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.