This week a scandal erupted in Australia. Reported in part from my home town, the exposé has rippled across the globe, making front page headlines as far away as Canada and Europe. The developed world has been affronted by images of a boy shackled to a mechanical restraint chair that our elected representatives approved the use of, his head covered in a hood tied to the head rest like a dog leash. CCTV footage shows the same boy stripped naked by two guards and pinned to the ground by the full weight of one of his assailants. A core group of these guards are highly trained in professional fighting. Out of hours they train and perform in a boxing ring on a stage to an uproarious audience. They kick, box and wrestle each other, umpired by the Assistant General Manager of the Juvenile Detention Centre which employs them.
In one incident at Don Dale in Darwin a guard tries to cover the CCTV camera before boys sitting in tiny isolation cells are tear gassed, causing them to cower under a blanket in obvious distress. These same guards then made false claims of a prison riot to justify the tear gassing. The violence and abuse occurred repeatedly and we only know of those occasions which the media obtained knowledge of. Not only were both boys and guards aware of the CCTV cameras watching them, but at times the guards used their own video cameras to film events which have since showed them up as verbally degrading and physically abusive towards boys they were employed to care for.
The news was troublesome to me personally as I tried to calculate if these events occurred while Mathew was in the same Juvenile facility here in Alice Springs where some of the events reported took place. I wondered if he too, had suffered at the hands of these officers during the months when I was visiting him regularly, across a series of stretches he spent in Juvenile Detention. Orphaned by the violent killings of both parents nine months apart, he was a troubled adolescent who introduced me to the world of police cells, court houses, lawyers, magistrates and detention centres, while I in turn tried to instil a positive self image into this kid with no idea of his own potential and worth. We made a motley crew, bonding across generations, cultures and life experience.
When Mathew began turning up in Detention I was fostering “Weetbix”, six and seven years old during the two years that he lived with me. WB attended psychology sessions weekly and his therapist taught me a lot about traumatised children and the best ways to address disturbed behaviours. I learned that when WB was hurling abuse and throwing himself on the ground in hysteria, he was not being “naughty”, but displaying a state of high anxiety relating to experiences he had endured during times of vital brain development. I learned that it was my role to respond appropriately so that his brain could be optimally rewired. The lessons served me not only in my role as WB’s carer, but also in understanding some of Mathew’s frustrating behaviours, as well as “Miss Eleven” who lived here for a time and announced this week that I’m <again> “going to be a grandmother”!
Last week when the Four Corners program aired, one of the first reactions I saw came from WB’s psychologist. At the same time that I was learning the basics from her about how to respond to WB, she was also working with one of the children in Juvenile Detention who we now know was repeatedly assaulted by the officers employed to care for him. She tried to guide the officers towards understanding the boy’s behaviours and the best way they could respond to him. She is stunned at the abysmal treatment of her client, which she had no idea of until this week.
Mathew came for lunch today and has assured me that he did not witness any of the abuses reported. For that I am relieved. For my community and the society I belong to, I am less assured. In the very same week of this maelstrom in the Northern Territory, the state of New South Wales announced it was scrapping one of the nation’s most effective rehabilitation programs as politicians choose to appear “tough on crime” over the economic and social benefits of helping offenders break the cycle of crime.
There is a wealth of evidence to show that the right responses from adults charged to care for troubled children and adolescents, can and do have positive consequences which in turn has a domino effect throughout communities and societies. That officers in charge of juvenile offenders need appropriate training and supervision should surely be a no-brainer? That the system should exist in order to protect children and offer rehabilitation, is surely a no-brainer? Perhaps not in my society, where calling children as young as 10 “scum” is considered normal and acceptable.
I stand with Stan Grant in yet another of his powerful speeches, condemning the treatment of young indigenous people in detention. I also stand with Amnesty International in their call for ALL juvenile detention centres to come under the same scrutiny that has shaken the NT system. I hope that this shake will see changes that demonstrate our ability to be the developed, civilised, fair and upright society that we claim to be and that our young people deserve us to be.
Part of Stan Grant’s speech at University of New South Wales a few days ago:
This week my people know what Australia looks like.
This week Australia is a boy in a hood in a cell.
This week Australia is Aboriginal boys tear gassed, locked down and beaten.
I saw in those boys on my television screen, the broken bones, stab wounds, and dark ink tattoos scratched into the skin of my father on those long nights in jail lockdown.
I recalled the story of my mother’s father, dragged from his bed by police, accused of drinking.
That same man arrested and tied to a tree like a dog, so that his children would pass by as they went to school.
There are those who would rather I not speak of these things.
There are those who accuse me of having a nostalgia for injustice.
A nostalgia for injustice.
As if these wounds on the body and soul of my mother and father, are things of memory.
As if we choose to cling to suffering.
As if injustice is a thing recalled and not a thing lived.
A nostalgia for injustice.
Such a charge could be leveled only by someone certain of his place in his country.
A certainty denied to our people. The first people still searching for our place.
Estranged in the land of our ancestors.
It could be leveled only by someone who sees injustice and brutality as something to be pondered and not endured.
It is a charge brought by people comfortable in their own history, while they tell us to forget ours, to get over it.
These are people who value their traditions, exalt their heroes, and deny us ours.
Would they dismiss the memories of the Jewish people so lightly?
Are the Jewish memories of suffering too, merely a nostalgia for injustice?
These are people who proclaim themselves conservatives, but their meanness debases the very traditions they claim to uphold.
These people who seize on difference – gay, Muslim, Asian, black – to vilify, divide and demonise.
All the while reserving for themselves, the right to define our country and set the price of inclusion.
Well they don’t define my country.
These are people who wrap their words in civility to mask the beating heart of their bigotry.
And they tell me I have a nostalgia for injustice.
We have no nostalgia for injustice because we have not yet had the chance to forget.