A series of violent Northern Territory youth detention incidents, including the alleged rape of one detainee by another last year, have been revealed in documents obtained by the ABC under freedom of information laws.
- FOI documents suggest assaults reduced under Labor
- Alleged detainee rape victim told police he didn’t want to make a complaint
- Staff union says detention still an unsafe workplace
The documents suggest the rate of youth detention assaults and self-harming appears to have reduced since the Labor Government took office in August 2016.
But detention staff have told their union they are under-reporting incidents, and detention conditions remain unsafe for both detainees and employees.
Former Country Liberals ministers, including the former attorney-general John Elferink, labelled last year’s royal commission a witch hunt because it focused heavily on detention incidents which happened two years before the administration lost office.
Mr Elferink said the focus was on a time when many detainees were “highly violent and often dangerous young offenders”.
Frequent assaults under both administrations
But youth justice detention officer incident reports obtained by the ABC have revealed at least 19 assaults during the last four months of the Country Liberals Government from 26 April to 26 August 2016.
The NT Government says it is working on making youth detention less punitive. (ABC News: Jane Bardon)
Unlike most of the incidents the Commission probed, most assaults recorded by officers were by detainees on staff, or other detainees.
Twenty pages of officer reports were deleted by the Territory Families Department, which cited security reasons.
NT youth detention assault reports
Country Liberal Party (April – August 2016)
Officers reported regularly using force, handcuffs to restrain resisting detainees, and putting detainees into isolation for 24-hour periods.
In one incident on May 14, 2016 a female detainee alleged being hit by a male officer in Alice Springs Youth Detention Centre when she ran out of her room, where she had been locked for an hour, for refusing to strip her bed sheets for laundering.
The officer reported:
“When I turned my body and my left arm dropped and I accidentally bumped detainee [DELETED] on the top of [DELETED] head with my elbow.
“I immediately apologised to detainee [DELETED] and explained it was an accident.”
The girl alleged the contact was deliberate, but this was dismissed after investigation.
Alleged rape under Labor’s watch
The NT Government says it has opened detention to more outside agencies to improve oversight. (ABC News: Jane Bardon)
Under Labor, during 26 April to 26 August 2017, the documents suggest there were fewer detention assaults — with 11 recorded.
Again, most were by detainees on other detainees or staff.
NT youth detention assault reports
Labor Government (April – August 2017)
Territory Families Minister Dale Wakefield said the Government had worked hard to make sure its youth detention centres were “focussed on rehabilitation”, not punitive measures.
“We have invested heavily in staff training, in making sure that we’ve got clear policy and procedures in place,” Ms Wakefield said.
“[We’re] ensuring that we’ve got more transparent oversight, as well as making sure there are more people from outside the organisations providing services within the detention centres.”
But under Labor, one of the assault allegations was the alleged rape of a male detainee by another male detainee in the Alice Springs Youth Detention Centre on April 24, 2017.
Officers reported that another detainee revealed in June 2017 that he had been told about the attack by the alleged victim, who had by then been released from detention.
The officer who received the allegation reported the boy said this about his friend:
“When he was in dorm 12 with [DELETED], [DELETED] got up to go to the toilet, [DELETED] followed him into the dorm toilet at night time, like midnight, and covered his mouth and raped him.
“I advised [DELETED] that I need to report this information and inform the appropriate parties, namely [DELETED], police … [DELETED] acknowledged and agreed.”
The documents show that in response, detention centre managers immediately removed the alleged offender from contact with other detainees in Alice Springs as a precaution. They were later moved to the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in Darwin.
Alleged victim ‘didn’t want to complain’
Northern Territory Police were called in to investigate.
Police have told the ABC they interviewed the alleged victim but were “unable to substantiate the allegations because the alleged victim did not wish to make a complaint”.
Ms Wakefield said she was informed about the incident.
“Every critical incident that occurs within detention centres is given to my office, we then have a review process to make sure that we are looking at all the possibilities of how to make sure that type of incident doesn’t happen again,” she said.
“Incidents that are incredibly serious, we look at ways of making sure we get independent oversight to those types of incidents, to make sure that we have an environment that is as safe as possible.”
Under Labor, youth justice officers have continued using force to restrain detainees. Handcuffs and other, now outlawed restraints, were not recorded as being used.
However, isolation for 12 hours is used, with detainees now being sent to renamed “de-escalation rooms”.
The Government’s planned new youth justice legislation will continue to allow isolation for 12 hours, in response to issues including property damage in detention.
Ms Wakefield said detainees must be checked every 15 minutes.
“We’ve also put in procedures where there is always a staff member available for that person if they are threatening self-harm or harm to others,” she said.
‘Nothing has changed’
John Lawrence, the royal commission lawyer for former youth detainee Jake Roper, who was tear gassed in 2014, said it appeared “nothing has changed”.
“Royal commissions are a big deal. And here we have a commission which has made 200 odd recommendations, and almost six months later a Government saying it’s going to change, but we’ve got exactly the same problems,” Mr Lawrence said.
Ms Densley said detention staff were reporting regular violent assaults by detainees. (ABC News: Jane Bardon)
“Nothing has changed, and if it hasn’t changed now, one has to conclude from that, that it’s not going to change, and that grieves me personally as someone who has been so deeply involved with this royal commission process.”
The documents obtained by the ABC contain information about detention that is now seven months old, partly because it took the NT Government six months to produce them.
But youth justice officers have told their union that they have given up reporting many incidents because they have seen little response from management to their concerns.
CPSU regional secretary Kay Densley said youth detention officer members have reported that conditions for both detainees and staff are even more unsafe than before the Royal Commission because of understaffing, inadequate training, and confused Government policy direction on making the regime less punitive.
“Detainees don’t think there’s consequences now,” Ms Kay said.
“Our members have been getting death threats, threats against their family, there’s been violence against them — even throwing kitchen objects, including a metal frying pan, at them.”
Ms Wakefield said the Government had installed more CCTV in detention, was consulting NT Worksafe on creating a safer working environment and is planning more staff recruitment.
“We need to make sure that we have got the right staffing levels, but also the right people with the right skills who can make such a difficult job a positive environment for young people,” she said.
Apparent self-harming reduction
The documents show that under the CLP, self-harming in detention included a boy in detention in Darwin repeatedly hurting himself over two weeks until he was hospitalised.
The reports suggest a drop in self-harm when comparing April to August under the CLP in 2016, where there were four self-harm incidents recorded, and under Labor, where officers recorded no incidents of actual self-harm.
The documents, do however, refer to young people being held in detention while classified as being at risk of self-harming, under Labor.
A sign outside the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in Darwin warns ‘No Entry’. (ABC News: Tristan Hooft)
This was of deep concern to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, which told the commission the Northern Territory Government was neglecting young people by not providing a dedicated youth forensic mental health service.
“When adolescents and young people are seriously mentally ill they should be treated in a psychiatric hospital or a mental health unit, not kept in detention where their condition might be worsening,” child psychiatrist Dr John Kasinathan told the ABC.
“I’ve been working closely with the Health Minister about how to better provide specialist mental health services in detention but also, in general across the community,” Ms Wakefield responded.
The ABC initially asked for youth justice officer incident reports spanning six months under each administration, but access was refused by the Territory Families Department which said the request was too large to be accommodated while it was still responding to the Royal Commission.