July 2016 – Is Australia about to lose it’s reputation?

Everything came out simply because professional journalists did their job as researchers. Reporters working for the ABC-program “Four Corners” found one of the truly great scandals in Australia’s young history. They could do that because they were fully back uped by their channel and by the editors from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. The ABC is the tax-funded institution that Tony Abbott, the former Prime Minister, did not like at all, because again and again the ABC filed critical reports on the activities of his government.

The reporters found out about wrong doings of governmental bodies and about public servants ignoring the law and even sometimes simple rules of humanity in a civilised society.

A scene as described in US jails in Guantanamo Bay

dylan-vollerWhat happened? A young boy, scantily and clad, sitting on a chair. He is tied up to the armrests and on his head they slipped him a kind of hood. The head itself is fixed with a strap to the back of the chair. “Just relax,” tells one of the men in uniform to the boy and after that obviously leaves the room. Later it came out that the boy was left behind, tied to the chair and blind folded by the hood for at least two hours.

This “educational measure” is practised in the juvenile prison in Alice Springs, the city right in the heart of Australia. Both the reporters and the public initially believe, that this is an isolated incident. But only little later it becomes clear that this is certainly a misconception. With further research coming to light it’s clear that unpedagogical and often brutal measures are probably the rule in some public institutions. So quickly the journalists found out that things like this happened before. Almost exactly two years ago six boys were locked into an isolation cell and subsequently tear gassed. This too place in the Don Dale Juvenile Detention Centre in Darwin, the capital of the Northern Territory.

Does that happen in prisons all over Australia?

No individual cases so – but certainly still limited to the Northern Territory? No, this is certainly a totally wrong assessment. From detention centres in other states or territories come reports on similar cases: girls are forced to lie naked on the floor of their cells – sometimes for a long time, young women are ripped off their clothes, other female inmates are mistreated by supervisors.

The ABC fucusses on the case of Dylan Voller. No doubt, the boy is a criminal and in urgent need for proper help by an expert. Since he is 11 years old, he often ends up in prison. He steals cars, commits burglaries and robberies. In the prisons he is abused, isolated, forcibly pushed onto the ground, “treated” with tear gas.

One well known example shows clearly how staff in juvenile prisons sometimes trests the inmates they are responsible for: Dylan Voller is on the phone one day, when a guard orders to put down the handset. The young man does not react immediately. The handset is taken away by force, the officer starts kicking the inmate, punches him out and keeps the prisoner by force on the ground. Even colleagues of the warden called this an “inappropriate measure”. Brought to court the officer is found not guilty but his working contract is not renewed. Even though now there are probably considerable reservations about the professionalism of the guard, he only little later signs a contract at the youth prison in Alice Springs again. Again working with young male inmates.

“We do everything to protect the young people”

don-dale3A reporter of ABC spoke to Ken Middlebrook. He was the responsible supervisor at the time Dylan Voller was tied up for two hours and with a hood over his head on a chair. This procedure of his employees was well known to Mr. Middlebrook an approved by him. He says that the boy wanted to spit and with the hood the officers had protected themself. The two-hour tying to a chair, alone in a cell justifies Middlebrook with the words: “He has threatened to hurt himself.” Then he adds: “We do everything to protect the young people”.

The fact that the state violence is well covered in juvenile detention centers by the party responsible, make the testimony of former prison employee from Queensland significantly. Graham Pattel has worked for eight years in “Cleveland Youth Detention Centre” in Townsville. He says that he has repeatedly observed massive violence and unnecessary penalties against the boys in jail. He is sure, that the violence is well covered or backed up by public institutions. The children are sometimes only 12 or 13 years old and repeatedly shouted “you’re hurting me, you’re hurting me,” without stopping the guards maltreating them. Graham Pattel published the brutality in the prison he worked in on social networks. Shortly after he was fired.

Jeff Ingram, also a worker in a juvenile prison describes similar events. So another warden grabbed a boy by the neck and beat him again and again with a tin can in the face. Subsequently, the injured boy was thrown to the ground. Ingram reported the incident, an investigation most probably was not initiated. Ingram was laid-off short time later.

What is wrong with the the system?

ABC has also spoken to Joshua Creamer, a lawyer who deals intensively with the incidents in youth prisons. Creamer believes that all these cases are not exceptions, but that brutal violence against children and adolescents happens everywhere and every day. “I was busy with a case in which a 11-year old boy beaten both eyes black in a prison in Brisbane. His jaw was broken. So this does not happen by chance “.

So what is this “system-error”, if one exists? Is it because security personnel are not sufficiently supervised in prisons? Are the guards in detention centers poorly trained and more likely to punish than to help and to educate? Do authorities intend to deter people by tough measuresr? Is it possible, that those in responsible positions think, that prisons in Australia are not the right place for educational science and psychology? All these questions have to be asked by the government – and all such incidents quickly require close examination and appropriate consequences.

So far some official bodies react like defiant children sometimes do. The government itself brought a case against the young people who were tortured in the cell with tear gas. “Finally, by the rampage of the kids a fence and a gate has been destroyed. They have to be punished.” The total damage caused by the escape attempts of prisoners lies in the amount of 200,000 dollars. The authorities want this amount to be reimbursed by the children.

Juvenile prisons are meant to protect the inmates and to positively influence their education and social behaviour. If those responsible miserably fail, how can they be role models for those who are entrusted to them?

Australia has a reputation to lose

Australia has an outstanding international reputation – with two dark spots on it. Firstly, the treatment of the aboriginal people by authorities and institutions in the young Australia – long ago but far from forgotten – and secondly the way refugees and asylum seekers are treated on remote islands. A third dark spot still can be avoided, if the issue of “violence against prisoners” quickly is acknowledged and eliminated. That something has to happen and that is has to happen now is without any doubt. A “Royal Commission” will be active soon. This is an independent committee chaired by an experienced judge. Yet this committee is to examine only the incidents in the Northern Territory. In the interests of Australia, that is hoped all dubious incidents in detention centres across the country are quickly to be cleared up, and to wardens, security guards and educators clear limits have to be set.