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July 25, 2016
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Seeing is believing. Australia’s terrible, terrible shame.

Image of Dylan Voller from ABC’s Four Corners’ program, ABC website

By Pamela Nathan 

The person is shackled to the chair by his ankles, wrists and, most shockingly, by a restraint around his neck. His head is covered in what I now know is a ‘spit hood’ – a cloth bag that completely covers his head and is secured tightly under the noose around his neck. It would surely make breathing difficult even if the person was in an incredibly calm state, which this person is not.

This bound, shackled person is not a terror suspect or political prisoner in some foreign land renowned for torture and abuses of human rights. The person is not even a man.

He is a child.

A male child who has grown up in poverty, on the fringes of a post-colonial society that barely recognises his existence.

He is an Indigenous child. In Australia.

Over 45 harrowing minutes on the 25th of July, the ABC’s Four Corners aired images and interviews that have finally galvanised the PM Malcom Turnbull and the NT government into action. The people of Australia are deeply appalled. Shocked! The Australian people rage, recoil and weep. Rivers of bloody tears haemorrhage the Land.

The staggeringly high statistics of Indigenous youth incarceration now have faces. Broken, bloodied, tear streaked and hooded to hide the eyes – the window to the tortured soul.

I watched it, barely able to witness the indescribable abuse, state sanctioned, in the name of youth justice. I silently, helplessly and repeatedly screamed “Stop it” as the boy was forcibly stripped naked, stood over and manhandled by stand over prison officers who looked like they were about to commit sodomy on the crying boy, in his cell of excrement, as boys were hounded by the riot squad, gassed, hosed down in the face of pleading, and I marvelled at the protest of Jake as he desperately tried to get out of solitary confinement before he was destroyed.

I have worked in the maximum security prisons but never have seen cells like Don Dale or inmates abused. I marvelled at the courage of Ethan and Jake finding their voices to speak out and at the legal team for their ferocity and tears. And later the letter from Dylan apologising for his “wrongs”- really? – and his gratitude to the supporters for “getting the truth out”. His sister in Alice Springs pleads for his release from an adult prison. I think we all plead that the damaging violence to this young man and his brothers stop immediately.

The fallout from the shocking report was immediate. By breakfast time on the 26th of July, the Prime Minister had announced a Royal Commission. The Minister for Corrections, NT was sacked.

Another Royal Commission.

Royal Commissions, at worst, can be a political stunt and the call for action an illusion. Giles says the Royal Commission needs to look at Child Protection – not that there is to be a blame game! So it is the neglect of parents and not the abuse of the state in question?

The journalists and the lawyers made it loud and clear that senior ministers and government leaders knew about the abuse for the last few years, ignored reports and evidence and yet yesterday claimed it was the first time they knew. Mechanical restraints for youth has just been legislated in the NT.

It is now twenty five years since the findings of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody were handed down – and largely ignored.

Please, please, let the terms of reference for this Royal Commission be truthful and let there be real, lasting and positive action coming out of the findings.

Urgent and immediate action needs to be implemented now. Rehabilitation and justice needs to replace control, force and punishment breeding terror and compliance.

There are ways to work with these children – to find their humanity and, in doing so, to find our nation’s humanity.

There are culturally empowering programs – like the Men’s Tjilirra Movement (MTM) – that connect lost, angry and terrified youth to Elders, country, culture, ceremony, law and meaning. The MTM works in with the youth services out west of Alice Springs. The MTM is a community endorsed Movement and intervention. The MTM has changed minds and saved lives. There are over thirty participants a week on average. They are making traditional tools of old. The MTM hold conversations about their problem life, living in two worlds, how to reclaim connections between the generations and their cultural worlds and to have the tools to “wake up strong”. They feel “strong and proud” when they are making their tools.

Why isn’t the Men’s Tjilirra Movement receiving government funding?

There are group programs – like the CASSE/CAAC ‘Breakthrough Violence’ program – that can work with violent offenders to help them understand their violence and change. This program is attended by up to 25 participants on a weekly basis in the community. There could be such programs in the prisons and more in the community. There are also ways to work with Indigenous men, women, girls and families.

The youth in rehabilitation need psychological forensic and therapeutic interventions where they can begin to understand their crime/s, their stories of suffering, to find their voices, bear their pain, heal and live their unlived lives standing strong and proud.

But there are no quick fixes.

Australia’s Aboriginal people – custodians of the world’s longest continuing culture – have been brutalised physically and emotionally for over 200 years. The Aboriginal people of old have been chained around the neck with leg irons and today condemned to solitary confinement and mechanical restraints.

No more.

The nation of Australia is saying NO!

Thank you, Four Corners, for forcing Australia’s eyes open. 

Thank you, Ethan and Jake, for finding the courage to tell us of your inutterable anguish and darkest hours of torture and the torture of your brothers. Know that the images of you, Dylan, being stripped naked, hooded, shackled and restrained, have shocked the world. You are now no longer faceless. You now have names! Know that adult Aboriginal males are now talking about being stripped and wanting their voices to be heard about the degrading violations they have sustained. We are truly shamed, not you! We see it, we witness it, we recognise it and we recoil. We stand by you to have your damages recognised and your wounds healed for future generations and for your tomorrows.

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