A still image from footage shown in the Four Corners episode
A still image from footage shown in the Four Corners episode

The ABC’s Four Corners program has produced another swift response from government, with Malcolm Turnbull already promising a royal commission into allegations of abuse of children in Northern Territory juvenile detention. But despite protests from authorities that they could not have known what was going on, the abuse was well documented almost a year ago.

In last night’s graphic broadcast, journalist Caro Meldrum-Hanna detailed the use of tear gas on six boys held in the Behavioural Management Unit of the Don Dale Youth Detention centre outside of Darwin in August 2014, as well as so-called spit hood head coverings and strapping children to chairs in footage reminiscent of the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.

Turnbull announced a royal commission into the treatment of children at the facility this morning. The terms of reference have yet to be announced; he wouldn’t say whether it will solely focus on the Don Dale centre or juvenile justice in the Top End generally. On AM this morning, the PM said:

“We will get to the bottom of what happened here. We want to know how this came about, we want to know what lessons can be learned from it, we want to know why there were inquiries into this centre which did not turn up the evidence and the information that we saw on Four Corners last night.”

But in fact, other inquiries did uncover issues. Even then-NT corrections minister John Elferink — who told Four Corners he had not seen the footage — was aware of issues given he’d previously responded to other reports citing the footage. In February 2015 New South Wales prisons bureaucrat Michael Vita released a report declaring the NT juvenile justice system “grossly inadequate” and detailed many of the abuses, as Crikey reported at the time.

Elferink also had access to then-NT children’s commissioner Dr Howard Bath’s report on the August 2014 incident. Bath’s report — released in October last year — details the attempt by 14-year-old Jake Roper to escape from his room in the BMU facility before he and five other children housed in the centre were gassed for several minutes. Initially the use of tear gas had been portrayed as the response to a riot in the centre, but Bath’s report found only Roper had escaped from his cell. Roper’s cell had no natural light and no access to water or air-conditioning, and Roper had been kept in the cell for all but two hours in a 24-hour period for days.

Bath’s report cites handycam footage taken by officers of the incident, showing Roper complaining of the length of his detention in solitary confinement:

Roper: “I’ve been in the back cells for how long bruz?”
Officer: “Have you had time out or not?”
Roper: “Yeah but I’ve been fucken stuck in there for how long?”

This is part of the footage later leaked to Four Corners. Bath found that no attempts were made by staff to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the incident, and that the officers were aware that using the gas to subdue Roper would also expose the other children locked in their cells. Two of those children in Bath’s report were said to “say their goodbyes” to each other, thinking they were going to die from the gas. When the six children were transferred to an adult prison after the incident, Bath found “a number” of them had spit hoods put over their heads, although only one of them had a history of spitting on staff.

The incident was also reported on Crikey blog The Northern Myth earlier this year, in a guest post by barrister John Lawrence.

At the time of the report, the NT corrections commissioner Ken Middlebrook claimed that officers had made “the right call”. He said Bath’s report was inaccurate and without context.

NT Chief Minister Adam Giles today sacked Elferink and said that there had been a “culture of cover-up” in the corrections system. He claimed, despite the Bath report containing screenshots of the CCTV footage and heavily referencing the footage, that the footage had been “withheld from” himself and Elferink.

Other incidents were also reported by the ABC, but not as widely picked up as the Four Corners report. In December 2014, the ABC obtained the CCTV footage of Dylan Vollner being stripped by guards and restrained in 2010, when he was just 13 years old. A NT judge who reviewed the incident at the time described the force used as “low-level physical violence“. Vollner, now 18, remains in jail in Darwin, according to his sister.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey