Disturbing video from NT detention centre sent to corrections minister in 2014

A scene from the Four Corners program of the treatment of an inmate at Don Dale. Source: Four Corners, ABC

Some of the most harrowing video evidence of violent abuse against child prisoners was delivered to the Northern Territory corrections minister in late 2014 – almost two years before an ABC Four Corners exposé this week led the prime minister to order a royal commission.

Former NT Children's Commissioner, Howard Bath, has confirmed he sent a draft report detailing his concerns about the treatment of juvenile inmates – along with three videos – to John Elferink, the minister dumped from the corrections portfolio since the Four Corners program.

Dr Bath cannot discuss the detailed content of his 2014 report, but he notes that he did table a précis of it at the time, detailing the fact that he had sent video evidence to Mr Elferink.

SBS Investigations has established that these videos, among the most distressing aired on Four Corners, included the mistreatment of teenager Dylan Voller at the Aranda House detention centre in Alice Springs.

In separate cases, they show: a prison guard throwing the boy across his cell onto a bed, a guard seizing a phone from Dylan and knocking him to the floor, and guards entering his cell, stripping him naked, and one of the officers pressing his knee into the boy's back.

In the stripping event, the guards were subjecting the boy to an "at risk" procedure, putting him in a safe gown, ostensibly to prevent him harming himself. Asked how that might be justified, Dr Bath told SBS: "In other words, you abuse and humiliate someone in order to help them. It's just farcical.”

Dr Bath had alerted NT corrections officials about his concerns two years earlier, in 2012.

"We took a number of tapes and called a meeting with the Department of Corrections, right through to the top. We showed them the tapes and said these practices must stop immediately," he said.

He also discussed his concerns about children being held in seclusion.

"So in April, 2012, the full senior echelon of the department knew what was going on. Now, did they talk to the minister? I don’t know whether they did or not.”

Do you know more? Contact: rick.feneley@sbs.com.au

However, he sent a specific set of recommendations to the department later that year, soon after the current Country Liberal Party government was elected to power in August 2012.

"Still it’s unclear what was passed on to the minister," Dr Bath said.

His investigations persisted from 2012 until 2014, but he had to suspend them while allegations against detention staff ended up in court.

If a commissioner comes to the conclusion that abuse or an assault has occurred, he is obliged to pass it to police.

"That happened three times in the course of the long investigation,” Dr Bath said.

In each case, the accused detention officer was found not guilty. Indemnity clauses, Dr Bath noted, apply to youth justice staff.

"The processes can drag out," he said.

"Then, in August 2014, the new events occurred."

The "new events" – video of which was highlighted by Four Corners – involved the use of tear gas on six boys held in isolation at the Don Dale centre in Darwin.

"Most of those kids had escaped from custody before this happened. It seemed to be a punitive response that they were put into [isolation in] the Behavioural Management Unit."

Dr Bath announced an investigation into that event.

But in late 2014 he went further.

"I contacted the minister himself and said, on the basis of my ongoing investigation – and the new incident – there needed to be a full public inquiry. I did that privately, initially.

"The minister replied that he had no credible evidence to show there was a problem.

"Upon which I showed him a draft report of the one I had been working on, along with the three videos that were among the ones you saw on Four Corners.

"All of those videos are from the Department of Corrections. They are not a secret trove somewhere. What did they pass on to the minister? I can’t tell you that. I would have thought the most important things would have been passed on.

"I can only say what I passed on in 2014. That is a matter of public record."

His draft report to Mr Elferink and videos did not include the later material from the tear-gassing event.

"Now, at that stage the whole thing was blowing up," Dr Bath said. "There was outrage about the use of gas and the extended isolation. But if you go back and look at their statements, they were playing down the issue.

“The minister didn’t contact me but he announced he was not going to do a public inquiry – that he would do an internal review.”

That became a report by former Long Bay governor Michael Vita, who highlighted serious lapses in the training and supervision of detention staff.

The investigation that Dr Bath initiated became another report, released by his successor as commissioner, Colleen Gwynne, in September last year.

While this report did not contain the videos of the tear-gassing episode, it did include extensive transcripts from that footage.

It contradicted the claims of prison officials that there had been a riot among the isolated boys or that they had armed themselves with weapons made of broken glass.

As the footage obtained Four Corners demonstrated, only one of the boys escaped. It was 14-year-old who had been in solitary confinement for a reported 15 days. He repeatedly hurled a broken light fitting as he complained about his confinement.

Guards were recorded mocking him on the other side of the prison door. "I'll pulverize the little f---er," one said. "Oh shit, we're recording, hey [laughs]."

SBS has sent questions to Mr Elferink and NT Chief Minister Adam Giles, who has replaced him in the corrections portfolio in reaction to the scandal this week.

SBS asked whether Mr Elferink watched the videos that Dr Bath sent him in late 2014 and, if not, why not? If so, SBS asked, why did he decide that they did not warrant a public inquiry at that time?

A reply came from the office of Mr Elferink, who remains the Attorney-General and Minister for Justice, Health, Children and Families, Disability Services and Mental Health Services.

"Minister Elferink is on leave and unavailable for comment," it said.

Mr Giles' office told SBS the chief minister "gave extensive interviews yesterday and has no further comment to make".

Dr Bath is now based in Brisbane and is a consultant in juvenile justice. Until the Four Corners program, he had not seen the video of Dylan Voller held in a restraint chair with a “spit hood” over his head. That practice began in 2015.

"It’s just mind-boggling,” Dr Bath said, "because that was after all the scandal following the gassing and the rest of it."

Source SBS Investigations

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