Watch Dylan and his sister Kirra talk to NITV about his thoughts on the Interim Report of the Royal Commission, with reflections on the proceedings so far. In his first interview since an interim report found the Northern Territory’s juvenile justice system is completely broken, Dylan Voller asks why some people were allowed to work with children and calls for accountability.
Here Dylan and Kirra are on The Point (need to have an account (free) with SBS to see it):
Announcing the delivery of the Northern Territory Royal Commission Interim report, Commissioner White delivered a powerful indictment of the punitive justice system in the Northern Territory:
“At every level, we have seen that a detention system which focusses on punitive, not rehabilitative, measures fails our young people. It fails those who work in those systems and it fails the people of the Northern Territory who are entitled to live in safer communities. For a system to work, children in detention must be given every opportunity to get their lives on track, and to enter the community less likely to re-offend.”
Outside the Royal Commission hearings in Alice Springs, a Grandmother to a vulnerable witness spoke to the camera. Her gaze was direct, and she enunciated her words carefully, “They are children”. She paused. With her eyes she asked the viewers to hear those words a little deeper. “They are children” she repeated.
The Royal Commission hearings that have been taking place over the last 3 weeks are focused on the “Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory”, so the fact that we are talking about children here should be self evident. Yet in the rush and hustle of Commission hearings and media coverage, it is a fact easily forgotten. These three simple words cut to the heart of the conversation the Royal Commission has forced the Northern Territory to have.
Last week, a verdict was delivered in a case brought against the Northern Territory Government by former juvenile detainees. In her summary, Justice Judith Kelly characterised the detainees involved as hardened criminals. Detainees who were children at the time of the events. In her ruling, Kelly stated “I cannot ignore the fact that each of the three plaintiffs who gave evidence … has a considerable criminal history.” Because of her characterization of the children as criminal and unreliable, Justice Kelly rejected eight of the plaintiffs’ claims, while partially upholding two. “Generally, when considering each of the plaintiffs’ claims, I have preferred the evidence of the youth justice officers and prison officers,” Kelly stated.
Justice Kelly called for understanding and empathy for the behaviour of Youth Justice Officers. However, she did not do the same for the children involved in the incidents.
The behaviour of the Youth Justice Officers included holding children in isolation for extended periods, teargassing them, hooding and shackling them. At the time of the teargassing, some had been in isolation for 17 days. The legally permissible limit was 72 hours.
In the popular imagination, it is easier to justify punitive measures against people described as ‘detainees’, or ‘offenders’. The word ‘children’ offers a different feeling. It demands protection, even care.
Reading a handwritten statement to the Royal Commission in 2016, Dylan Voller, the youth at the centre of the Four Corners coverage that sparked the commission, said: “One of the biggest problems we face is the fact that we are being further punished whilst in prison. Being sentenced by the judge to do our time for our crime is our punishment, not the continued mental and physical abuse we continue to cop while we’re here”
The absence of calls for ‘understanding and empathy’ for children convicted of crimes in the Northern Territory is not an accidental omission. Rather, it reveals a punitive culture. Ideas like ‘teaching people a lesson’ hold sway here, as well as the presumption that if people are acting outside the law, the system has not been punitive enough. This predilection for punishment permeates all levels of NT society. Community members and business owners call for harsher punishments for property crime in local papers and online forums, politicians garner popular support through law and order pronouncements, and local police officers enforce laws with discretionary judgement that sees many children facing the full extent of the law.
What is shocking is not the ‘tough love’ approach itself, but rather an insistence upon it that is so implacable that it would support the torture of children.
Educators have known for many years that encouragement and not punishment is the path to positive behavioural change. However as the experiences of Dylan Voller and other detainees have revealed, ‘rehabilitation’ carried out in the Northern Territory’s youth detention centres has involved not only the deprivation of liberty, but also verbal and physical abuse, and even the deprivation of basic necessities such as food and water, education and care.
Russell Goldflam, principal legal officer at the Northern Territory Legal Aid Commission, said ‘I’ve seen many children in court and there’s a lot of shame, being paraded through he court foyer in Alice springs in handcuffs. It’s a humiliating experience. That sort of shaming is compounded when they see on TV some politicians talking about them (in derogatory terms). It has a corrosive effect on their self-esteem… and is a self-fulfilling prophesy”.
Northern Territory government policy has for years been influenced by a popular desire for punitive measures. However as adults trusted with the care of children, we as a community have a responsibility to look beyond knee-jerk responses and build a system that encourages children to truly rehabilitate, grow and thrive.
David Ferguson, who produced a 2014 review of NT juvenile detention in the aftermath of events including teargassing, assaults and attempted escapes stated: “It should be obvious to anyone that if you treat youth like animals by not communicating, threatening, belittling them, withholding food and other entitlements, they will react in an aggressive way”. He went further to suggest that “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.”
In the context of a punitive culture, it is imperative that we take responsibility for the care and rehabilitation of these children away from the current system. Since the Stanford Prison Experiments of the 1970s, psychologists have understood that putting anyone in the positions of power constructed by prisons without an ethic of care and systems of accountability, will inevitably lead to abuses. To this day in the NT, staff and managers who have committed past abuses continue to be employed and responsible for the welfare of children in detention, the majority of the workforce has completed only 3 days basic training, and there are constant staff shortages that produce harsher conditions for incarcerated children.
The Grandmother looked beyond the camera to a line of departing lawyers rolling away suitcases and a gathering of small family groups quietly reflecting on the day. “We teach our kids to respect, to respect your elders.” She said. “And if the elders in those places of authority is not giving that (respect) to the kids, well, our teaching is thrown out the window.” There was a sadness in her voice. Her wisdom is simple, but it shows us a way forward in a way the Royal Commission is still finding the words for. We teach our children the values that we want them to embody.
What the Royal Commission offers as a path forward for the children of the Northern Territory remains to be seen. Recommendations will not be handed down until the final report is tabled in August. However it is now clear that under current conditions, the difficult task of the rehabilitation of vulnerable young people will continue to be plagued by failures and abuses. The only responsible way forward is to close existing detention facilities and look at alternatives.
(We’ve been Live Tweeting the Royal Commission follow us at @ShutYouthPrison on twitter.)
Today James (Jimmy) Sizeland of the now notorious “Jimmy’s Boys” Former Assistant General Manager of Don Dale, was on at the Royal Commission into Child Detention and Protection. Jimmy’s Boys refers to the group of guards that worked at Don Dale who were trained fighters, amateur and professional, that were afforded special treatment to do what they wanted within the prison, these include Zamolo and Kelleher.
In the morning on examination by the counsel assisting the royal commission, Jimmy initially appeared smug happy to pull shots at management, the dysfunction of the “situation” or the “environment”
Examination by Callaghan Counsel Assisting RC:
– Jimmy wasn’t sure why he got he job, he had “ no training for working with kids”
– Jimmy, an amateur boxer, would run informal trainings of guards, without informing the training staff (De Souza) and without a paper trail.
– All resources for training were “put on hold” by corrections commissioner as there were all directed to new adult prison.
-DCF were unhelpful, nonchalant.
– ran a boxing program that was latter shut down by management.
– Jimmy agrees that the BMU was a “waste of time” and counsel assisting then asks whether it is “just an act of cruelty”, Jimmy cannot agree to those words.
But as Jimmy was in a managerial position this, smug deference to superiors quickly unraveled for him. When questioned about the Individual Case Management Plans that were seemingly a cut and paste job, with clearly no attention given to their editing, he had little to say. He could not answer when the Callaghan drew that there may have been children in isolation with no case management plan. This poor bookkeeping was then underlined with his apparent ignorance that it was his responsibility to keep a use of force register.
Commissioner White questions him on why they could not have even cleaned any of the cells, her disgust is palpable.
WHITE: basic issue of management couldn't you get some hot water and soap and mop it (bmu) out!?!?!?! #ntrc
Evidence called into question multiple times during the cross examination
1) Jimmy who tear gassed kids in the Don Dale incident shown in the 4corners report, agrees to knowing the directive for the use of gas in jails, yet that directive clearly specifically refers to the use of gas in adult prisons. While Jimmy agrees to Lawrence’s (Counsel for AD) blow by blow recount of the incident there comes a point where Jimmy starts to lose his memory. Jimmy cannot recall who the Youth Justice Officer that was ramming the door was. That is unbelievable. He says that there were 15 – 20 people there including dog squad, (which is an overestimate) most of whom he works with and manages. It is clear that the commissioners find it hard to believe him too. White continues to question him on it. And he continues to not recall.
Sizeland + all other YJOs questioned over 2014 tear gassing incident forgot who said "I'll pulverise the little fucker", convenient #ntrcpic.twitter.com/oV9yAnWAoE
2) Jimmy cannot settle on whether or not his evidence he tabled to both the Supreme court and the Royal Commission is true and correct. He is unsure whether detainee AJ punched him or not, saying No then Yes, its unclear.
3) The poor book keeping of individual case plans and use of force register, and apparent attempt to explain it away.
4) How AJ was tackled. In his evidence AJ says Jimmy stomped on his head whilst Zamolo and Kelleher were holding him down. Last week Zamolo and Kelleher said they held AJ down, Kelleher said he tackled him with a rugby tackle, and both said they held his arms. Today Jimmy said he took AJ down by himself held his arms and was lying underneath him.
-DonDale CCTV was only saved if requested by external agencies such as the Police or childrens commissioner.
-Otherwise DonDale CCTV was destroyed after 2 – 3days/
– So if a kid wanted to make a complaint to the commissioner but was put in isolation (say after an incident) for a few days, the CCTV would have already been destroyed once the kid was out of isolation in a position to make a complaint.
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.
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.
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.
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