Calls to close notorious Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in NT

A detention centre ordered closed by a royal commission remains operational despite young people still trying to take their own lives. WARNING: Distressing

In just one weekend, one teenager attempted to take their own life and three others were hospitalised for self-harm incidents due to “intensely distressing” conditions at a Northern Territory youth detention centre.

It’s understood four children were taken to the Royal Darwin Hospital last weekend, including a 16-year-old boy who stabbed himself in a suicide attempt at Don Dale.

The decommissioned adult prison turned youth detention centre, on the outskirts of Darwin, was ordered to be closed by February 2018 following the damning Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory but has continued to operate.

At least 95 per cent of the youths at the centre are Indigenous.

The territory’s youth incarceration rates are up 200 per cent from two years ago, with activists saying the situation has been exacerbated by the “punitive” change to bail laws and the age of criminality still at 10 rather than the international standard of 14.

In addition, the facility is also said to be dealing with staffing issues, which have been denied by the government, with reports of children being isolated in their cells for up to 23 hours a day.

It’s “little wonder” activists say the facility has, as a result, witnessed a 150 per cent spike in self-harm incidents, with many concerned it’s “only a matter of time” before there is a death.

The 16-year-old boy is understood to have been left alone in a cell on Friday before he stabbed himself. He was transported to hospital.

After being discharged, he was returned to Don Dale and placed in isolation before he was taken back to hospital on Sunday.

A NT Families spokesperson said the teenager was now back at Don Dale receiving support.

Of the three other children taken to hospital over the weekend, two were during a single night shift.

A ‘CLEAR CALL TO ACTION’

Over the second half of 2021, Don Dale reported 54 episodes of self-harm or suicide compared with just eight in the same period in 2020 – mirroring a skyrocketing number of children remanded or sentenced to the facility.

Change the Record chief executive Sophie Trivett said in the wake of the weekend’s incidents, there was no “clearer call to action”.

“Multiple children under the care of the government are trying to harm themselves because they are suffering to such a great extent in a government institution,” she told NCA NewsWire.

“This is not an anomaly, it’s a regular occurrence that children will self-harm or attempt to kill themselves because of the intense distress that they are experiencing in these environments.

“Don Dale has been in a state of crisis since I worked as a youth justice lawyer in the NT during the royal commission … which was clear that the building is not fit-for-purpose.”

Ms Trivett said the new federal Labor government had a role to play in pushing state and territory governments to raise the age of criminality from 10 to 14.

“The new Indigenous Affairs Minister Linda Burney has said on the record (while in opposition) that criminalising children as young as 10 is far too young,” Ms Trivett said.

“What we haven’t seen though is the Labor government take that a step further and say ‘we are urging our state and territory governments to … raise the age’.”

A CHANGE IS AFOOT

The NT Attorney-General this week confirmed he would “make sure” the age would be raised during this term of government.

“It’s my third week as AG and we’ve hit the ground running – a lot of stakeholder meetings to fit in so we get this right,” Chansey Paech said.

The concern Ms Trivett has is that the NT won’t meet the international standard age of criminality, which is 14.

The Tasmanian government this week committed to change the age to 14. The ACT is on track to legislate to raise the age to 14 by the end of the year.

Federal Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus has flagged that raising the age is an issue he is likely to raise in the future and possibly at the next Meeting of Attorneys-General, but that is unlikely to happen before the end of this year.

“Criminal law is primarily a matter for the states, although Labor believes the commonwealth can take a leadership role to achieve reform,” a spokesperson for Mr Dreyfus told NCA NewsWire.

“It’s a sad fact that a significant number of children in detention are Indigenous children, and there is a need to invest in programs to tackle the unacceptably high rate of incarceration of Indigenous Australians.”

Greens senator Lidia Thorpe said she would pressure the Labor “mob” to tackle youth justice and felt more hopeful about working with them to tackle the issue than she ever had with the Coalition government.

“I’m hopeful that we’re going to get a lot done,” she told NCA NewsWire.

“Absolutely (I’ll be pushing) to raise the age to the international standard of 14 … but the other thing I’ll be talking to her (Ms Burney) about and pushing is the Bringing Them Home Report.

“A lot of our kids are still part of the same cycle of intergenerational trauma. I believe that implementing those recommendations will also help those kids in these torturous prison systems.”

Ms Burney said she was committed to getting the age raised across the country.

“Ten is too young and we’ll be working with the states and territories to address it,” she told NCA NewsWire.

A BETTER WAY FORWARD

Over the past two years, there has been a 200 per cent increase in the number of children entering detention in the NT, a direct correlation to the government’s new bail laws.

The laws allow less-serious bail breaches – like failure to charge an electronic monitoring device – to be treated as serious, resulting in children being sent back to detention.

There were 64 children in Territory prisons in the final six months of 2020. That figure jumped to 199 at the end of 2021.

As of Thursday, the NT government said there were 35 young people at Don Dale.

Maggie Munn, Amnesty International’s Australian Indigenous rights campaigner, said Don Dale was “dangerous” and kids “don’t belong in prison at all”.

“When are we going to accept that locking kids up doesn’t work?” they said.

“It doesn’t reduce crime and it ruins children’s lives. There are better solutions that actually work, the NT Police’s own data shows this.

“Instead of kids being harmed in Don Dale, they need to be sent to programs that help them re-engage with school or employment, address underlying trauma and health issues and set them up to live a healthy, happy life.”

Territory Families Minister Kate Worden said the government was continuing to make “significant investment” in youth justice programs but did not respond to specific questions about when Don Dale would close.

“We have reformed our youth detention system and it is not what it was in 2016,” Ms Worden said.

“We are building a new purpose-built facility in Darwin and refurbishing our Alice Springs facility. We have made sure that the new facility will strike a balance between ensuring it is secure, safe, robust and durable while meeting the therapeutic and rehabilitative needs of young people sentenced to detention or on remand.”

Ms Burney has been contacted for comment.

MENTAL HEALTH CRISIS

Compared to people with other health conditions presenting at an ED, people with mental illness are: 

  • nearly twice as likely to arrive by ambulance
  • 10 times more likely to arrive by police or correctional services vehicles
  • twice as likely to be in ED for more than 8 hours
  • over represented among those kept waiting in ED for an inpatient bed
  • even more over represented among those delayed in leaving ED due to an inpatient bed not being available. 

Originally published as ‘Children are trying to harm themselves’: Prison where suicide attempts ‘common’

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