Australian youth and workers speak out against torture of juvenile prisoners

WSWS correspondents interviewed workers, professional people and young people at the rallies called in Sydney and Melbourne last Saturday to protest against the brutal abuse of boys in Northern Territory (NT) juvenile detention facilities. They expressed disgust at the revelations broadcast last Monday on the “Four Corners” program and hostility to the Turnbull government’s proposed royal commission, saying it was another official coverup.

In Sydney, sisters Kaliah and Jayde, both students, said they felt horrified and ashamed by the treatment inflicted on the children in the juvenile prisons. “I didn’t know things were this bad,” Kaliah said. “I had tears in my eyes today.”

Jayde said: “We need to build communities, and not prisons. It’s not the fault of these kids. We need to rehabilitate, not torture. They need to feel safe and be nurtured. They come from disadvantaged backgrounds. What’s happened to them is built into our society … It’s also a class issue—this violence is directed against all the vulnerable people.”

Kaliah added: “We live in a materialist world. You walk down the streets with huge upmarket stores and there’s homeless people sitting under the signs. This is an issue that really hurts us. How can rich people go out and spend $500 on something like a luxury watch when there’s people sitting there, or starving and dying?”

Jayde commented: “Capitalism has broken our society. Capitalism says that classes don’t exist. Yes they do! You walk down the street and you see homeless people within five minutes, on the ground, in the cold. Class is here, it’s real …

“The gap is becoming bigger and bigger, and the middle class is getting abolished. It’s now the lower class and the upper class. The gap is not just a racist gap, it’s a class gap, and it’s ridiculous. I can’t believe that this is happening in the 21st century. Things are getting worse over the years, not better. We can’t just protest, we have to live this every day.”

In Melbourne, Miguel said: “It is inhuman when young men were tortured. It is a very big problem that kids and teenagers are being tortured. When they finish their time in jail they still have social problems. It is like in my country Chile—many teenagers are in jails. They suffer in those places. There is no rehabilitation. It’s just punishment …

“In Chile there is a big polemic. Many kids died in these centres, there was sexual violence, every kind of violence. Over 10-15 years about 200 kids died in these centres. It’s like the way the system treats ‘non-productive’ people, but does not create proper jobs for them.”

Sarah said: “I have just moved from Alice Springs where I was involved in campaigns again the NT police-military intervention into Aboriginal communities, the police measures against Aboriginal people and the draconian measures again Aboriginal people in the town camps.

“The situation in Alice Springs is terrible. Children are being removed from their families because of poverty, the government is cutting youth services, legal services and family services, which means kids have nothing to do.

“If they do have problems at home they find it really hard to cope at school. There are weekly tragedies where kids are dying at 12 years old from inhaling or sniffing of inhalants. All these tragedies are normalised. While the images on ‘Four Corners’ are really shocking, it actually wasn’t a surprise for all the people in the NT.

“The intervention has being going on since 2007 and it has had a devastating impact on people’s lives … It intrudes in every aspect of Aboriginal people’s lives—even going to the shops and having to use the ‘basics’ card. Massive amounts are being injected into child protective services to remove children and then families are fighting to get their kids back.

“I think it is important that people can speak out but the proposed royal commission is not independent. It is the NT government investigating itself … The only thing that the NT government is shocked about is that they were caught out.”

Anne said: “This is not new, the abuse of indigenous people in prison, their over-representation there. It has been going on since I was a child, and I’m 61 now. They talked about deaths in custody, about the stolen generation … Black deaths in custody are still happening, I’ve not heard of any substantial changes or improvements in that area.

“It concerns me—social justice and human rights generally. It’s like offshore detention of refugees. I used to vote Labor but I don’t like their treatment of asylum seekers. They turn a blind eye to inequity in our own country.”

Peg and Des had witnessed police assaults on indigenous youth. Peg said: “The royal commission is just a bandaid over a festering sore … When we lived in Brisbane, we often saw police attacking Aboriginal youth in our own street. We would go outside and tell them to stop. They would tell us to go inside and shut the door.

“It is endemic in the system—the government turns a blind eye to it. Who puts the youth in the detention centres? It’s the police force and the justice system. Such a high percentage of Aboriginal people are in the detention system. It is another form of genocide in a way.”

Anita, a university language and learning adviser, said: “After watching ‘Four Corners’ I could not express in words what I saw and I had to come today. I am a middle class white Australian and I thought I had to do something …

“I am really concerned about the Turnbull government and the appointment of the royal commissioner from the NT. The NT government should have nothing to do with that at all—it is responsible. This has happened under Labor governments too …

“I think we need to stand together with Aboriginal people in solidarity. We can never really understand Aboriginal people’s predicament but I do think it emanates from a working class position.”

Fairlie said: “I’m disgusted in all tiers of government who in 2009 said they would invest in the early years for Aboriginal children to ‘close the gap’ … As an early childhood teacher, I know investing in early years saves money for governments on correctional services and other welfare services later in life. They know it too. I want to know why they’ve reneged on the investment in early years. Why are they building prisons for the future and cutting childcare services?

“You don’t have to delve very deep to find there are reports all over the country of that sort of stuff going on in juvenile detention centres. I’m here. I’m passionate. It’s time for change.”