Warning: This story includes disturbing images.
Video obtained by an Australian investigative television program showing abuse and inhumane living conditions in juvenile prisons has sparked outrage and a parliamentary investigation into the country’s youth criminal justice system.
Footage gathered by “Four Corners,” a program similar to “60 Minutes,” details six years of tear gassing, beating and prolonged stays in solitary confinement.
One inmate, Dylan Voller, 19, was strapped shirtless to a chair, his face covered with a “spit hood,” a practice, guards told the program, used to restrain adult prisoners and demoralize youths.
Australian human rights officials are comparing the abuse to controversial interrogation tactics used in prisons at Abu Ghraib, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
“These are unconscionable practices,” Gillian Triggs, president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, an independent government agency that polices human rights violations, told The Washington Post.
“The moment you saw those pictures of the hooding and the child in the chair, everyone said, ‘Guantanamo,’ or ‘Abu Ghraib,’” she said, the latter referring to the U.S. run interrogation prison in Iraq.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull called Tuesday for a royal commission, a government-appointed investigatory body with wide subpoena power, to look into juvenile prison abuse within the Northern Territory and at Don Dale Juvenile Detention Centre in Berrimah, where the footage was captured.
Australia does not have a bill of rights and its constitution has scant protection for human rights, though it is party to many international human rights conventions. Most individual rights are only guaranteed through legislation, meaning inmates, asylum seekers and others reliant upon the state have very limited legal protection, Triggs said.
Other human rights advocates have lamented the strong “law and order” rhetoric of Australian politicians and harsh sentencing guidelines and limitations on bail and bond procedures.
“We will get to the bottom of what happened here,” Turnbull said.
“Like all Australians, we were shocked and appalled by the images of mistreatment of children at the detention centre,” he added. “Every child in our justice system must be treated with humanity and respect at all times.”
The Northern Territory’s chief minister, Adam Giles, alleged a “culture of cover-ups” within the prison system. He fired the territory’s corrections minister, John Elferink, though he remains its attorney general and mental health minister.
“When kids arm themselves with broken glass, when kids arm themselves with metal bars, then reasonable force has to be brought to bear upon them, to subdue them,” Elferink said during the program.
But some of the of abuse was passed off as riot-subduing measures, even without formal reports of a riot or prison break.
In one instance, according to the investigative report, a teenager was walking outside his cell when guards sprayed tear gas at him and other inmates sitting in nearby isolation cells.
Guards can be heard laughing on the video and calling the 14-year-old boy a “f—ing idiot,” and later saying, “I’ll pulverize the little f—er, go grab the f—ing gas and f—ing gas them through.”
In another, several teenagers were tear gassed by guards, then sprayed with a fire hose outside after being stripped naked.
Voller in another clip was beaten and stripped naked after complaining of spending days on end in solitary confinement. His cell does not appear to have running water, a latrine or a bed. After he is assaulted, guards also seize his clothing and remove it from the cell after beating him. Voller slumps against the wall opposite the door crying.
Guards said he had been threatening to harm himself so he could be taken to a hospital.
Peter O’Brien, an attorney for Voller and another inmate, filed a lawsuit against the Northern Territory after his clients made him aware of years of abuse, but Dale Centre officials and Northern Territory officials had not provided him with all the footage he requested during discovery. Much of that footage appeared in the television program, which was unrelated to the suit.
“That’s one of the things we want the Royal Commission to look at,” Australian Attorney-General George Brandis said Tuesday on Australian television. “Why it was that there were early warning signs, and more than by the way just warning signs, there were explicit warnings in relation to this particular centre, the Don Dale Centre among others, that were sounded that apparently were not acted upon, or not acted upon sufficiently.”
O’Brien is now calling for both of his clients to be released from incarceration because conditions at Northern Territory facilities are dangerous and violate their human rights, he said.
Voller has been imprisoned since age 11 for assaults, robbery, petty theft and drug offenses, O’Brien said.
In a public letter he gave to O’Brien after the investigation aired, Voller thanked “the Australian community for the support you have shown us boys as well as our families.”
“I apologize to the community for my wrongs,” he continued, “and I can’t wait to get out and make up for them.”