NT detention centre's use of tear gas on teens 'institutionalised brutality', Amnesty International says

:The governments and politicians have no excuses and cannot plea ignorance, we have published many articles about the crisis and so have mainstream media sources. Here is one from last year that covers the tear gas incident and much more. 29 July 2016

Juveniles at the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in the Northern Territory
Juveniles at the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in the Northern Territory. (Source: ABC News)

23 September 2015

The use of tear gas on six juvenile detainees in Darwin detention last year was institutionalised brutality, Amnesty International says.

Revelations that teenagers were tear-gassed in their cells in the Northern Territory and later had fabric hoods placed over their heads after being transferred to an adult prison came in a report tabled in NT Parliament on Thursday night.

The report by former NT children's commissioner Dr Howard Bath revealed how the teenagers were treated after the alleged rioting incident at Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in August 2014.

Damage caused during clash between six boys and prison staff
Photo: A door shows signs of damage after an altercation at Darwin's youth detention centre between six teens and Corrections staff.
(Dept of Correction)

The report also found the claims that workers were assaulted in the lead up to the incidents were false and misleading.

Rodney Dillon from Amnesty International said the revelation that teenagers were also held in solitary confinement with no access to water or light for up to 22 hours a day was equally as disturbing.

"Someone must have to take the blame for this and I would really like to know who is going to stand up and be responsible," Mr Dillon said.

"But more so, we want to someone to stand up and talk responsibility about how we [are] going to change the culture so we are treating the kids better so the kids behave better."

Workers weren't trained properly: union

The union representing workers at the youth detention centre has said its members should not be bearing any blame in the tear gassing incident.

The Community Public Sector Union's Kay Densley told ABC that the report into the incident had identified inadequate training and management as factors which led to the incident.

Ms Densley said the youth justice workers were placed in a dangerous position and if the workplace issues were identified the incident would not have got out of control.

"It should have not got that far," Ms Densley said.

"What they had to do was call in the riot squad to do that, but if there was adequate training, protective gear and measures in place it wouldn't have had to go that far."

Ms Densley said she believed that criticism levelled at the youth detention workers by the Corrections Minister John Elferink and Commissioner for Correctional Services was unfair given they did not have the correct training or support.

Mr Elferink has not responded to requests for comment.

Teenage detainees hooded, gassed in Northern Territory adult prison

105.7 ABC Darwin By the National Reporting Team's Kate Wild and Katherine Gregory

18 September 2015

What is a spit mask?

Spit Mask

  • A hood typically made of fabric that blocks a prisoner from spitting at a guard
  • Designed to prevent transmission of infectious diseases
  • Used on juveniles in WA, SA and the NT
  • Not used on juveniles in NSW or Tasmania

The NT Commissioner for Corrections has slammed a report into the tear gassing and hooding of teenagers in juvenile detention, saying the report is inaccurate, "shallow" and "one-sided".

Revelations that teenagers were tear gassed in their cells in the Northern Territory and later had fabric hoods placed over their heads after being transferred to an adult prison came in a report tabled in NT Parliament on Thursday night.

The report follows an investigation begun by former NT children's commissioner Dr Howard Bath into an alleged riot by six juvenile detainees in the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in August 2014.

It was completed by the current Children's Commissioner, Colleen Gwynne.

NT Corrections Commissioner Ken Middlebrook said suggestions that five teenagers were tear gassed in their cells and treated with unnecessary force during the alleged riot were unfair.

"I was there on that night, I was the one who authorised the use of (tear) gas because I had an obligation to bring that to an end and bring it to an end quickly," he told 105.7 ABC Darwin on Friday.

Commissioner Middlebrook described the scene inside the centre on the evening of August 21, 2014 as "out of control".

He said youths had armed themselves with weapons made of broken glass and barricaded themselves into a section of the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre.

The report by Dr Bath said two of the six teenagers gassed were sitting in their cells playing cards.

Commissioner Middlebrook said the same youths "wrecked those cells to a point where they were inoperable".

"We had to move out of that facility, so don't get carried away with the fact that this was some incident that we just used gas," he said.

"I am not in the business of overuse of force. There were two sprays from an aerosol into the area. Now it wasn't overuse of gas."

However, Dr Bath said in his report: "There wasn't ever a riot, an unlawful assembly. One young person had escaped their cell because the door had been left open by the staff. The other young juveniles had not got out."

In the immediate lead-up to the alleged riot, Department of Corrections staff had placed six young people in solitary confinement "for periods of between six and 17 days", according to the report.

It was widely reported at the time that the young people became "increasingly aggressive and violent towards officers" that evening and began to rebel.

A witness to events told the Children's Commissioner: "The detainees went off and I don't blame them. I would have too. It wouldn't have happened if they didn't keep them in there so long. It is horrible, it stinks ... I am surprised it didn't happen sooner."

Corrections staff recorded events on video, describing the situation to the Children's Commissioner as "pandemonium".

'I'll pulverise the little f***er'

Unable to de-escalate the situation, Don Dale staff called in prison officers from the adult prison in Darwin to quell the situation.

Three prison officers arrived wearing gas masks, riot shields, knee and shin pads and carrying batons and tear gas.

Mate, I don't care how much chemical you use, we gotta get him out.
Commissioner for Corrections, Ken Middlebrook
One youth then attempted to climb through a window. Audio from the video recording of the evening provides evidence of Don Dale staff saying: "No, let the f***er come through because when he comes through, he will be off balance. I'll pulverise, I'll pulverise the little f***er. Oh shit we're recording hey [laughs]."

As violence between the detainees and staff escalated, Corrections staff could be heard again on the video saying: "Go on, grab the f***ing gas and f***ing gas them through, f***ing get the [manager] to gas them."

Dr Howard Bath

The gas referred to is tear gas, which according to Corrections staff was a back-up option to using a Corrections dog to control the young people.

However, the dog was deemed unsuitable for the conditions and Commissioner Middlebrook, who was present, gave permission for tear gas to be used on the teenagers.

Commissioner Middlebrook is heard to say on a video recording: "Mate, I don't care how much chemical you use, we gotta get him out."

Six youths were exposed to tear gas for between three and eight minutes each.

Jared Sharp from the Northern Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA), which has represented many of the juveniles held in Don Dale, said: "This is information that Corrections has been aware of, they've had the CCTV, they've interviewed their own staff. But it's only now that the real facts are coming to light, and that's the real concern. What else don't we know?"

Mr Sharp said the report showed Don Dale had been in crisis "for a long time".

"It's about maintaining control and order and that has overrun the need to obey the law and be clear about what your legislative duties are to kids in your care," Mr Sharp said.

"There is this seeming willingness to do what's necessary without any moral compass."

14yo moved back to detention centre

When it was discovered a 14-year-old had been taken to the adult prison, Corrections acted to have him returned to Don Dale.

The report said CCTV footage showed that when the boy arrived back at Don Dale, he was clearly handcuffed with his hands behind his back "with a hood still placed over his head".

Soon after the riot, Don Dale Youth Detention Centre was moved from its previous premises into the decommissioned and partly refurbished former adult prison at Berrimah.

In the first six months of 2015, there was a spate of breakouts and disturbances in the new centre.

These included two teenagers breaking out of the centre, stealing a car and breaking back into Don Dale by driving the car through the centre's front door.

Jard Sharp from NAAJA said there was no excusing this behaviour by juvenile detainees but details in the Bath Report "explain why they would feel such desperation that they would climb over razor wire to escape, as they have".

"It's also why kids might leave detention when they get out damaged, feeling in the depth of despair and harmed by the experience of detention," he said.

Mr Sharp said NAAJA and the community were aware of other critical incidents at Don Dale since the events of August 2014.

"So there's nothing to suggest the issues identified here in this report are not ongoing," he said.