when they get round to it”.
Ms Kilroy told the gathering that this offence has been repealed in Queensland.
Mr Goldflam said most children go to court only once, they learn their lesson and there’s no further re-offending. The best response is to divert them to be counselled, cautioned, to family conferences, victim-offender conferences.
“We do divert a lot, but could do far more,” he said, arguing for the elimination of restrictive rules about only being allowed two diversions.
Mr Goldflam also argued for raising the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to at least 12. In some European countries it is 15. He said there is no good reason to argue that a child of 10, 11, even 12 or 13, is capable of committing a criminal offence: such children  “should be taken to a place of safety”. He said there is no indication from the NT Government that they are going to change the age of criminal responsibility.
He argued for responding to every child who misbehaves from a trauma-informed perspective as a starting point: look for what has happened to the young person and address it.
We also need “quiet, charismatic heroes” working in the youth justice and child welfare systems, he said, and we should do everything possible to support them.
Meanwhile, following Dylan Voller’s appearance in the Supreme Court yesterday, four Arrernte grandmothers have called for all fines resulting from the recent protest  to be dropped and for NT Corrections to  stop any further action against Mr Voller. They allege that NT Police are persecuting the Voller family. The Alice Springs News Online is seeking comment from the police on this allegation.
The grandmothers are Sabella Kngwarraye, Pamela Kngwarraye, Patricia Ansell Dodds, and Doreen Carrol (Western Arrernte and Luritja grandmother and great-grandmother).
UPDATE, 6 October 2017, 4pm:
NT Police have responded to the allegation that police are persecuting the Voller family. The allegation included that Dylan Voller and his mother were “targeted” at last week’s protest and that large numbers of police had been to Mrs Voller’s home over a two week period, “each time in response to a small fire being used to cook kangaroo tails in the backyard”.
The response is as follows:
“Police respond to all reports from members of the community. As this matter is before the courts, there will be no further comment from NT Police.”


  1. I commend these women on speaking out. However I don’t think their plan would work, don’t get me wrong I would love it if it could work! Why can’t we build a purpose-built location (on country), not prison, more boarding house for kids to learn and develop skill with elders talking and teaching.
    I would like to see more training/coaching for parents or soon to be parents on their responsibilities and help getting them permanent housing to bring up their families in a stable way.
    It’s a fact that if you turn your back on modern society’s ways and language you are essentially turning your back on prospering and your generations’ chances to come also.
    I also believe you should have to be Aboriginal or part to sell any Aboriginal art works in Australia, it’s their art and should be their profits.
    I could go on forever but that’ll do…

  2. Local 1: What “they” do you mean?
    And James, I think there are many layers that the panel didn’t have time to flesh out further. For example, many continue to ask for repairs and improvements made to housing without having any success. Descriptions of homes as shells are used by some. While I can only talk in generalities here, the basic tenet is that the assumption that proper access to basic needs is diligently met is another of the assumptions “modern society” makes without really taking responsibility for making those needs universal and true.

  3. Apart from talking, what are the grandmothers actually doing? Are they going to join the male elders with the proposal of engaging our young people on the streets?

  4. A sad reality is that there are many people who see incarceration as ‘respite’ from the inter-generational drudgery of welfare dependence.
    For some, the opportunity to be accommodated and fed at no or little cost to themselves is an attractive option. They do not perceive that there is much opportunity for them to be gainfully employed, secure adequate housing or access education.
    There is no poverty from a financial point. These people have a poverty of spirit; a ‘lost’ generation. They have lost connection to culture, country and lore. They don’t perceive that they have a duty or responsibility to contribute in positive ways to their communities.
    If we, as a committed community, are to turn this miserable reality around, we have to attract attitudinal change over decades into the future. Empowering young people to raise their children well is a key component to success.

  5. @ Jameel: I really hope you are being sarcastic when you say “who are they?”
    Do I really need to explain that “they” are the grandmothers that are calling for these young ones to go out bush, learn their ways and culture and be removed from town instead of being locked up. This used to be done in the 70s, when the young ones were going off the rails, they were sent to family on out stations, where they learnt their “cultural responsibilities”.
    Unfortunately all these solutions are suggested when it is too late.
    Only after the kids have robbed, stolen, destroyed, harassed, broken etc, and they have been to court, and sent to detention as a last resort to these so called concerned grandmothers shake their heads about what would be best for the kids.
    Surely if they had these concerns, they would have sent the kids out bush when they first started getting into trouble.
    With such a strong and close family bond, these grandmothers know what the kids are up to, and they certainly have family who live out bush who could take these kids for a while, like used to happen.
    Unfortunately these family structures have broken down, and it is now easier to blame everybody else for their woes, because they can no longer control their own kids appalling behavior, lack of respect and willingness to use violence.

  6. On the subject of grandmothers and their potential for a positive influence on children’s lives I recommend the reading of the “Hillbilly Elegy” by J. D. Vance and the comments on the book by Greg Sheridan in the Weekend Australian July 22/23 2017.
    As Greg says: “The real hero of the book is his grandmother,” although an American (USA) author and a story set in America about poor white working class people, the outcomes of the author could be achieved by an Australian child with the help of a caring grandmother.

  7. Racism is normal in Alice Springs.
    Racists demand others racial identification so they can decide whether respondents acceptable or not.
    Racism wins when the question is answered.
    Racist goal is wider acceptance for division of our rights and responsibilities as Australians using racial identification as the measure.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here