It’s an icy winter’s night in Mparntwe (the Arrernte name for Alice Springs). The desert cold has a way of seeping into your bones and seizing control. Instead of curling up on the couch with a cup of tea and a blanket, a group of local grandmothers are preparing to brave the weather and patrol the city’s dark streets in high-vis jackets. The Strong Grandmothers of the Central Desert group was formed nine years ago to help vulnerable children in the community. The group includes artists, traditional owners, healers, academics and teachers. Many of them are descendants of the Stolen Generations – and all of them are staunch advocates for the children in their community. In April, the group started their night patrol after noticing the number of kids wandering the streets well past their bedtimes.
“We need to keep our kids safe,” says Arrernte elder Sabella Turner, 63, who has 15 grandchildren and 11 great grandchildren. “I came to the Grand mothers Group after my grandson got caught in the justice system. He was sent to Alice Springs Youth Detention when he was 11 for something he said he didn’t do, while hanging out with a group of older boys. After that, he was in and out of jail for years. There was no support in place for him, or kids like him.”
Every night, there are an estimated 1128 children in the NT who don’t have a safe place to sleep. Issues of overcrowding, domestic violence and substance abuse stem from chronic underfunding of housing and decades after the Intervention in Aboriginal communities, which has displaced people from their Country and broken up families.
On any night in downtown Alice Springs, between 50 and a couple of hundred kids – some in primary school – are on the streets. Most are just being teenagers: hanging out with friends, chatting and laughing. A small minority are up to no good: smashing bottles, breaking into cars and vandalising shopfronts. But tabloid headlines screaming “Anarchy on the streets of Alice Springs” don’t tell the whole truth.
In fact, there has been a decline in youth crime in the past decade. Data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows a 51 per cent drop in youth offenders proceeded against by NT police between 2009 and 2020.
Yet the youth incarceration rate in the NT is three times the national average, and First Nations children are imprisoned at 25 times the rate of their non-Indigenous peers. Youth detention is far from being a safe or protected environment for those who need it most, yet the introduction of new legislation is making it easier to keep Indigenous kids locked up.
In 2016, there was widespread outrage when ABC’s Four Corners program aired its report into the NT juvenile justice system. Titled “Australia’s Shame”, the segment broadcast footage of boys at Darwin’s Don Dale Youth Detention Centre being teargassed in their cells as the guards laughed and threatened to “pulverise the little fucker”.
It also showed now infamous footage of Dylan Voller. In 2010, aged 13, he’s playing with a deck of cards in his cell in Alice Springs Youth Detention Centre. Three guards enter, one grabs him by the throat and throws him onto a mattress, holding him face down while the other two strip him naked. The next year, he’s again in his cell, crying into his singlet, when the same thing happens.
But it was the haunting 2015 footage of Voller, by then 17, hooded and shackled to a restraint chair, that became the symbol of the horrific injustices that were at play, sparking national outrage and prompting then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to launch a royal commission within 36 hours of the program being broadcast.
The subsequent Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory found that children in the system were denied basic needs, such as water, and were “subjected to regular, repeated and distressing mistreatment”, including verbal abuse, racist remarks, physical abuse and humiliation. It was recommended Don Dale be closed and youth detention be used as a last resort for children. The conclusion was clear: locking kids up does not stop them breaking the law and does not make the community safer.
Yet just five years on, the NT government appears to have moved even further away from the recommendations. Earlier this year, it was announced that disused sections of Don Dale – a former adult prison described as only being “fit for a bulldozer” – are being renovated to accommodate the expected influx of children being sent to detention. This is due to the strict new youth bail laws that were introduced in May, making it easier for children to be locked up.
The legislation – which has been highly criticised by lawyers, all 14 Australian and New Zealand Children’s Commissioners and Guardians, and Amnesty International – gives police more power to immediately place electronic monitoring devices on children, to breath test them without an adult guardian present, and to automatically place re-offenders behind bars.
Since the laws passed, the NT government has been ordered to pay $35 million damages to up to 1200 former youths and children who were mistreated while in custody, many at Don Dale.
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