Australia’s Shame – some thoughts on the treatment of youth in detention

A 17 year old boy strapped to a restraint chair (Photo: ABC)

A 17 year old boy strapped to a restraint chair (Photo: ABC)

I’ve just watched the Four Corners program on the treatment of youth (mainly Indigenous) in detention in Northern Territory – Australia’s Shame. Like many others I found the horrific video of the treatment of teenagers shocking and very disturbing. There is no excuse for some of the handling of the young people shown during the program.

The repeated incidents involving one boy, Dylan Voller, from 2010, 2011, 2014 and 2015, were particularly disturbing: they weren’t just one-off incidents. The treatment of a young boy in this way is unacceptable and will not lead to positive outcomes in the long-term.

If I treated my children like they, no matter what they had done, they would be taken out of my care. Just because someone is in prison, does not mean they can be treated so inhumanely.

As a community we need to find better ways of responding to young people with problem behaviour. I don’t know Dylan’s background, history or charges, but I do know that the way he was treated in the videos is not going to help.

As a youth worker in the 1990s, I was dismayed at the way some youth services and youth workers

  • Handled conflict with young people
  • Responded to violence or other negative behaviour
  • Treated young people who broke the rules of the service.

In a study I did of an accommodation service for homeless teenagers, out of 38 residents over a two-year period who had left the service, conflict played a significant role in the departure of 24 of them (15 who were kicked out and 9 who left in other negative circumstances). Conflict was a major cause for many of them being homeless and the youth service continued the cycle.

The way young people were treated, led me to complete a PhD exploring the implications of a philosophy of nonviolence for youth work practice. Although youth workers had to respond to a range of challenging behaviour, they generally received no training in behaviour management, they frequently relied on coercive methods for responding to challenging behaviour, and they didn’t even have a common language for talking about behaviour management. (Read about how the police were used as a behaviour management technique.)

Tim Newell (who worked in prisons for almost 40 years) argues that there the criminal justice system has to move from its “current emphasis on punishment to one of prevention, protecting the public and holding offenders accountable” (p. 8). Youth detention centres should focus on restoring young people to the community.

I was disturbed that part of the response by the Northern Territory Chief Minister was to say that

The community of the NT is sick of youth crime, they’ve had a gutful of cars getting smashed up, houses getting broken into, people being assaulted; the majority of the community is saying, `let’s lock these kids up’.

The all too frequent law and order debate, so loved by some politicians and media, are part of the problem.

I’m glad that the program has created such outrage, but outrage will only start a process. We need to build more compassionate responses that – rather than relying on force, exclusion and coercion to punish people – are based on restorative justice, reintegration and community based alternatives to imprisonment.

If you liked this post please follow my blog (top right-hand corner of the blog), and you might like to look at:

  1. Nonviolence as a Framework for Youth Work Practice
  2. Youth work and the police
  3. Principles of nonviolence
  4. 12 principles of a problem solving approach to conflict resolution
  5. What are Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) workshops?
  6. Social change and strengths-based approaches

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), environmentalist, Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace & sustainability.
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