Suit against Australian ‘Abu Ghraib-style’ youth detention center reaches court

© ABC News (Australia)
Court hearings over alleged abuse of youngsters at Don Dale, a juvenile detention center in Australia’s north, have started with claims of unlawful use of tear gas, shackles, spit hoods and handcuffs, slammed as “manifestly unnecessary and unreasonable.”

A civil trial began on Monday, with four boys, whose names were not made public due to legal concerns, suing the Australian Northern Territory Government over alleged mistreatment at Darwin’s Don Dale Juvenile Detention Center. They accuse it of assault and battery.

Two more former detainees are also suing Don Dale, but their cases are being heard separately because apart from mistreatment, the plaintiffs complain of involuntary deprivation of liberty at the facility.

The current case revolves around an incident which took place on August 21, 2014, when six inmates were abused by prison guards after one of them allegedly attempted to escape.

Accounts differ as to what exactly happened that day. NT Corrections Commissioner Ken Middlebrook claimed that an “out of control” riot took place at Don Dale as five youths had armed themselves with weapons made of broken glass and barricaded themselves into one section of the facility after another detainee escaped his cell, as cited by an ABC report. He added that one of the officers sustained a laceration wound and that the youths “wrecked [the cells where they were barricaded] to a point where they were inoperable.

Staff were at risk and without placing them at any further injury, or the detainees at injury, the decision to use [tear gas] was made,” Commissioner Middlebrook was quoted by ABC as saying. 

In a report on the incident in 2015, however, former NT Children’s Commissioner Dr. Howard Bath claims that 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.

All six inmates were, at the time, in a secure section of the detention center after five of them tried to escape the facility earlier the same month. The teens’ lawyer, Kathleen Foley, told the court that prior to the incident, they had been locked in their cells in this secure section for up to 17 days, only allowed to come out for one hour a day – into an indoor concrete exercise yard – with no access to fresh air.

As the events unfolded, all six inmates were tear-gassed, they claim, for between three and eight minutes each. They were then transferred to the adult Berrimah Prison, despite the fact that one of them was too young for transfer to an adult facility. The treatment of three of the boys at the adult facility and the subsequent transfer to yet another adult prison, Holtze, is another element to the case, ABC reports.

Footage of that transfer was presented to the court with the boys shown shackled, spit-hooded and handcuffed. One of the teenage detainees later said that he had been so depressed while at the adult prison, he wanted to take his own life with a noose made from his pillow slip.

The four plaintiffs in the current case were aged 15, 16, and 17 at the time of the incident. Their lawyer, Kathleen Foley, claims the methods by which they had been restrained were “manifestly unnecessary and unreasonable” and had no authorization.

She said she aims for the court to find the use of teargas in the incident illegal, as a potential breach of the country’s Weapons Control Act, and an excessive measure to be administered at a youth detention facility, even in an emergency. She also alleges that three of the boys were given inadequate medical treatment for the effects of teargas, including one whose eyes were not examined because the guards failed to remove the spit hood upon his arrival at the adult facility. 

The guards, however, say they used teargas to subdue the youths because they feared losing control over the facility as the building had been flimsily constructed, and they worried that the doors were not strong enough to hold the young offenders they believed to be “violent and dangerous.”

Authorities of the Northern Territory stand by the guards, claiming their response was proportionate, as the circumstances in which they found themselves had been a “violent and dangerous situation that required the use of force to be resolved,” ABC news outlet reported

Defense lawyers have so far admitted that the use of shackles and spit-hoods was “excessive under the circumstances,” but say the handcuffs were a lawful measure.

The sides had been negotiating to reach a resolution before the trial, but had not managed to come to any settlement, and the case was taken to court.

The treatment of inmates in the Don Dale facility was slammed as grossly inadequate in a damning Review into Youth Detention Centers in 2015, but only gained global attention in July this year when a video of its torture-like techniques was aired by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).

The harrowing video showed CCTV footage of an Aboriginal boy, Dylan Voller, being stripped, tied to a chair, blinded and choked by a bag which was pulled over his head. The footage immediately drew comparisons between Don Dale and the notorious Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay prisons.

It also prompted UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez to slam it as “a very worrisome development that can amount to torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” that could potentially be classified as a crime under international law.

Dylan Voller is among the six suing the Northern Territory Government over abuses at Don Dale in August 2014. Hearings in the current cases are scheduled to continue for two weeks.

Following the release of the video, then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said he was “deeply shocked” by the images from the CCTV footage and launched an inquiry into the matter. John Elferink, the minister who was responsible for young detainees in the Northern Territory at the time of the incident, was dismissed.