It’s not often that I agree with hyper-ventilating Murdoch columnist Andrew Bolt, but his column this week on the Don Dale Centre juvenile detention controversy is a useful antidote to the equally hyperbolic reactions of most commentators to ABC journalist Caro Meldrum-Hanna’s Four Corners exposure of practices in NT Corrections.
However, as usual with Bolt, his column is grossly tendentious and makes even less attempt than Meldrum-Hanna’s Four Corners episode to present a fair and balanced analysis of the issues.
In an immediate sense, Bolt’s column completely ignores the 2014 tear-gassing of six boys, five of whom were confined in their cells and not causing any form of trouble. That incident was explained at the time by false claims that the tear-gassing had been necessitated by a “riot”. Even if Minister Elferink was initially misled by Corrections Commissioner Ken Middle
tonbrook, the misinformation was not publicly corrected even after it emerged that the alleged “riot” was a self-serving fabrication. Moreover, the fact that Elferink has recently appointed Middle tonbrook (who now lives and works interstate) to a “community” position on the NT Parole Board suggests the CLP government was relatively unconcerned by Middle tonbrook’s actions.
More importantly, the tear-gassing incident was apparently triggered after the 6 boys concerned had been held in isolation for up to 23 hours a day for a period of several weeks. Hardly surprising that one of them snapped and broke out of his cell. This sort of treatment of juvenile detainees is completely unacceptable almost irrespective of their prior conduct. Those events justify a royal commission in themselves, despite the undoubted improvements effected in the Corrections portfolio under Minister Elferink, and despite the fact that quite a few of the disturbing events depicted in footage aired on Four Corners actually occurred under the previous Labor administration.
Even more importantly, the depicted events flow largely from an extreme “law and order” mentality perpetuated both by the current CLP government and its Labor predecessor. Too many young offenders are put in detention when other approaches would not only be more humane but would almost certainly yield better results and lower recidivism. Unfortunately, successive NT governments have been more interested in pandering to the intellectual lowest common denominator of the NT population for cynical electoral purposes than in developing more effective crime prevention, treatment and rehabilitation programs. The policy of detention/imprisonment as a last resort is not a “bleeding heart” approach, it is an essential underpinning to more effective strategies that will reduce crime rates in the long term.
The NT lacks significant early intervention programs with troubled youth and their families, and there is an almost complete absence of diversionary programs for young offenders (especially in remote communities) that could serve as a viable and superior alternative to imprisonment. Even when there is no alternative to detention (which will unavoidably be the case for some repeat offenders), there is a major lack of facilities, resources and trained personnel to deal with the serious behavioural disturbances exhibited by a high proportion of detainees. In many cases that behaviour is fuelled by mental illness and/or drug addiction. The evidently grossly excessive use of restraint chairs and prolonged confinement in isolation cells flows directly from the lack of suitable facilities, resources and trained personnel able to deal effectively with radically disturbed young offenders. I hope the royal commission examines these deeper underlying issues, although its terms of reference give little basis for optimism.