Australia is still reeling with shock from the revelations of the inhumane treatment of young inmates in the Don Dale juvenile detention facility in the Northern Territory. And although the government has reacted swiftly, calling for a royal commission into the juvenile imprisonment in NT, some think that the issue is deeper and bigger. Gerry Georgatos, a journalist, activist, and suicide prevention researcher with the Institute of Social Justice and Human Rights, has long been engaged with the indigenous communities and believes that Australia needs to change its approach to the matter.

Gerry Georgatos.

As someone who has examined the socio-economic causes of juvenile delinquency in disadvantaged communities, as well as the long-term effects of incarceration, what is your opinion on the Don Dale incident?

The issue is far wider than an incident in a specific facility. I have visited juvenile detention facilities and I can tell you that what has occurred in the Northern Territory, we have actually known it for several years. There have been various incidents for there were not acted upon, it actually took a package by the ABC’s Four Corners report to collect all of them together. If what has occurred at Don Dale hadn’t been captured by CCTV, if that footage hadn’t been available and compiled by significant media outlets, none of this discussion would have taken place. So, it is only when we get the CCTV footage that corroborates the wrongs that many of us know that they’re actually endemic and common, that we are willing to act upon them. I can tell you that these incidents are very similar to complaints for misbehaviour and brutality by corrective services personnel and the criminal justice system and rogue elements of the police that I’ve heard by many families and many juvenile detainees. These incidents that were described have caused some shock to many in the nation, but this only shows how disengaged the nation actually is with a lot of the issues facing the most marginalised. The juvenile detention rate in Australia is the highest in the world – the US, the mother of all jailers, comes second. This is an abomination and in fact it is an example of systemic racism, because more than half of the juvenile detention population comprises of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth while in the NT 98 per cent of the juvenile detention comprises Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth. It’s the highest proportion of any racialised group in the world. This goes beyond juvenile detention: 27 per cent of the national prison population is comprised by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population – yet they are 2.5 per cent of the general national population.

What is the cause of that?

What we have is racialised poverty in this country of a level not experienced by any other cultural group – not even by migrants despite the racism that migrants continue to endure. And there is often a misunderstanding of the racism that we have – there is xenophobia which is a fear of others but there is also misoxeny which is a hate of others and it is this hate of others that has entrenched the Australian psyche that still has not been explored. Australia still has not redressed the inequalities that it generated itself in the last couple of centuries towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Today we have the flow and effect of that ‘White Austalia’ policy and we see the social return has been a negative one. According to the census, there are 731,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people in Australia; half of them live under the Henderson Poverty Line; they live in extreme poverty and a significant proportion of them live in conditions akin to the Third World. This is inexcusable for a country like Australia, one of the world’s biggest economies, and it is an issue that remains unaddressed. This nation was built on a ‘White Australia’ policy and ‘White Australia’ is still reflected in the Parliament.

Still form the ABC show Four Corners.

Do you think that the call for a royal commission will solve the issue?

The royal commission is a step in the right direction, I’m happy for it but it shouldn’t be limited to the Northern Territory, it should be Australia-wide. The majority of the juvenile detention population is made up of fragile, marginalised, troubled Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth and we’re not helping them – we’re actually retraumatising them and casting them upon lives of further despair. We have many people who have degenerated to aggressive complex traumas. And these people, no matter how many good programs we have on the ground, are flooding past us in a tsunami of poverty-related issues and they are filling the prisons and the juvenile detention facilities. They are filling the prisons for low-level, poverty-born offences, for crimes of need. People go to jail for trying to steal some clean clothes, or for getting some food on the table for themselves and their families because they are hungry. This shouldn’t be the case in this country. My greatest concern is this: [in both] juvenile detention and the general prison population these facilities are places where people come out worse than when they came in. They come out from the situational trauma of incarceration with other aggressive traumas and hurt of a psychosocial nature so deep that they become dysfunctional and they degenerate often into ruined lives if they don’t get the support they need. What we do need from these detention facilities is more restorative programs, the opportunity to heal, to work with people. Eighty six per cent of the prison population has never completed school and those children who are in juvenile detention are some of the most troubled. They come from the most troubled backgrounds and instead of helping them we hurt them further. And we cast them into a life of complete despair and hopelessness. You are ten times more likely to take your life or suicide in your first year after release than any time – even in the dungeon of despair. This is why I’ve been calling for a royal commission on suicide for years, because that will include all of the juvenile detention centres and all of the prison system and it will address acute poverty and all the socio-economic issues that lead to people finishing up in jails and lives at ruination. We cannot go forward as a nation unless we have a national discussion about all this. And it has to be a deep, multi-layered, multi-faceted, multi-factorial examination that has never happened before in this country.

What other action should the government take?

The real response has to be why the bureaucracy, the departments, and ministerial portfolio holders, and also those people in operational charge of the Don Dale facility and the police did not prosecute these men or seek to redress those wrongs that were obvious to an reasonably-minded individual.
If we leave it to just the royal commission and to Don Dale and the NT Government, which [has] been the problem, we won’t do much. What will happen is they will just improve the checks and balances of how they treat these people but they will not reduce the trauma not give hope to the lives of these young people.