The big headline on the front page of the Koori Mail in September 2015 – “Children gassed” – should have been a dead giveaway.
Indigenous media such as the Koori Mail, NITV, CAAMA and Land Rights News were reporting on the horrors routinely perpetrated in the Don Dale youth detention centre throughout 2015. The ABC’s own Anthony Stewart filed an “exclusive report”, including some of the video footage, on 19 December 2014. Independent and left wing media such as New Matilda, Red Flag, Crikey and Buzzfeed ran articles last year revealing this none-too-hidden truth.
You wouldn’t know any of this from the feigned shock with which every official figure from the prime minister down greeted the Four Corners “revelations” on 25 July.
Perhaps it is no surprise that the minister for Aboriginal affairs doesn’t read the Aboriginal media. Or the other outlets.
But the politicians also routinely disregard the reports that are produced by official inquiries.
A report into youth detention centres commissioned by the NT government was released in February 2015 with promises by the government to implement all its recommendations. It reported the abuses shown in the Four Corners program, including that the order to use tear gas on children was not made by some “under-trained” flunkey, but by the then commissioner of correctional services, Ken Middlebrook.
The Northern Territory children’s commissioners, Howard Bath and Colleen Gwynne, also held a separate inquiry. A report was tabled in the Northern Territory parliament on 17 September 2015. Both reports were made public and got some coverage in the media, and the government was given the full reports, along with video footage.
There’s no question that the government and officials knew what was going on in the prisons. It is tempting to say they didn't care, but that’s too kind. They cared enough to make all the horrors continue. No royal commission is going to address that.
As an important report by John Lawrence SC published in the Northern Land Council’s Land Rights News – Northern Edition earlier this year pointed out:
“The Northern Territory has not only four to five times more adult prisoners per head of population than any other state or territory in Australia; it has more prisoners per head of population than any other country in the world. The country with the highest prison population in the world is the United States of America, which jails 716 people per 100,000 head of population.
“The Australian national imprisonment rate is 194 per 100,000. The NT imprisonment rate is a mind-blowing 904 per 100,000. What’s more, 85 percent of those prisoners are Aboriginal. For juveniles, the NT imprisonment rate is more than five times higher than any other state or territory in Australia – and 97 percent are Aboriginal.”
It’s now 25 years since the report of the $50 million Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. That royal commission was the product of years of campaigning by the families and supporters of the 99 Aboriginal people whose deaths were investigated. The only value of that royal commission was to make common knowledge something that Aboriginal people have always known – the murderously racist nature of the Australian state.
Then, Aboriginal people were 2.5 percent of the population, and 14 percent of the country’s jail population. Twenty-five years later, Aborigines now are 27 percent of the country’s jail population.
The royal commission made 339 recommendations. Very few of them have been implemented. Of particular note is the fact that while the rate of Aboriginal deaths in custody has accelerated since the royal commission, not a single cop or prison guard has been convicted of any crime relating to those deaths. The one notable case where a cop, Chris Hurley, was charged, over the violent death in custody of Mulrunji Doomadgee on Palm Island in 2004, ended not with a conviction but a promotion.
The 1991 royal commission’s recommendations are routinely disregarded, probably nowhere more so than in the NT.
Recommendations 168 and 169 relate to the importance for Aboriginal prisoners of continued connections to family and culture: “the prisoner should be placed in an institution as close as possible to the place of residence of his or her family” and “where it is found to be impossible to place a prisoner in the prison nearest to his or her family, sympathetic consideration should be given to providing financial assistance to the family, to visit the prisoner from time to time”.
Compare this to the Kafkaesque reality of the prison bus stop at the new super-jail 33 kilometres south of Darwin. At a cost of $40,000, a bus stop and shelter were built about 500 metres from the reception area of the jail. To date it has never seen a bus. For Aboriginal families, many of whom have to gather hundreds of dollars for an airfare to Darwin, the $70 one-way taxi fare from Darwin is another cruel imposition.
It sums up some of the deliberate dehumanising of Aboriginal prisoners, and the pointlessness of expecting a further royal commission to change anything. The new royal commission is an attempt to bury the outrage generated by the racist reality of the prison system.
How useless it will be is reinforced by looking at who Turnbull has appointed as commissioner. Former NT Supreme Court chief justice Brian Martin is infamous for his comments when sentencing the five white murderers of Kwementyaye Ryder, a 33-year-old Aboriginal man, in 2010. The five had beaten Mr Ryder to death while they were on a racist drunken rampage through the town.
Justice Martin accepted their defence that they were just engaged in a bit of “hooning”, and described Mr Ryder’s death as “manslaughter by negligence” before handing out light sentences that no Aboriginal person charged with the death of a white person would ever receive.
Brian Martin did evince some concern for the conditions in jail – but only in the most perverse way possible. Having stuffed the NT jails full of Blacks, the judge was concerned only for the safety in custody of white racists whose crime was murdering an Aboriginal person.
There was more humanity in the response to the Four Corners program inside Alice Springs jail than from anyone in government or the courts. Eight prisoners took to the roof of the jail in protest at the viciousness handed out to those children.
The so-called justice system is a toxic mixture of racism with a more general “tough on crime” rhetoric, mandatory sentencing and restrictive bail laws which mean that, in the Northern Territory, 38 percent of those entering adult prison and 60 percent of those entering youth detention have been convicted of no crime.
The needs of Australian capitalism require ever more budget cuts to education and welfare, as well as to programs that address any element of Aboriginal genocide and dispossession. Remote Aboriginal communities are derided as expensive nuisances.
But there’s endless money for fighter jets and submarines, for tax cuts to the bosses and for locking people up. The cost of keeping a child in custody in the NT in early 2015 was $698.40 per day or $254,916 per annum. For the bosses it’s a small price to pay for the invaluable criminalisation of Aboriginal people, and for the divide and rule that racism promotes.
A week after Redfern exploded in anger at the murder of T.J. Hickey by police in 2004, the Sydney Morning Herald finally got it: the front page of its weekend supplement read, “It takes a riot to care about these kids”. That spirit of resistance, the desire to close the prisons and detention centres and sack all those who run them, is worth a thousand royal commissions.