• Dylan Voller looking back into the facility he was first detained in at just 11 years old, Aranda House. (Elliana Lawford, NITV)Source: Elliana Lawford, NITV
EXCLUSIVE: In the last year, Dylan Voller’s name has been splashed over newspapers both nationally and internationally; the image of him strapped to a restraint chair and hooded has been etched onto screens worldwide.
By
Elliana Lawford

22 May 2017 - 12:13 PM  UPDATED 22 May 2017 - 5:52 PM

He’s now been out of detention for four months, his longest stint outside prison since first entering the system eight years ago, at just 11 years old.

Dylan Voller became the poster boy for the Northern Territory Royal Commission into youth detention after the ABC's Four Corners aired the program "Australia's Shame" in July 2016, which revealed the mistreatment of youth inside Darwin's Don Dale Detention Centre. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced the Royal Commission just a day later.

Voller's childhood was largely filled with solitary confinement, violence, and spit hoods. Overseas, media described his treatment inside youth detention as “like something out of Guantanamo Bay”.

“I was younger, I was a young kid, I'd had a fair bit of trauma and I didn't know how to cope with it and I acted out and that. All I can do is apologise to everyone that I did offend and move forward."

“I think about it pretty much all the time,” Dylan Voller says as he looks down to the ground.

“There was times where I thought that that was the only place for me, was to be stuck in detention, and stuff like that, because I'd become so used to it, it was just a normal thing to just be staying in detention, even staying in my room 24/7 it just became normal,” he continues.

In 2014, Voller was sentenced to three years and eight months for aggravated robbery, he says he punched a man and stole his wallet.

“I'm disgusted in my behaviour and really not proud of the things I did,” he says.

He looks up and continues, referencing a traumatic childhood and a lack of support: “I was younger, I was a young kid, I'd had a fair bit of trauma and I didn't know how to cope with it and I acted out and that. All I can do is apologise to everyone that I did offend and move forward."

The now 19-year-old admits he’s made mistakes.

“I have accepted and admitted that I have done the wrong thing, I have made silly threats, I have abused prison staff, I’ve spat, I’ve kicked doors, I’ve done stuff like that, and yeah I do admit it, I have admitted to it and I know it was wrong,” he explains.

“But nothing like that justifies adult officers grabbing us kids by the necks, locking us in cells for long periods of time, and none of it justifies the behaviour that goes on in Don Dale from the staff, so I think it's just time that they all accept responsibility, because I think that’s the only way to, I guess, forgive the system and move on, is accepting what you’ve done is wrong.”

'Moving forward' is a phrase Dylan Voller uses a lot during the interview.

For the last four months he's been staying at BushMob, a residential rehabilitation centre for young people in Alice Springs.

His participation in the program was part of a court-order that saw him released from prison eight months early. At the time, the judge said Voller needed support to re-integrate back into society.

“People need to understand if you’ve got somewhere to sleep at night, and you’ve got food in your belly and you’re safe, that’s a rare thing in this world. It’s tricky out there.”

It’s hard to imagine how someone could adjust to freedom after almost ten years of detention, but ‘moving forward’ is exactly what Dylan Voller has been doing.

He has spent the last few months getting his drivers license, getting a job, and finding a place to live for when he leaves the program.

His reports from both Corrections and BushMob have been positive. They state: “he adheres to all of his very stringent conditions”.

As Dylan walks into BushMob, he greets his case manager, Rusty. They smile at each other, and Rusty grabs Dylan's hat and flips it into the air. Dylan laughs and begins to tell Rusty about his day.

“It's been fun watching him leave and sort of shrug off corrections and his experiences there... The BushMob philosophy, which is radically different [to being locked up], and that process of change that happens,” Voller’s case manager Rusty says.

“He's definitely maturing and he's learning just to manage life better, so we haven't had a single major incident since Dylan came in, which is testimony to him and the hard work he's put into it.”

As you walk around BushMob, all of the young people are smiling.

A few boys are outside kicking a football, several kids are inside on computers, and others are sitting outside 'yarning' with one another.

BushMob provides access to a range of different support services. The young people have access to counselors and doctors, they go to school and work, and they participate in meaningful activities.

The environment at BushMob is unlike prison.

“It's completely different here, you've got workers that actually care, that are actually coming to make a difference and supporting you, not just locking you in a cell and expect you to just change automatically by yourself,” Dylan explains whilst walking through the centre.

“It's been pretty good I'd say, working with the workers at BushMob, getting my license, and going and getting myself a job... Yeah it's been pretty good, just to be able to have a counselor and work with him and work with the other young fellas too.”

One message from a former guard at Don Dale reads: “I’m looking forward to Dylan’s release. Got a hole dug and everything.”

BushMob works with several kids who have dealt with difficult and traumatic experiences growing up, and many that have been through the youth justice system.

“People need to understand if you’ve got somewhere to sleep at night, and you’ve got food in your belly and you’re safe, that’s a rare thing in this world. It’s tricky out there,” Rusty explains.

“I can think of four or five young people who’ve come through here who’ve all had major issues when they’ve been locked up. We get referrals and we read their referrals and are aware of their experiences inside and outside of the juvenile justice system. We’re aware of how difficult this person is reported to be, and they will go through 16 weeks at BushMob. On paper they were going to be really difficult to manage, and we didn’t have a single incident, so whatever we’re doing must be different.”

Dylan is sitting in the BushMob courtyard with some of the younger boys in the program.

“You boys been going to school?” He asks them.

“Yeah,” they respond.

“What you mob think you’re gonna do when you’re older?”

Dylan gets a range of responses: one wants to be a ranger, the other wants to be a counselor, and another wants to work in youth services.

“As it turns out, Dylan’s actually been a real mentor to some of the younger people in the program,” Rusty explains.

“He's just there, you know, sometimes just to help them calm down a bit and to say, 'pull you're head in, staff are busy,' you know that sort of middle ground between staff and the younger clients.”

In a week, Dylan could be a free man for the first time in almost a decade.

After completing his program at BushMob, he'll return to court and apply to have the remainder of his sentence suspended for good behaviour. He's already had his conditions changed to allow for more freedom.

Dylan's older sister, Kirra, has been vocal in her disgust at the Northern Territory's youth justice system. She spent months fighting for her brother's release, after finding out about his treatment inside Don Dale.

She says shes astonished at her little brother's resilience.

“The amount that he has changed and grown since being let out is amazing! It's a clear example of how much the system was holding him back,” Kirra Voller says.

“You know, he'll pull kids up on the street that he knows are doing the wrong thing or he knows are meant to be somewhere, and he'll tell them his story and say, ‘get back there, do the right thing, you don't wanna be like me’.”

But life on the outside hasn’t been easy. Dylan is flicking through several messages he’s had sent to him on Facebook.

One from a former guard at Don Dale reads: “I’m looking forward to Dylan’s release. Got a hole dug and everything.”

“It really hurts and it’s really scary, but I guess because of the situation I’m in I just have to ignore it and go forward,” Dylan says.

“It’s kind of scary when I go to the courthouse and stuff like that, and I know there’s corrections officers there and stuff like that. I get too scared to even go into the toilet by myself. I’m scared that they’re going to come in there while I’m in there and I’m really paranoid. When I see officers around, I put my head down and try and get away as quick as possible. I’m scared the police are going to pull up and arrest me for nothing and make something up to try and put me back in.”

Dylan says he's also had to struggle with people’s perceptions of him as a former prisoner.

“If I put in for a job or I go somewhere, some people don't want anything to do with me because of my history, and because of all the media attention and stuff like that,” he says.

“But I'm not a bad person. I've made a lot of bad mistakes and it took me a long time to learn from them, but I have learnt from them now and I'm on the right path.”

He explains that whilst there are struggles, he’s received a lot of support.

Dylan has received letters from around the world, especially from people who were shocked by his mistreatment inside Darwin's Don Dale Detention Centre - the treatment that sparked the Northern Territory Royal Commission.

“That's what keeps me going and motivates me to keep doing good,” he says with a smile.

“But at the same time I don’t want them to apologise, I feel upset that they are apologising for something that isn’t their fault, something they didn’t do."

The Royal Commission's end is near, and Dylan Voller will no longer be the boy in the hood.

“I guess it's all going to be over in terms of Royal Commission and stuff like that, but in me, it will never be over. I will still re-live and keep going through all that stuff. It's going to take a long time to get over that sort of stuff.

“I just hope that when it is all over, the government really takes [recommendations] on board and puts plans in place not only to better the system as it is now, but to better protect kids from entering the system in the first place.”

I ask if he has hope in that.

“Yeah, I really do.”

The full interview will air tonight, Monday May 22, on NITV's The Point at 9pm.

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