The judgment is in: the Northern Territory’s juvenile detention system is in crisis, its management is incompetent, staff are undertrained, operational practices are haphazard and overly punitive, and things have been covered up when they go wrong. And the system is doing nothing to rehabilitate the young people it locks up.

That’s the picture painted by New South Wales prisons bureaucrat Michael Vita, who was engaged in October last year by the NT government to review its youth detention system, after a series of disturbances.

Correctional Services Minister John Elferink released Vita’s report in February and promised to implement all its recommendations to improve the system.

The report portrays a system that  lacks a philosophy to drive the purpose of juvenile detention and says it is “highly doubtful that meaningful headway is being made to reduce reoffending”. Says the report:

“There are no examples of programs currently provided at either (Darwin or Alice Springs) youth detention centres that would … be considered to be of sufficient intensity to bring about change in the highest group of offenders.”

On the subject of case management, the report is scathing. It describes a system that is uncoordinated and driven by individual staff (some of them without training) who, without consulting stakeholders, “drive the case management process in a very basic fashion”.

The report says behaviour management lacks any understanding of adolescent behavior — “behaviour initiated by a history of trauma, symptoms of foetal alcohol syndrome and behaviour associated with ADHD and other mental health issues”.

Staff and training

The report lays much of the blame for this state of affairs on poor training and an unqualified, mostly casual, workforce.  It identifies an “unhealthy” reliance on inexperienced, casual and temporary staff.

Casual and temporary staff comprised 90% of the workforce in the Darwin and Alice Springs detention centres when Vita wrote his report. He wants that proportion reduced to 10%, and says that turnaround would present an ideal opportunity for the Department of Correctional Services to get rid of staff or who were not performing, “or who do not wish to embrace a youth detention philosophy that will demand more interaction, motivation and job satisfaction”.

The reliance on a substantially casual workforce, Vita says, impacts on morale and management of emergency situations.

Vita describes training for youth workers as “grossly inadequate”, even though it’s “one of the most important aspects that will dictate the safe, secure and humane operations of any institutional setting”.

Youth workers had only four days of training when Vita looked into the system late last year — compared with 11 weeks training and a 12-month probationary period for prison officers. The report says:

“This is clearly not enough to develop a professional youth worker to manage young, immature and challenging adolescents, many of whom have significant mental health, alcohol and other drug and behavioural problems and who, in the main, come from abusive and violent backgrounds.”

The NT’s four-day training regime is significantly below Australian training standards. For examples, New South Wales has a 30-week training program.

Vita was encouraged to learn that the NT Department of Correctional Services planned to expand its training program to eight weeks in March, and that all staff would be retrospectively trained. He had no doubt that the lack of appropriate training had contributed to poor decision-making during disturbances in detention centres last year.

Behaviour management

Juvenile detainees who play up badly end up in the Behaviour Management Unit (BMU), and Vita’s report paid special attention to management of the BMU at the former Don Dale youth detention centre at Berrimah, which was vacated last September.

He found that high-risk detainees in the Don Dale BMU had been locked up for excessive periods for various reasons, including violent and aggressive behaviour, and found an environment of crisis management where inexperienced staff were afraid to open doors in case they were attacked.

Vita reported an incident at Don Dale on August 16 last year in which staff “acted inappropriately in threatening a detainee and attempted to cover up the CCTV surveillance to hide this”.

Then, five days later, a major disturbance broke out that resulted in juvenile detainees being sprayed with tear gas. Vita’s report reveals that the order to resort to the use of tear gas was made by Correctional Services Commissioner Ken Middlebrook — an order Vita considered justifiable.

That disturbance led to the decision to abandon Don Dale and remove the detainees to the new jail at Holtze (they’ve since been permanently placed in the former adult Berrimah jail).

In his review of all “significant incidents” that were not managed well over five years in the Don Dale and Alice Springs Youth Detention Centres, Vita identified the following contributing factors:

  • poor supervision
  • lack of experienced staff
  • lack of training, especially in crisis management and behaviour management
  • poor communication and relay of intelligence information
  • lack of appropriate direction and procedures
  • sloppy security awareness
  • immature response by some staff to detainees’ behavior
  • lack of a comprehensively structured day, which includes elements of work, programming, recreation, cleanliness, hygiene and schooling
  • inadequate infrastructure and equipment.

Vita also found that too much reliance was placed on confinement and isolation at Don Dale  — “this does not help with behaviour management.”

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey