The ‘Hardened’ Youth Justice Officer

A segment on ABC radio broadcast on Thursday commented on how things are going in the NT Royal Commission hearings so far. The Northern Correspondent for The Australian, Amos Aikman highlighted that Justice Kelly, of the NT Supreme Court, was siding on most occasions with the Youth Justice Officers.


Testimonies given to date include young people being lifted up and slammed against a wall, being kicked, being grabbed by the neck, being mechanically restrained, being isolated for long periods, being asked by a guard to perform oral sex, and being denied access to water or going to the toilet.


Amos Aikman defended one guard’s behaviour suggesting he ‘didn’t mean to do the wrong thing’ and that he was a ‘pretty good guy who meant well’. He went on to quote Justice Kelly, who offered absolution for the Youth Justice Officers involved in the ‘unpleasant treatment’ of young people in detention, because the young people were ‘nonetheless fairly hardened criminals’.


#ShutYouthPrisons, a grassroots community movement calling for alternatives to the prison system in responding to young people engaging in what gets called criminal behaviour, questions the ethical stance of the Judge. In her statement, Justice Kelly contextualises and calls for understanding and empathy, regarding the behaviour of adults in paid positions of power. However, she does not do the same for young people in our community, whose behaviour also occurs in a context and also requires our understanding and empathy.


The context of the Don Dale Detention centre, as alluded to repeatedly in the evidence heard so far as part of the NT Royal Commission, is a culture that perpetuates dehumanizing practices. Professor Rynn, Director of the Youth Forensic Service at Griffiths University, adds that the Detention Centre is ‘structurally racist’. It is inferred by the repeated questions ‘What is it about Don Dale…?’ that Youth Justice Officers in this context are more likely to use violence.


The context of living in the Northern Territory is one where racism runs through every layer of society. Aboriginal people face the injustice of colonisation including violent invasion, land and resources being stolen, culture and practices sabotaged, and barriers to participating in the society imposed on them at every turn. Young people are growing up in a community where they are vilified, marginalised, and oppressed. What responses might we expect in these conditions?


Amos Aikman highlighted the ‘community concern regarding youth crime’, and deliberated how the community might be convinced to alter their perspectives around how to respond to these young people. Amos, #ShutYouthPrisons suggest that media providing a more rigorous report on the discourses of criminality, and nuances of the justice system would be a good start.


If some sectors of the community hold fears of the ‘dangerous criminal’ at large, who needs to be removed from the community for everyone else’s safety, this is typically linked to those people who have used violence. In this regard, it is important to highlight that most young people who are incarcerated are not charged with violent offences. Conversely, we have seen and heard about acts by Youth Justice Officers that in some cases constitute torture, and these people are not called criminals.


If we are to expect that when a person causes harm, they are held accountable for that harm, it becomes very confusing when a Judge implies that some people have permission to use violence, and others are deserving of the violence used against them. Moreover, it is understood that the culture of prisons is steeped in violence, and it’s fairly widely acknowledged that more violence does not stop violence, so let’s talk about the alternatives.


First day of Darwin Hearings

Today we heard from Conan Zamolo, a former Don Dale Youth Justice Officer. His evidence came primarily from videos he had filmed on his phone and subsequently uploaded to snapchat. Some of the most abhorrent incidences were:

Pressuring a detainee to eat faeces saying “eat that little bit of poo go! go! go!” When questioned on whether he considered the health consequences on the detainee Zamolo said he hadn’t.

Sitting astride a female detainee while slapping her face with her own hands, saying “stop hitting yourself”. Conan classified this as “just having a goof” as the girl was apparently laughing. On cross examination from her counsel it was suggested this was out of fear/ discomfort, something that had not crossed Zamolo’s mind.

Asking detainees “which one of you boys wants to suck my dick?… Come suck my dick you little cunt”. This perverse request was justified by the supposed “good rapport” Zamolo had with detainees.

Approaching a urinating detainee and asking “what are you doing you little gay dog?”. Zamolo said he had caught this on film because he had been playing around with his new apple watch, which didn’t explain why he uploaded it to snapchat.

He had also pretended to film a detainee masturbating in the shower, by holding his phone up.

He could not recall if he had ever uploaded positive videos to snapchat, such as the kids playing basketball.

No doubt what we heard today from Mr Zamolo was extreme, however it is important to note there was no chance for Zamolo to play down or deny his actions since he was thick enough to film it on his phone. Perhaps this is what really makes Zamolo’s case exceptional, what would fill in the many blanks of “I can’t recall” if other guards had done the same?

On cross examination from NAAJA, Peggy Dwyer asked “Can you see it would be confusing for children that the very conduct they were being punished for was being exhibited by guards?” This punishment could include being sent to the BMU (isolation), which despite having a 72 hour time limit in policy, was know to detain youths for up to 17 days for 23 hours a day.

This adds another layer of confusion for detainees who, as we heard last week, were expected to adjust to the unpredictable and varying nature of respective guard’s disciplinary methods.

Throughout Zamolo’s questioning it was brought to light that the incident report relating to the shocking case of 4 young boys being exposed to tear gas for 8 minutes because one of them had escaped he cell and was bearing an aluminum strip, bashing on walls and windows of the enclosed area, provided false information that “detainees were out of their cells assaulting staff with shards of glass, bricks and steel poles.”

Zamolo said that he was prompted to attend a “furious” Ben Kelleher to Dylan Vollers cell by the fear that “because of his skills” he could seriously hurt Voller if he chose to “jump on” him. Kelleher attempted to block the camera in Dylans room with paper before standing over him and “yelling a whole bunch of things at him”.

It is important to look at Zamolo’s behaviour in the context of a national culture that is entwined with rape culture, where language such as this is common place (though less acceptable in relationships with authority).

This would be a partial answer to O’Callahan’s question “what was it about Don Dale that made you think this was appropriate?” Though serious systemic failures and the psychology of authority are largely at fault for the toxic culture as well.

So long as we live in a hierarchical society where domination based on class, race and gender is rife, this culture will permeate our prison system and mix with an exacerbated power dynamic to facilitate the shocking abuse we have seen. If we could eliminate this domination from our society, the need to imprison people would be obsolete.

Overview of NTRC in Alice

Friday was the final day of the Royal Commission hearings in Alice Springs, which begun on Monday with Commissioner Margaret White Introducing Arrente Traditional Owners as “guests”.

One might expect more cultural awareness and respect from someone entrusted to determine recommendations to a system that specifically targets Indigenous youth, but hey, it was a good indication of the disappointment to come throughout the week if we were to go on expecting a British Colonial Institution (RC) to truly tackle the effects of another arm of British Colonial Institution (Corrections system) on First Nations Peoples.

#ShutYouthPrisons have been at the convention centre all week, responding to a call out from Dylan Voller to be alongside those who have suffered from the dehumanising and violent practices used in prisons; practices that have gone unnoticed and unchecked by managers and politicians; practices which are seemingly upheld by policies and laws.

#ShutYouthPrisons call for something different. Prisons cause harm where healing is required. The Royal Commission must hold those who have caused harm accountable and deconstruct the systems which perpetuate these practices, if it is to be worth the $150 million that it has cost.Stay tuned for a list of demands from to the Royal Commission.

Here you can listen to some audio from Monday’s rally

Quotes from throughout the week:

“I kept explaining that what I needed was sunshine and support from my family and friends, as some of my cousins were in Don Dale at the time, but I was ignored.” – former detainee identified as BF said when his mother died, he was placed in an ‘at risk’ room with blacked out windows for two days despite never threatening self harm.

“I think that 80 per cent of the detainees like me needed someone to talk to… I saw some kids lost without culture.” – BF advocated for culturally-informed activities and counseling .

“I can’t recall that” used over and over by many government employees typically in response to having done something appalling. This memory loss is sometimes accompanied with clear and concise memory for the things they hadn’t done. Convenient, hey?

“I deny that allegation” Derek Tasker in response to many damning allegations. The validity of his conviction was somewhat disturbed when he denied grabbing Dylan Voller by the neck, an incident captured on CCTV that had already been screened in the hearing room. Whoops.

Legislative developments:

Throughout the week NT Labor announced they were currently training 25 new guards, 11 women and 12 Indigenous, in a specialized rehabilitation focused course that goes for 6 weeks. It covers the impact of trauma on a young persons brain and is designed to reduce re-offending. This is a step in the right direction and should work along side policies that work towards the abolition of youth prisons.

Instead this week we also saw Labor passing legislation to introduce ankle monitoring bracelets for repeat offenders- a move Chief Minister Micheal Gunner states will “encourage positive behavior”, a grating assessment that brings to mind rolling a poo in sugar and presenting it with an insistent smile.

Shut Youth Prisons are looking into who has the contract to supply these devices, who is profiting off this breach of privacy and Orwellian method for control. Like jail, electronic tracking devices prevent people from actions out of force or intimidation, they deny the human right of liberty. This is a quick fix response bound to agitate the problem of crime in the long run and alienate and dehumanize the people forced to wear the device.

The Royal Commission resumes its hearing in Darwin on Monday 20/03/17 at the Supreme Court and can be streamed from the NTRC website

Friday’s NTRC Hearings in Alice Springs


The grand finale of the Alice Springs hearings came from Gerry McCarthy, the former Labor Minister for Correctional Services from 2009-2012, a period where three of the abuses covered by 4corners’ program Australia’s Shame were carried out (as well as many of the poor conditions discussed in the hearings this week).

We heard McCarthy failed to read and respond to reports of abuse and neglect sent to him because he traveled a lot for his job. This could explain why Mr McCarthy was “shocked” by the 4 Corners report and had been apparently unaware of much of the abuse being perpetrated within Don Dale and ASYDC throughout his term, including detainees being strip searched, denied water for punishment or mechanically restrained.

Of the three allegations of use of excessive force McCarthy was aware of, he did not pursue the corresponding CCTV footage. In a rare show of accountability, McCarthy admitted he was “at fault” for not requesting footage of Dylan Voller’s assault, as well as accepting partial responsibility for the “systemic failings” of the juvenile justice system.

Failings in staff training were discussed with new statistics being brought to the table that in 2012 only 19 per cent of youth justice officers had completed the required three-week induction program, while only 28 per cent had received any mental health or suicide intervention training. McCarthy “had great concerns about” this, as well as with the “programs, operations, the rising numbers of juvenile detainees and the high complexities of their needs.”

McCarthy also referred to the use of Behavioral Management units (BMU’s, also known as solitary confinement) as therapeutic and likened them to timeout. This is an incredibly naive analogy that demonstrates total lack of understanding around the effects of trauma and isolation on young people.

McCarthy advocated for the closure of Don Dale and made reference to the effectiveness traditional justice programs being run in Lajimanu, for example, saying they should be models for juvenile justice facilities. He highlighted the importance of building local decision making processes and providing local jobs within communities. McCarthy also acknowledged that intervention has negatively effected the well-being of First Nations Territorials.

In a familiar course of events any question of ethical and political structure were objected to by government lawyer Sarah Brownhill and over ruled by White.

Prior to McCarthy we heard from Professor Rynn, director of youth forensic service at Griffith University. He drew the connection that since 96% of juvenile detainees in the Northern Territory are indigenous more work needs to be done to respect and facilitate traditional Aboriginal law and customs. The fact that they are run by white people for white people without regard for Aboriginal culture is colonial and white-centric. Rynn made this link explicitly calling youth detention centers “structurally racist” and they “continue the process of colonization”. He called for the attendance of ceremonies on country for detainees going through lore to be facilitated by Juvenile Detention Centers as the “consequences will be significant” “if their growth is stunted”.

Rynn provided insight into what a more culturally appropriate prison might look like, while emphasizing prisons are to be used as “a last resort”, a condition we are meant to already be upholding as signatories to the UN convention on the rights of the child. However juvenile detention in the NT a means of pushing colonialist agendas, and its industry is expanding. This is the danger of prison reform.



Smoking and Healing at the Royal Commission friday march 17 2017

It has been a big week this week at the Royal Commission, a lot of harrowing stories, terrible things, and many brave people speaking out about their experiences. Thank you, Jamal Turner, Thank you, BY.
Today we had a Smoking ceremony and healing led by Arrernte elders at the Royal Commission. We wanted to cleanse families friends and anyone effected by witnessing or hearing any abuse… to send the Royal Commission (meaning commissioners, legal team etc) off to Darwin with clear thoughts and guidance with their tough job to make the right decision, and to make sure they have the guidance of the right elders to make these decisions, To heal and send out healing cleansing to all these young people directly effected especially the ones still in jail.
It was an amazing experience. Thank you to everyone who made it happen.

Grandmother of vulnerable witness speaks out against institutionalised racism in Alice Springs

Today was another big day in the Royal Commission. In the morning we heard a harrowing account from BY of his time in Don Dale, being terrified, trapped, getting chocked by fire extinguisher gas then left chained to a fence, facing horrendous levels of discomfort; he had to mop down the floor with his shorts so as to not sit in a wet cell.

We also heard from his grandmother CA of the institutionalised racism that exists here in Alice, “aboriginal kids get put in a box”, how families are cut out of the process, how this leads to young people getting targeted by police and the injustice system, and leads to the cycle of being trapped within the prison system. Outside of court she detailed to us how they would have to get a white non-indigenous family member to inquire about their son at the police station, because the indigenous family members would be ignored by the police.

Thank you our thoughts are with you BY and your family. You are a very brave man.