Indigenous Australia

Suicide of 15 year old Aboriginal boy in Don Dale a result of NT punitive culture

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Aboriginal children in detention. (Image via

The public outcries come and go but the broken and ruined lives of Aboriginal children in detention in NT and WA continue to mount up. Gerry Georgatos warns the toll may eventually become insurmountable. 

AT DON Dale juvenile detention centre, a 15-year-old orphaned Aboriginal boy took his life only days after being locked up for committing $90 worth of “crimes”. How many Australians know about Johnny Warramarrba? Johnny’s mother died when he was a baby. His dad was killed in a car accident when he was eleven. When he committed his less than $90 worth of “crimes” – the stealing of pens and stationery – his grandmother was seriously ill in Darwin Hospital.

This young boy is one of many lives lost in and out of juvenile detention. In general, our youth come out of juvenile detention in a worse state than they went in. Hopelessness is all their mind’s eye sees. That which the eye sees and the ear hears is despair and the fears that go with.

For every young life lost, thousands of others meander in broken lives and for many from broken lives to ruination. Johnny Warramarrba was found hanging in his cell. This was February 9, 2000. He had been arrested in his community for stealing goods worth less than $90. There was no counselling and he was not guided by any mentoring. Instead, he was journeyed 800 kilometres to Darwin and gaoled.

Five days before his pending release, Johnny killed himself. Because he refused to wash up, a prison officer ordered him to his cell. He was found a little while later, hanging. He died nine hours later at Darwin Hospital.

The penal estate, in line with the criminal justice system, is a culture of punishment and therefore everyone who works within this culture soaks up and dishes out punishment. In 2009, an Aboriginal boy aged 12 was arrested and gaoled for being in possession of a piece of chocolate —a Freddo frog. He was charged for shoplifting from a Coles supermarket. He was locked up for stealing an item that would have sold for 70 cents.

The kid had no prior convictions. Should we be prosecuting children for these types of “crimes”?

Western Australia is the mother of gaolers of the nation’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. One in six of the state’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have been to prison — this is an abomination and not only smacks of, but is, racialised imprisonment. It is also the world’s highest gaoling rate. In fact, one in 13 of the state’s Aboriginal adult males is in gaol.

Australia has the world’s highest rate of juvenile detention with the mother of all gaolers, the United States of America, ranked second behind Australia. The juvenile detention rate gets worse, the more west we travel across the Australian continent, with the Northern Territory and Western Australia the highest.

These children are screaming out for help and instead of listening to them we brutalise them; maltreating, abusing, degrading, diminishing, bashing, isolating them. What is with the 23-hour lockdowns?  What is with the long-term separations from other detainees, from human contact?

In viewing the footage packaged in the Four Corners episode 'Australia’s Shame' what stood out for me was the boy who after being stripped naked by guards huddled with his head into his knees. The hurt is deep, damaging. It goes to the psychosocial, destroying prospects of a positive self, robbing one of all hope.

There is nothing as profoundly powerful as forgiveness. The forgiveness of others validates self-worth, builds bridges and positive futures. What is missing from the criminal justice system and the penal estate are the cultures of forgiveness and redemption. Forgiveness cultivated and understood keeps families and society solid as opposed to the corrosive anger that diminishes people into the darkest places, into effectively being mental unwell.

Anger is a warning sign to becoming unwell. Love comes more natural to the human heart despite that hate can take one over. In the battle between love and hate, one will choose love more easily when in understanding of the endless dark place that is hate and of its corrosive impacts.

Hate can never achieve what love ever so easily can. Hate and anger have filled our prison and juvenile detention centres with the mentally unwell, with the most vulnerable, with the poor — and not with the criminally minded.

Like so many others, I have worked to turn around the lives of as many people in gaol as I possibly could, but for every inmate or former inmate that people like me dedicate time to in order to improve their lot — ultimately there is tsunami of poverty related issues and draconian laws that flood “offenders” into prisons.

Gaoling the poorest, most vulnerable and the mentally unwell, in my experience, only serves to elevate the risk of reoffending, of normalising disordered and broken lives of digging deeper divides between people, of marginalising people. It has been my experience that in general people come out of prison worse than when they went in.

Of course, violence breeds violence, hate breeds hate, but yet we gaol and punish like there is no tomorrow.

One of society’s major failures is the punitive criminal justice system. Despite an evidently failed penal estate we continue on with it. For too many, it has become easier to lie and act as if the failure is a success or as if there are not alternatives.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, in the Brothers Karamazov, wrote:

“Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect ceases to love.”

Johnny Warramarrba’s mother died when he was a baby. His dad was killed in a car accident when he was eleven. When he committed his less than $90 worth of “crimes” – the stealing of pens and stationery – his grandmother was seriously ill in Darwin Hospital. The boy came from Groote Eylandt. I recently spent time at Groote Eylandt, and in its three communities. It is a closed island where permission is required to visit. The impoverishment of the people is stark despite the high cultural content. Only three students have ever graduated from high school.

But on Groote Eyland, there is the GEMCO manganese mine – one of the richest such projects in the world. The FIFOs have it good — I stayed where they do in Anungu however it is a different story for the rest of the island. Talk about Native Title failing a community. In general, Native Title is a longstanding debacle as a holistic compensatory mechanism. I spent time on Groote Eylandt in responding to the suicide-related trauma of a family who lost their 13 year old daughter in April. The island community had a resident counsellor predominately for the FIFOs but no resident counsellors for the locals. I met with the Land Council and we agreed that half a million dollars be set aside for two resident counsellors —female and male.

The degradation of homeland communities across northern and western Australia is the work of one government after another, who are responsible either in stripping social infrastructure and assets from these communities or who have denied the equivalency of services and opportunities to these communities when compared to non-Aboriginal communities.

It was reported that in the week after Johnny’s suicide, that a 22-year-old Groote Eylandt man was sentenced to a gaol for a Christmas Day “crime” in 1998. He was found guilty of stealing biscuits and cordial from the GEMCO storeroom. Jamie Wurramara was gaoled for a so-called $23 crime.

The public outcries come and go and are forgotten, but the broken and ruined lives mount. The toll may eventually become insurmountable. Why?

We do need royal commissions but with a focus on so much more that the nation’s eyes and ears need lending to.

The Grim Statistics:

  • There are four adult prisons in the Northern Territory. Alice Springs Correctional Centre which has more prisoners than prescribed capacity (122 per cent), Darwin Correctional Centre, Barkly Work Camp (also beyond capacity, 136 per cent) and Datjala Work Camp. According to the Northern Territory Government there were nearly 3,300 individuals as prison entrants. At any one time, there are nearly 1,400 prisoners in the Territory gaols. The rate of imprisonment in the Territory is among the highest in the world —at last count 882 incarcerated per 100,000 adults. The national rate of imprisonment is 191 per 100,000 adults. The Indigenous gaoling rate in the Northern Territory is 2,954 per 100,000 adults —one of the world’s highest. The Indigenous gaoling rate in Western Australia is 3,686 per 100,000 adults — and is fluctuates between the world’s highest and second highest gaoling rate (sadly competing with the Black American adult gaoling rate).
  • The Territory’s population is around 250,000, with 80,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.
  • One in 80 Northern Territorians in any one year are in gaol while at any one time one in 120 Territorians are in gaol, higher than the rate of gaoling of the mother of gaolers, the United States of America – 1 in 131.
  • 84 per cent of the prison population is comprised of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.
  • There are two juvenile detention centres in the Northern Territory — Alice Springs Youth Detention Centre and Don Dale Youth Detention Centre.
  • There are also non-custodial orders administered through eight regional offices throughout the Northern Territory.
  • With the Northern Territory’s juvenile detention population last year there were more 230 youths who at one time or another were locked up. 94 per cent were Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth. 28 per cent of the youth in juvenile detention were aged less than 15 years.
  • Australia juvenile detention rate is the world’s highest. Ranked second is the United States’ juvenile detention rate.

Gerry Georgatos is an adviser for Humanitarian Projects, Institute for Social Justice and Human Rights (ISJHR), Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Suicide Prevention Evaluation Project (ATSISPEP) and Wheelchairs for Kids charity. He is also co-editor of The Stringer.

You can follow Gerry on Twitter @GerryGeorgatos.

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