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‘Is it really going to take a death?’: legal advocates say Don Dale must be shut down | Indigenous incarceration

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Legal advocates say it is “only a matter of time” before there’s a death inside Don Dale juvenile detention centre after the hospitalisation this week of a 16-year-old who attempted to take his own life – the latest case in at least 54 self-harm or suicide attempts since July last year.

A Northern Territory government spokesperson confirmed that a 16-year-old boy was transported to hospital on Sunday night after “sustaining an injury”, and is now back in Don Dale where he is “receiving support”.

“An expert team has discussed the future care needs of this young person and is ensuring every effort is taken to support them including providing advice to their family,” the spokesperson said.

Left to right: Josie Crawshaw, and sisters Donna and Natalie Hunter
From left to right: Josie Crawshaw, and sisters Donna and Natalie Hunter, part of a protest vigil that has gathered outside Don Dale to call for its closure every Friday since Christmas Day of 2021. Photograph: Isabella Moore/The Guardian

But criminal barrister John Lawrence SC, who represents an 11-year-old boy who recently spent three months on remand in Don Dale, said “enough is enough”.

“What is it going to take to shut this down? Is it really going to take a death?” Lawrence said. “The risks are too high. All these children have to be put into a proper facility, or at the very least taken out of this dystopian derelict adult prison.

“I’ve visited the place scores of times over the last 30 years when it was an adult jail. But going in there and seeing children wandering around, and walking around with an 11-year-old escorted by a guard is positively surreal and sick,” he said.

Don Dale was originally an adult maximum security prison, repurposed as a youth detention centre in 2015. It was the focus of a 2017 royal commission after harrowing footage of the treatment of juvenile detainees – including the use of restraints, strip searches, teargas and spit hoods – was broadcast on the ABC.

The royal commission recommended that Don Dale be immediately closed down, saying it was “wholly inappropriate” for children. In 2018, the NT government said it accepted – either entirely or in principle – all but 10 of the 227 royal commission recommendations. It said those 10 were the responsibility of federal or non-government bodies.

A sign at Don dale youth detention centre, Darwin, Northern Territory
A sign at Don Dale. Of the 35 children and young people currently in the youth detention centre, almost all are Aboriginal. Photograph: Isabella Moore/The Guardian

Five years on, Don Dale remains open. Conditions have worsened, according to the most recent monitoring report of the NT office of the children’s commissioner. The report found that staff shortages and a big rise in the number of detainees have critically affected young people’s access to basic services such as education and medical help, and have led to frequent and extended lockdowns.

The report expressed concern about the management of young people deemed at risk of self-harm, “with some young people left in their cells for up to 23 hours and 45 minutes per day while waiting for medical assessment”.

John Lawrence said his 11-year-old client spent much of his three month remand period in lockdown for up to 20 hours a day.

“He was allowed out every four hours for 15 minutes, and he would sit in an adjacent concrete area with another kid, one kid only, and then he was back in his cell.

“This is after the royal commission five years ago, when we went from A to Z on all of this. We know what should be done, but this government refuses to do it. It’s politics, and it’s racism writ large. There’s no other explanation for it,” Lawrence said.

Minister for territory families, Kate Worden, said Don Dale will be closed and a new centre, currently being built, will be located next to the Holtze adult prison outside Darwin.

Leela Galvez is one of the Don Dale protesters. She holds a sign that reads ‘Kids need care not jail’
Leela Galvez, one of the Don Dale protesters. The group originally gathered at the gates where they could call out to those inside, but moved the vigil when they heard the kids were being punished for responding. Photograph: Isabella Moore/The Guardian

“The new youth justice facility will meet the requirements of the royal commission – balancing therapeutic design and programs with safety and security. It will ensure young people in detention are able to access support and develop life skills that are age and culturally appropriate,” Worden said.

“The job is never done, it is something we need to keep working on.”

Of the 35 children and young people currently in Don Dale, almost all are Aboriginal.

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In 2021, the Territory government was forced to pay $35m to hundreds of Don Dale child inmates for their mistreatment in the facility. Two weeks ago, NT parliament passed new laws that sought to limit any future payouts for mistreatment to a maximum of $15,300, which will be held in trust so that victims of crime may also apply for an amount.

Former attorney general Selena Uibo said the legislation would “address community concerns about large payouts of taxpayer funds to offenders for incidents that occur while they are in custody”.

Guardian Australia has sought comment from current attorney general Chansey Paech.

Lawyer Johnny Lawrence SC walking outside Don Dale
‘We know what should be done, but this government refuses to do it. It’s politics, and it’s racism writ large’: Lawyer Johnny Lawrence SC walking outside Don Dale. Photograph: Isabella Moore/The Guardian

Cheryl Axleby of the Change the Record coalition said the new law is a cynical attempt by the NT government “to avoid consequences when they do the wrong thing”.

“Instead of trying to shirk their responsibilities, the NT government should be focused on implementing the recommendations of the NT royal commission, fulfilling the Aboriginal Justice Agreement and raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility to at least 14 years old to keep children out of prison in the first place.

“What could be a louder, more urgent call to action than a child trying to take their own life when under the care of the government?” Axleby said.

Every Friday afternoon for the past six months, a small group of people gathers outside Don Dale, to call for it to be closed down.

The vigilhas been running every week since Christmas Day.

Samantha Samson is one of the Don Dale protesters that protest every Friday at 5pm. She holds a sign that reads ‘Traumatised kids need specialised care not incarceration’.
Samantha Samson is one of the Don Dale protesters who protest every Friday at 5pm. Photograph: Isabella Moore/The Guardian

The group originally gathered at the gates of the prison, where they could call out to the kids inside. But when they heard that the kids were being punished for responding, they moved the vigil to the fence line outside, in view of passing motorists.

Lawrence, who usually attends every Friday, said at the end of each vigil at 6pm the group drives past the gates and honks their horns so the kids will know they’ve been.

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