Australia was shocked by the images of Aboriginal child Dylan Voller being abused at Don Dale, but don’t blame the jailers, says Pat Dodson, an Aboriginal elder and federal senator. Blame the politicians.
The picture of Voller strapped into a restraint chair triggered a visceral reaction among viewers and the Prime Minister, who ordered a royal commission into the revelations from Four Corners less than 12 hours after the episode was broadcast.
The national outpouring of shock reached Voller, who, late on Tuesday, released a letter through his lawyers thanking the nation “for the support you have showed us a [sic] boys as well as our families”.
“I would also like to take this opportunity to appologize [sic] to the community for wrongs and I cant [sic] wait to get out and make up for them.”
Also on Tuesday, Voller’s lawyer said he was still being guarded by some of his tormenters and feared retribution.
“He’s told me three of the youth detention officers featured in Four Corners are now working in the Department of Corrective Services as prison officers in the place he’s now housed,” said Peter O’Brien.
“He feels as though he’s a target and he’s immensely worried.”
While there was footage of other boys being verbally and physically assaulted, the picture of Voller strapped to a chair with his head in a bag went global.
But Mr Dodson told The New Daily that the planned royal commission into Don Dale juvenile prison would not alone solve the problem of high Aboriginal youth incarceration rates, nor their appalling treatment in jail.
The boy behind the mask
Dylan Voller was first detained at Alice Springs rehabilitation facility, Aranda House, in 2009, aged 12.
In 2011, Voller pressed charges against a Don Dale prison officer whom he claimed “unlawfully assaulted” him when he was aged 13.
Court documents showed those in charge of the investigation tried to get CCTV footage of the alleged assault but were told it “had supposedly been lost”.
Footage was eventually found, and a hearing commenced in December 2013 after numerous delays. The officer was found not guilty of aggravated assault charges.
The court was told Voller had been found guilty of more than 50 offences in the five years prior to 2014.
The list of offences included property damage, car theft, 15 assaults on government workers and police, assaults with weapons and dangerous driving.
The other Aboriginal boys in the Four Corners story – Jake Roper, Ethan Austral and Kenny Rogan – all had similarly troubled pasts before being abused at Don Dale.
ABC’s Four Corners program also revealed footage of children at Don Dale being tear-gassed, assaulted and, what many considered, “tortured” by prison officers.
Another royal commission
But Mr Dodson, who was a commissioner on the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody from 1987 to 1991, said the situation might have been avoided with earlier action by politicians.
He said that “hundreds” of the inquiry’s 339 recommendations were never implemented, and the abuse seen on Four Corners was just the “tip of the iceberg” of the institutional mistreatment Aboriginal people.
“Royal commissions can glean a whole lot of very valuable information,” the Western Australian senator said.
“Ultimately it makes recommendations. And then it is up to the politicians to respond to them with laws.
“But with the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody, a lot of them were not enacted and if they were we could have avoided a situation like Don Dale.”
Commission must be broad
There are now claims such mistreatment has occurred nationally, with girls in detention having “their clothes cut off and left naked in cells”.
Indigenous advocates want an expanded scope, claiming abuse in youth detention centres is widespread.
Debbie Kilroy chief executive of Sisters Inside, a non-government organisation that advocates for the rights of women and girls in the criminal and justice system, said she was “not surprised” by the Four Corners report.
“As a young person who was in and out of youth detention in my teenage years, that violence occurred there and it continues today in a number of, if not all, youth prisons across this country,” Ms Kilroy said.
“I’m talking about girls in Queensland and girls in other jurisdictions across Australia.”
The Law Council of Australia said it supported a royal commission into the abuse of children in detention in the NT and director Arthur Moses said the issue should be examined more broadly.
“There is no doubt that this is a national crisis,” Mr Moses said.
“Other jurisdictions must now examine their youth detention practices for compliance with international standards to ensure that such conduct is not occurring in their institutions.”