Indigenous Abuse Reflects A Broader Problem
The footage that surfaced last week depicting unprovoked physical abuse of indigenous youths by staff at the Northern Territory’s Don Dale Juvenile Detention Centre sparked outrage across Australia. ABC’s Four Corners revealed footage from the facility in which security guards are seen repeatedly beating, strangling and violently hurtling Indigenous adolescents across their rooms.
“Leave our kids alone!” protestors roared at a rally in Melbourne the following weekend. “Melbourne’s CBD is in lockdown,” Channel 10 reported. “Demonstrators have chained themselves to a cage in the middle of a major thoroughfare”. Organisers of the protest told Channel 10 that the system of youth detention, where more than 50% of inmates are Aboriginal, is “fundamentally racist”.
The protestors’ message is a wake-up call, not only to the prison guards of Don Dale Detention Centre, the NT and Federal governments, but to the police who unfairly target young indigenous Australians.
State sanctioned abuse against Aboriginal Australians is certainly not a new story. In 2015, an Indigenous Australian named Steve Freeman was bashed by prison guards within hours of arriving at an ACT prison, and received permanent brain injury after being placed in a coma for a week. The CCTV camera was turned away during his beating. Again in 2015, Ms Dhu was incarcerated for unpaid fines totalling $3,622, and after repeatedly pleading for help from police officers, stressing that she was in dire need of medical attention she was ignored. The officers asserted she was faking her illness, and left her to die in their custody.
Antony Mitchell*, a criminal psychologist who’s worked within NSW prisons claims that racism towards Indigenous inmates abounds in the nation’s jails. In a 2011 case that was particularly disturbing, an Indigenous inmate at Broken Hill Correctional Centre named William Bugmy attacked a security guard with a ball from the prison’s snooker table, striking the officer blind. Bugmy was convicted of a serious assault charge and given additional jail time.
Upon looking into Bugmy’s criminal record, the psychologist discovered that he was originally imprisoned as a juvenile for public order offences. His first offence was for J-walking at the age of 16 in Wilcannia, New South Wales – a town with a population of 604 people. “I’m pretty sure there are no pedestrian crossings in a town made up of dirt roads,” says Mitchell.
After being subjected to petty persecution and discrimination from authorities (who were supposed to be protecting his rights), it is not surprising that he rebelled. Bugmy’s attack was one of passion; “a retaliation to ongoing abuse from prison guards,” says Mitchell – reminiscent of the maltreatment of Mr. Freeman, Ms. Dhu, and the youths in Don Dale Juvenile Detention Centre. Expecting Indigenous inmates to return home and respect institutional powers after such abuse is ludicrous.
Every day, Indigenous inmates, including defenceless youths, face physical and emotional trauma from racist prison guards. Given that authorities can get away with such madness, and that Indigenous Australians are targeted on the streets for offences that other people readily walk away from, how can the authorities expect indigenous communities to trust police, judges or prison guards?
Thousands of Australian protestors have marched throughout the country in disgust, calling for the Northern Territory government to be sacked, and they certainly have a lot to answer for. How can a government-authorised detention centre, or any Australian prison for that matter, get away with heinous acts of abuse towards adolescents in their care?
Australia needs to wake up to blatant racism, which doesn’t just exist among prison guards and the police force, but in Australian society as a whole. It exists on Australia Day, when the nation collectively celebrates the colonisation and murder of indigenous culture. It exists when Adam Goodes gets booed for no good reason. It exists in the fact that indigenous Australian males aged 18 are more likely to end up in jail than go to university. And it’s reflected in the data that shows life expectancy for indigenous people is between 9 and 12 years lower than for non-indigenous.
Change within these institutions is a matter of urgency – we cannot allow these horrors to persist. But Australia has got bigger problems than most of us would like to admit.
*Name changed – the psychologist has chosen to remain anonymous.