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Don Dale abuse is a symptom of a sick justice culture



The 4 Corners report into the treatment of children in a NT juvenile justice facility is a stark and grotesque demonstration of state abuse of power.

Cartoon by Fiona Katauskas links abuse at Don Dale juvenile detention centre with history of violence against Aboriginals.As a result John Elferink, NT Corrections Minister, has been sacked, and the Prime Minister has announced a royal commission into the actions at Don Dale. This is a good start, but there is much more to be done.

Of the many disturbing incidents shown on the program we have evidence of a litany of abuses: placing children into solitary confinement for days on end; the forcible removal of clothing; verbal, psychological, and physical abuse.

Regardless of the nature of criminal activity that led to their incarceration these are vulnerable young people, whose minds are not fully developed, and who will be irreparably damaged as a result of their treatment.

The deprivation of a person's liberty comes with a heavy responsibility — a responsibility to protect. There is nothing protective in the treatment meted out to the young people at Don Dale. The authorities failed in their duty of care, abrogated their responsibility, and should be held to account.

This incident is shameful. But so are the countless others that occur daily in the justice system across this country. There are good eggs working in the police forces, courts, prison system and immigration detention centres. But there are a lot of bad ones too. And why have we got to this point where we have record numbers of people in prisons and detention centres?

In particular, there is something wrong with a society and criminal justice system in which people who identify as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander make up 27 per cent of the prison population, but only 2 per cent of the wider population. These figures point to deep structural inequalities and discriminatory elements of the law in this country.

A Royal Commission into the juvenile justice system in the NT is a good start, but it should not be the only thing examined. In the 25 years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody handed down its report, Australia has learnt nothing.


"The deprivation of a person's liberty comes with a responsibility to protect. There is nothing protective in the treatment meted out to the young people at Don Dale."


As Michael Gordon wrote in April: 'Imagine if a royal commission was held into a matter of national shame, and it spent tens of millions of dollars, produced a vast report, but the headline indicators of that shame actually went backwards.' Yet this, as he pointed out, is precisely where we are. As Thalia Anthony has argued, and contrary to the recommendations of the Deaths in Custody report: 'Minor public order offences, such as offensive language, continue to be punished. Police powers in relation to public drunkenness and arrest have been extended. The right to bail has been undermined with increasing exceptions (for property offences as an example). Maximum prison penalties and mandatory prison sentences have escalated.'

Also absent, as Anthony points out, is any progress on the other major recommendation of the report, namely self-determination. Enabling broad terms of reference for the new commission of inquiry is not only essential; to do otherwise would be negligent. Regardless, the recommendations from the 1991 commission should, as a matter of urgency, be implemented now.

A series of articles last year (based on 2014 ABS data) on the state of imprisonment in Australia pointed to the exponential rise in incarceration in recent years. All highlighted the dramatic over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the states' jails. Since the publication of these reports incarceration rates have increased in New South Wales, South Australia, Tasmania, the Northern Territory and the ACT. The 2015 figures show that 2253 per 100,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were incarcerated, compared with 146 per 100,000 of the rest of the population. Within these figures we see rapid increases in the numbers of women and young people behind bars.

Australia's propensity to lock people up is legendary. It has long been said that the state of a nation's prisons is a barometer of the health of its society. The actions at Don Dale disfigure a culture. They show the normalisation of abuse in that facility. But places such as these don't operate in a vacuum. And children should not be locked up behind bars, let alone placed in solitary confinement. Youth detention centres should be closed now.

We have embraced a culture of incarceration, a prejudicial system that speaks volumes about this nation. But this is not new. The systemic discrimination in the justice system is widely acknowledged by those expert in its operation. Decades of research has repeatedly told the same story. But this is a story that extends beyond the criminal justice system, as research by Professor Chris Cunneen has shown. We live in a society in which systemic discrimination is the norm.

Do we need a new royal commission given that the 1991 recommendations were never fully implemented? Despite the continuities in the system, there has been significant change. We also now have a system of immigration detention centres both inside and outside of Australia which are deserving of the same scrutiny. This time around, however, we need a promise by the government that this commission's recommendations will be implemented, and that any changes are accompanied by the strictest continuing and open scrutiny of policies and places of incarceration.

We also need to question the culture of a people that willingly imprisons the most vulnerable, and puts up with a system where not all are equal before the law. Releasing people from jail who have committed minor offences is a start. Removing tyrants is another. Ultimately, however, we need a full and broad inquiry into a system and culture that debases us all. We need to radically revise our failed system of incarceration and rid our society of a culture of indifference and inequity.


Julie KimberJulie Kimber is a senior lecturer in politics and history at Swinburne University.

Cartoon by Fiona Katauskas

Topic tags: Julie Kimber, Don Dale, Aboriginal Australians, justice system, deaths in custody



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Existing comments

I believe our whole national culture is sick and I believe our immediate past PM and his government should be judged for having seriously cultivated that culture by his fear mongering ,racist folly etc .Second only to Hitler ,who successfully corrupted the entire Christian Nation of Germany . Did I hear correctly on this evening's ABC news when the PM's chief advisor on Indigenous Affairs said that till then <24 hrs > after 4 Corners ,that the PM had not contacted him . Does not surprise me as quite some time back ,in these pages ,I suggested Mundine was an inappropriate person to hold such a position .The fact he was totally unaware of the long standing NT happenings seriously confirms that view . Regards John

john kersh | 26 July 2016  

I must say Fiona's cartoon is much too gentle ,ie the illustration of the group of Indig men in full ceremonial rig ,about to enjoy some celebrations .I believe a depiction of the line of skeletons linked by a string of chains ,which were excavated by a bulldozer ,in the bed of the Dunham river ( Between Wyndham & Kunnanurra (WA) ,which I observed in the early 1970's . Regards John

john kersh | 26 July 2016  

Thank you Julie. An informed and balanced article that points out the factors that have led to this 'end result' of inequitable problem within our 'justice system'. All we need now are solutions...

Graham McLoughlin | 27 July 2016  

This is more than a symptom of 'a sick justice culture' it is a symptom of a lack of cultural understanding of 'difference'. The fundamental underlying issue is; are the First Nation peoples to be Aboriginal Australians or Australian Aboriginals? We need to develop a society that echoes President Kennedy's words that places the Other above the Me a society that values tolerance and respect. We need the social Philosophers of all race, colour and creed to stand up and influence the level of morality in our justice, political, education and social cultural systems. We are all responsible to challenge the institutional hegemony of 'Anglocentric Law' laws that challenge Aboriginal ways of being, knowing and doing. By ignoring this responsibility we develop a society where tolerance and respect are problematic in both non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal cultural societies positioning 'difference' in the realm of self interest and the Me.

Jeffrey Morrall | 27 July 2016  

State abuse of power is nothing new. Turn the clock back to 1855. (from Wikipedia) "Port Arthur was also the destination for juvenile convicts, receiving many boys, some as young as nine. The boys were separated from the main convict population and kept on Point Puer, the British Empire's second boys' prison. Like the adults, the boys were used in hard labour such as stone cutting and construction. One of the buildings constructed was one of Australia's first non-denominational churches, built in a gothic style. Attendance of the weekly Sunday service was compulsory for the prison population. Critics of the new system noted that this and other measures seemed to have negligible impact on reformation." One would have to ask whether it is any worse than the treatment of boys at St Alpius, Ballarat during Ridsdale's reign of terror when Pell was in charge of transfer of priests? Probably not. Now we draw the race distinction and highlight the demographics. So we should. However if the Government gave more thought to job creation and gainful varied employment for these unlucky kids (even if it was fishing or agriculture), rather than locking them up for contempt for authority, our society would be much better off. Otherwise history will continue to repeat itself.

Francis Armstrong | 27 July 2016  

Distressing is Australia’s treatment of Aboriginal children, whom should never have been placed in detention. The culture of indifference profound & cruelty allowed to fulminated under NT legislation. "Litter Children are Sacred.” Aboriginal Kids are removed out of community at greater rates than ever; the kids now institutionalised & brutalised. Turnbull was so appalled he acted immediately, contacted Chief Minister Adam Giles and Minister Scullion (Federal Indigenous Affairs & Senator of the NT). Unaware ? Sorry, this is part of the culture of indifference. Report after report was had from 2014. Cover up Mr Giles?! Mr Elfernick though sacked as corrections minister remains the NT Attorney General & in charge of Children & mentally ill! PM Turnbull ordered both Giles and Scullion to watch the footage; it is most alarming they were not already given their positions & lead up to the program! Within 12 hours the PM announced a Royal Commission (RC). But I agree the TOR must be broad. Institutional discrimination is overt and legislated The skyrocketing rates of Indigenous incarceration, since 2007, speaks for itself! Self–determination a vital part of the answer and NT tribal communities and Aboriginal Peak Organisations are righty demanding direct involvement. The APO go further and are calling for dissolution of a failed NT Government. R E A D : http://www.amsant.org.au/nt-aboriginal-organisations-call-for-nt-government-to-be-dissolved-and-demand-input-into-royal-commission/ . The NT government must not be part of this RC there needs to be a completely open and transparent process in this and Aboriginal people at the centre.

George | 27 July 2016  

I think Natlie Cromb, Gamilaraay woman, Indigenous .article, says it all so welll. Please read and act. "Don Dale child abuse:Be part of the Solution" It begins, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders do not want more words written in reports that will be ignored. Frankly, if you’re not ... willing to stand beside us for the fight —? then you are part of the problem.. More at https://independentaustralia.net/life/life-display/don-dale-child-abuse-be-part-of-the-solution,9282

Georgina Gartland | 27 July 2016  

I watched Australian Story followed by 4 Corners. Equal amounts of appalled and unequivocal shame poured across Twitter during both programs. Only one program has been taken up by any media. Why Eureka St?

Jennifer Anne Herrick | 27 July 2016  

The treatment of SOME Aboriginal children by "the law" in this country is appalling. In the interests of truth and in the service of doing something about this abuse, let us not ignore the fact that abuse of SOME Aboriginal children begins in their own communities. Are these children the same "SOME" who end up in detention? Why are there vastly more Aboriginal children smiling happily, enjoying life, playing sport with their non-Aboriginal mates, going to school and in increasing numbers to tertiary educational institutions. Answer this question with honesty and without political correctness and then at least we might be able to walk the road towards correction of the problem. The answer stands out like a beacon in the night, but is unpalatable to many because of the implications and accusations of racism that would attach to telling the truth. Until we as an all-embracing community face the truth, we will continue as we are, something that has been the more comfortable option for two centuries. It seems however, that "shock, horror!" is all we need to stimulate a week's employment for the media of all genres, ring out the clamour for an absolving inquiry or commission, but not sufficient for us to gird up our loins and deal with the truth. Destiny? Another distraction in a teacup.

john frawley | 27 July 2016  

You're right, Jennifer. I've only just caught up with Australian Story. It is absolutely appalling and heartbreaking and it could, and should, have been discussed in this article.

Julie Kimber | 29 July 2016  

I PLEAD WITH EACH & EVERYONE OF YOU TO SOURSE & READ THE ADDRESS GIVEN BY STAN GRANT @ UNSW today ,July 29 .I believe it is destined to be declared the greatest address ever delivered by anyone ,throughout our entire history .Regards John

john kersh | 29 July 2016  

I agree with what you say, Julie. The issue is the in-ground racism that is behind the 'system'. We can't forget that 'the system' is comprised of people, and despite what we want to believe about how much we've changed racist beliefs, it can be traced back to colonialism, slavery (still ongoing), and the brutality accompanying this. It is driving the current US campaign "Black Lives Matter'. Unfortunately, the anti-discrimination legislation is 'slap-on-the-wrist' and doesn't address the problem - the racism is deeply embedded in the culture, and feeds the inequality right from birth to the grave. Opportunities in life are determined by wealth, and whether we like it or not, control of and access to the world's wealth is determined by the colour of your skin.

Joanna Garrett | 01 August 2016  

Stan Grant is a good speaker but does he know what he is talking about? https://quadrant.org.au/magazine/2016/06/black-white-stan-grants-nostalgia-injustice/

Roy Chen Yee | 04 August 2016  

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