Copping ‘mental and physical abuse’ on top of serving time: Dylan Voller’s evidence to the NT Royal Commission

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Above: Dylan Voller (left) giving evidence to the Royal Commission. Screen capture from the commission’s live streaming. 

 

By KIERAN FINNANE

 

A remarkably composed and articulate Dylan Voller today spoke of his experiences in detention at the Royal Commission into Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory. He summed them up at the end – reading from a hand-written statement –  as the “mental and physical abuse we continue to cop while we’re here”, on top of doing “our time for our crime”.

 

p2384-ntrc-letterHe acknowledged his criminal history, some of it involving serious offending, as something he is “definitely not proud of”.  He said he was “sorry for it” but it was “done already”.

 

He also described his habit, in his younger years, of spitting at officers as “disgusting”. He said he regretted it, but it became a “mechanism”, a “reaction” because he was “defenceless”. When three or four officers were holding him down and hurting him, he couldn’t tell them to stop, they’d only “go harder”.

 

But, as his institutional reports show, he said, with maturity he has grown out of spitting.

 

He has had no consistent schooling since the age of 10, often being excluded from class in the detention centres. He accepted that he had often made things difficult for his teachers, but said it was “not on purpose, I couldn’t control my behaviour”.

 

He did not hesitate to speak well of a handful of individuals who had helped him along the way. One, an Indigenous youth worker at Don Dale, tutored him in his school work. Mr Voller said he’d always had problems with concentration and this man helped him out with one on one attention.

 

He had appreciated the visit by Larrakia Nation, one of the only “cultural programs” he’d experienced while in detention. He said it was “good for us” to talk to people from the outside, not only to see people from the gaol.

 

He named three officers from the Department of Children and Families who “came to work to do their job” – they would try to talk to him, make an effort. “They cared about us young people and wanted to help us.”

 

In particular they were “helping us have stronger family relationships”. This in contrast to others who just came to work “to get paid”, and one caseworker in particular who told him his family didn’t care about him. He had “started believing it”.

 

p2384-ntrc-callaghan-350This was the only time Mr Voller became upset during the proceedings. Senior counsel assisting Peter Callaghan (left), who was taking Mr Voller through his statement, asked if he wanted a break at this point, but Mr Voller gathered himself and shook his head.

 

“You know it’s not true,” said Mr Callaghan, referring to family members present in the court. Mr Voller agreed.

 

In the course of one of the worst experiences he related – his transfer by road transport from Alice Springs to Darwin, made without notice and against the advice of his psychiatrist – he said he was lucky enough to get a couple of good officers for the leg north of Tennant Creek. “They broke a few rules”, opening the side of the car and letting him sit there to get some fresh air, having conversations with him, turning on the air-conditioning and providing him with cool drinks and snacks, even buying him MacDonalds in Katherine.

 

Not so the leg from Alice to the town 500 kms north. Shortly after his transfer to the adult gaol, he was woken early one morning and told he was going. He travelled in a van normally designed, he said, for taking people to and from court, not for long distance travel. He was hand-cuffed. There was no water, no air conditioning, no windows to let in outside air, the two youth justice officers smoked, which gave him a headache and made him feel sick. He was very agitated, trying to choke himself with his seatbelt, trying to break the seat he was on. There was no provision for going to the toilet. His request for a toilet stop was ignored. Eventually he had to defecate in his shirt. He remained shirtless for the rest of the trip.

 

He had earlier spoken of another incident in the Alice Springs Youth Detention Centre when he had been refused a toilet visit and had to defecate in a pillow slip. At other times, instead of being taken to the toilet, he was told to urinate outside, through the door or a window. This happened “plenty of times”.

 

There was no privacy in the bathrooms and toilets. Doors were removed from the stalls. Officers watched while you were on the toilet, he said, which he found “scary”.

 

Strip-searching was a frequent occurrence, before and after each visit to court, to the doctor, each time he was “placed at risk”. This happened from the time he was first detained, at age 11 or 12. Officers “wouldn’t let you cover your private parts”, he said. He described the routine, including probing of his mouth and ears with the officer’s finger, and the “squat and cough” inspection.

 

At one stage, when he kept covering his cell camera with toilet paper, he would be strip-searched every time he went to the toilet.

 

During his now infamous spell in the restraint chair, wearing a spit hood – shown on the Four Corners program, “Australia’s Shame” –  he had again been refused the opportunity to go to the toilet and he ended up “pissing in the restraint chair”. The footage, in which he looks to be pacified, was far from a  complete picture, said Mr Voller.

 

He said during the two and a half to three hours in the chair (“it felt longer”)  he had struggled and complained and tried to get out of the chair: the restraints at his wrists were very tight; he was getting dizzy and agitated; an officer, who was making fun of him, would turn the camera off and then on again when he became angry. The elastic on the spit hood was around his neck, instead of, he said, as it is supposed to be – across the nose. He said this showed that the hood was being used to punish him, rather than just to prevent spitting. He had vomited in his mouth and kept it there.

 

This was one of the “scariest” things that had happened to him, that and the tear-gassing incident, which also featured on Four Corners.

 

Not being able to do anything about it, there being no responsible person to say “that’s enough” – these were the worst aspects of the experience.

 

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When he was not yet 13 he had been placed in a residential house by child protection, along with his sister. There he had come into contact with older youths, who encouraged him to smokee marijuana. Somehow they were able to get hold of it and get away with smoking. It was one of those youths with whom he later got into more trouble, on the inside and outside.

 

He gave accounts of being denied food as a punishment while in detention, and in some facilities having no access to water in the cells, having to wait to be given a drink.

 

He spoke of being left in his cell in Alice Springs for a whole night with no clothes, no mattress, the air-conditioning going full blast. He was “freezing”; his requests for a blanket ignored. This was in response to him having ripped up his mattress and sheets. He saw it as  “punishment”.

 

He spoke of a certain officer purposely leaving the light on in his cell all night which stopped him from sleeping. When he asked if it could be turned off, the officer said no.

 

He spoke of the “token economy” that operated, where good behaviour could earn you a maximum of $4.50/week, from which $1.50 would be subtracted as “rent”. The remainder would be saved to buy essentials like underwear and toiletries, as well as, he said, Walkmans or CDs  (which would have taken quite some saving).

 

He spoke of the classification system for detainees. You were marked by the colour of your t-shirt, red for high security, orange for medium and so on. He spent 95% of his time, he said, in a red shirt, although he had never tried to escape from custody. Being a “red shirt” meant he didn’t have access to many programs and to activities like running on the oval at Don Dale.

 

It was very hard to change his classification. One or two incident reports would nullify his attempts at better behaviour.

 

Was there any consistency to the system? he was asked. “Definitely not,” he answered. And he was told there was no possibility of appeal.

 

He spoke of the use of isolation, for non-compliance, swearing, fighting, threatening, being deemed  “at risk” – “anything they want to put you in for”.

 

Why was he deemed at risk? he was asked. What had he done?

 

There were occasions, he said, when he felt depressed – he didn’t want to be in Don Dale, he was lonely, he was being bullied, officers didn’t care, and so he would do things that meant he could be isolated from others. He cut his wrists, he put sheets around his neck to the point of being taken to hospital. He’d done that five times.

 

When he was serving the sentence before the current one, he was in isolation for the last 24 days of his term. He went straight from isolation back into the world outside. Mr Callaghan was off camera but could be heard heaving a sigh of incredulity, although Mr Voller remembered, with a smile, that  his mother and sister had driven up from Alice and were there waiting for him.

 

p2384-ntrc-voller-watchingHe was asked about various incidents, some of which had been shown in the Four Corners report. One of the more notorious showed an officer throwing him to the floor, after apparently telling him to get off the phone. That officer was later charged but found “not guilty”, although apparently nobody told Mr Voller this.  When he returned to detention (on a subsequent sentence) he discovered the officer was still employed there.

 

At left: Mr Voller as he watched footage of one of the incidents described. 

 

He was asked what had happened to him immediately after the incident. Answer: he was restrained and placed in an isolation cell, with this same officer walking up and down outside it, checking on him through the cell door.

 

In another incident, footage that the commission viewed apparently showed him, in his words, “tucked up in a ball”, protecting his face, from an officer who was standing over him, threatening to break his arm as well as threatening to kill him. (The live streaming out of the Darwin courtroom did not show the footage and it appeared to be screened without audio.)

 

Mr Voller concluded his evidence by reading his written statement (that had been shown first to the commissioners). In it he called for an end to the additional punishment, the “mental and physical abuse”  that is meted out by officers in prison – in the adult system where he is now as well as the juvenile system. Things such as the humiliation of Aboriginal prisoners for not being able to speak English properly.

 

“That’s not fair and needs to stop,” he said, and “young people need love and someone to talk to, not being locked in a cell for days on end with nothing. Trust me.”

 

The commissioners thanked him for his evidence, with Commissioner Mick Gooda commending him for his “bravery in coming forward”.

 

 

Note: Because he is a “vulnerable witness” Mr Voller’s evidence was not subject to cross-examination but that does not mean that it will be uncontested in all respects, as legal counsel representing past and former employees of the NT Government were keen to make clear. 

 

 

 

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10 Comments (starting with the most recent)

NB: If you want to reply to a previous comment, start your comment with this notation: @n where n is the number of the comment you want to reply to.
  1. Harold
    Posted December 15, 2016 at 7:24 am

    @1, Was he actually hit? Plenty of footage of him being physically restrained, but I haven’t seen actually being hit.

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  2. Just Saying
    Posted December 14, 2016 at 7:18 pm

    Resorting to violence to discipline a child seems a bit pathetic to me.
    Surely as an adult you have found better ways of dealing with issues and as a parent just what is the child learning.
    It’s OK to hit someone who does something you don’t like? Yes, I am a parent, my children aren’t always angels but I have never had to get violent with them.

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  3. John Bell
    Posted December 14, 2016 at 2:39 pm

    In this age of Facebook and other powerful instant mass communication Royal Commissions are fast losing relevance to their original purpose.
    The mass visual giving of evidence and the appearance of individual witnesses such as Dylan Voller become the centrepieces in a media circus which resembles episodes of Prisoners or Days of Our Lives and other emotive-based melodramas on our tellie screens.
    In this viewing environment, individual characters are are given a certain popular image and the real issues are drowned in an impossible mix of sensationalistically reported alleged incidents and mini crises.
    Commission recommendations and their future implementation end up running a long distant second place to the melodrama. Right now, the star character is Dylan Voller and the question on everyone’s lips is – will he be awarded $$ compensation and if so, how much?
    He is already an anti-hero star with a generation of teenage would-be victims and rebels.
    The tears will flow over vivid accounts of torture and the guards will be on the backfoot trying to defend themselves to a young viewing audience.
    My gut feeling is that Royal Commissions are fast becoming little more than a lawyers’ paradise, jostling for viewer ratings in a goldfish bowl of instant entertainment.

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  4. Harold
    Posted December 14, 2016 at 10:06 am

    There’s much of the footage that I haven’t seen, but is restraining someone in order to eliminate risk of damage to themselves / others / property the same as corporal punishment? Or was there footage of this kid getting the cane or similar?

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  5. Evelyne Roullet
    Posted December 13, 2016 at 7:31 pm

    Ray, I am a grandmother and I have spanked my children more than once, but have you yet heard a grand child telling you about his rights?
    At the time the child was only six years old and told me that the UN said that corporal punishment of children is a violation of their rights! When I ask him who said so he told me the school teacher, and he told me which article of the law.
    I answered him that grandma does not care about the UN and if he misbehaves once more, I will spank him.
    Later his mum told me that proudly, he said at school that he has a Nana who is not scared of the UN.
    However as an educator, I know that corporal punishment has not been found to be an effective means of achieving positive long-term developmental outcomes, such as moral internalization or social problem-solving.
    Corporal punishment threatens the physical well being of the child.
    Once more physical harm is a repeated risk, particularly for young children, and the more often it is used the more likely it is to progress to severe forms of violence.
    Corporal punishment has been found to be consistently related to poor mental health; including depression, unhappiness, anxiety, and feelings of hopelessness in children and youth.
    Corporal punishment is a risk factor for relationship problems, including impairment of parent-child relationships, increased levels of aggression and anti-social behaviour in children, raised thresholds for defining an act as violent, and perpetration of violence as an adult, including abuse of one’s family members.

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  6. Ray
    Posted December 13, 2016 at 4:02 pm

    Hi Evelyne, I will not make any comment on this case, but you may wish to read the criminal code as it applies to your own child. You can physically use force on your child, and it is called parental discipline. May people say “the government won’t let me smack my child”, but they are wrong, according to the law, you can use physical control under certain circumstances. Most states in Australia have a similar provision, although sometimes a court needs to determine if was parental discipline or child abuse, but a simple smack on the bum, for the purpose of discipline or control, is a right that a parent has, and one which is defensible in law. In the NT, not many people would know is that a teacher is deemed to have that right, unless expressly withheld, although the education department has its own policy that prevents teachers doing that. Read up on section 27 and 29 of the code, it is an enlightening and interesting read. If my kid ever spat at me, they know they would get a hell of a smack, and partly because of that, and the fact they have respect for me, they would ever do it.

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  7. evelyne roullet
    Posted December 13, 2016 at 2:11 pm

    If I am to understand some commentaries, it comes to this: If my child spit on me I cannot physically punish him/her, but prison guards can do it even with brutality. They have excuses but parents have none.
    If my children steal, I cannot spank them or restrain them…someone will do it for me when they will be in detention!!!
    Is it really logic? Do we have to wait incarceration to discipline a naughty child ?

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  8. Kieran Finnane
    Posted December 13, 2016 at 9:49 am

    @ John and Surprised!

    Mr Voller’s criminal history is a matter of public record and made up part of his written evidence submitted to the Royal Commission. It is too lengthy to list here but his current sentence of three years and eight months is for attempted robbery (foiled by passers-by), aggravated robbery (in company and which included an assault, one punch by him), and recklessly endangering causing serious harm to a police officer (he drove at him in an accelerating car, causing lasting traumatic distress but no physical injury).

    The offences were committed over a 24 hour period in February 2014, during which he was said to be under the influence of both alcohol and methamphetamine. At this time he had already served many periods of detention. According to his caseworker he was not then “capable of monitoring [his] behaviour” and needed intensive “therapeutic intervention”.

    At sentencing Justice Barr detailed his past offending, describing it as “very substantial”. He said:

    “I note that you are now almost 17 years old. You turn 17 in just under two months. Your offending was so serious that your youth will not have a significant mitigating effect on the separate head sentences I impose. Further, you have had so many opportunities in the past and have not responded to the leniency previously given to you by the court. You are not to be punished again for the long string of past offences I read out but you are not entitled to the leniency that would otherwise be accorded to a first or even second time youth offender.

    “At the same time, because of the community interests in your rehabilitation, I consider that I should make some provision in your sentence for facilitating your rehabilitation should you prove to have reasonable or possibly good prospects as you mature. I am not presently able to assess those prospects, but I consider that I should allow for them.”

    He did this by fixing a non-parole period of one year and eight months. Mr Voller has already served more than that. His application for parole in September was rejected by the Parole Board.

    If he ends up serving his full sentence he will be eligible for release late next year.

    By way of personal comment I add that our sentencing and incarceration system is premised in part on an individual’s capacity to change, which in fact the system is supposed to support through its programs.

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  9. Hal Duell
    Posted December 13, 2016 at 8:52 am

    I am not here attempting to justify or otherwise the past behaviour of either the prisoners or guards currently under scrutiny.
    What I am suggesting is a level playing field.
    When attempting to explain and understand the criminal acts and subsequent unacceptable behaviour of many young detainees, reference is made to their youthful treatment and conditioning by social forces that they have been subjected to.
    Can we grant the same consideration to the guards?
    Our Federal Government has been and still is complicit in the brutal treatment of detainees on Manus Island and Nauru.
    It stands accused of complicity in the torture of political prisoners in the Iraqi theatre of war.
    I suggest guards at our detention facilities here in the NT see this and come to the conclusion that such behaviour is acceptable.
    Trickle down economics is a phrase our political leaders often use to explain economic policy. Having popularised this phrase, I suggest they widen their scope and consider the effects of trickle down behaviour, especially as it relates to those in positions of power in all our detention facilities.

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  10. John
    Posted December 12, 2016 at 7:52 pm

    Regardless of his age let’s see a list of the crimes he has committed and I can assure you a lot of people will be shocked.

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