“How’s that, that bit alright?”
The child nods.
“There ya go. Alright, you keep chillin’ out, yeah?”
The child quietly responds. “Yeah.”
Chastened, the door closes and the child is left alone to think about what he’s done.
* * *
Without knowing the context, this could be any other scene between a child and an adult.
Maybe they are being sent to their bedroom for being naughty. Maybe they are being tucked into bed after a tantrum, being told there’s no dinner for misbehaving. Maybe they’ll fall into a deep – if not a little bit hungry – sleep until the morning, when they would get a hug and a gentle tap on the nose for acting up.
But this is not your ‘normal’ Australian interaction between an adult and a child.
For starters, the child is in chains. It’s a young boy and, at just 17, he is manacled to the floor by his feet and to a metal chair by his hands. His neck is bound and held to the chair with a black rope.
Is he crying? Perhaps, but you cannot see a face because it is underneath a hood. My guess is that he learnt to stop crying about being treated this way a long time ago.
Topless, his soft, child-like belly rests on the white prison-issue pants, breathing heavily. Without a face, or a voice, all we can see is a young and frightened boy.
This is not a man. This is not a hardened criminal. This is your little brother, your son, your teenage neighbour. This is Dylan Voller, and he is Australian. This is happening to him IN Australia. BY Australians.
I wonder if Dylan knows that to be Australian at the moment, apparently, is to be extremely lucky?
Whenever the topic of terrorism leaks into my day-to-day conversations – which, given the current climate, is quite often – so many of us find ourselves saying the same thing.
“We are so lucky to be in Australia. We’re so lucky to be isolated from the conflict in Europe. We are so lucky to be safe here.”
The unlucky? Well, the poor sods, they’re on the other side of the world. Genuine pity is expressed for those unlucky enough to be living in Paris, in Nice, in Munich. (For those with a slightly wider scope, a more distilled pity is held for those in Kabul and Turkey.)
We feel sorry for them. They are unlucky, and we are not. We feel blessed to be stranded 10,000 miles away here in Australia, where our version of the ‘war on terrorism’ is being fought with Halal snack packs and ignorant blonde television presenters.
We are the lucky country. Right?
Wrong. You, reader, might be. But for so many Australians – the poor, the indigenous, the Muslim, the female, the homeless, the elderly – they couldn’t be further from ‘lucky’ if they tried.
You can watch the footage of Dylan Voller below. Warning: contains graphic images.
(Post continues after video)
The above exchange between Dylan Voller and the guards at the Northern Territory Youth Detention Center in Alice Springs is the tamest of the footage obtained by Four Corners. It only gets more harrowing.
In another video, we see Dylan pacing back and forth in a tiny white cell, his head rested gently against the wall as he cries into his shirt.
Moments later, four burly guards rush the room, kneeing him in the stomach, stripping him naked, brutally holding Dylan’s head against the concrete floor before they dive out the door. He cries out in anguish, sits down again by the cold concrete wall, naked. He curls into a ball, puts his head on his knees, and sobs.
Watching this, I felt the same grip of nausea I felt watching footage of American soldiers abusing prisoners in Iraq. I think of the ‘restraint chair’ images I saw from Guantanamo Bay in 2013. I recall the stories of sexual assault, of force feeding, of water-boarding, of solitary confinement, of sleep deprivation.
But they were the unlucky ones, weren’t they? They were the terrorists, the ‘other’. This child was one of our own. One of the lucky ones. An Australian.
Like many children incarcerated in youth detention, Dylan had been the system since he was 11 years old. He was being held in the restraint chair because he threatened to break his own arm, just to get out of there. To get to a hospital. Probably, to get to someone who was under oath to help him rather than hurt him.
(My guess is that for Dylan, the only kind hand that had been laid on him for a long time had been from a nurse.)
But Dylan is just one of the unlucky Australians.
Let’s throw the net out wider.
What about the tear-gassing of six boys at the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in Darwin in 2014? They were in solitary confinement. For TWO WEEKS. Two of the boys were playing cards when they were attacked with the tear-gas – which, in case you didn’t know, causes eyes to burn, saliva to stream from your mouth, chest pain, acidic pain on the skin, and difficulty breathing. All of that, for playing cards.
Another 14-year-old boy, who was begging to know when he would be allowed out of solitary to see other inmates again was called “an idiot” and a “little f****r”. Kids, treated like animals.
Again, let’s cast that net wider.
What about our indigenous Australians? The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who make up 3% of our total population, and yet represent a staggering 27% of our prisoners. Did you know that nearly 60% of children held in juvenile detention are indigenous, and are 24 times more likely to re-offend than their white counterparts? Why is that?
Instead of committing to rehabilitation, we commit to incarceration.
The average Australian will claim to stand against ISIS. Yep, they’ll stand around the water cooler and bang their chests as they pledge to support a war against terrorism. Think of the children! Think of Aylan Kurdi! He could have been my little boy!
They shudder to imagine those poor Middle Eastern children and their grim future of imprisonment under an unfair, illogical, cruel regime. And yet, these same Australians fail to recognise we implement something just as bad on our own shores. Systematic racism, systematic abuse, systematic oppression.
And these are our citizens.
This net, capturing all of the ‘unlucky’ Australians, is bigger than you can imagine.
In addition to the children who have been trapped in our nation’s black hole prison system, and our indigenous population, it also snags our migrant citizens who are ‘free’.
Free from what? Free to cop racist abuse? Free to struggle to be accepted into their communities? Free to rail against the cycle of poverty that can be both as simple and as impossible as an education?
Oh, and there’s more. That big old net of ‘the unlucky ones’ also captures our 382,000 Muslims in our country who now feel unsafe in their own home.
It captures the one in six Australian women who will suffer domestic violence at the hands of their partner.
It captures the 105,237 people who are homeless and living on the streets.
It captures the the 24% of Australia’s elderly who are living alone without medical care, isolated for weeks and months at a time.
For a lucky country, we sure have a lot of unlucky people.
It was Nelson Mandela who said, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”
Before you leap in with excuses for the guards’ behaviour, let me tell you that, yes, I know. I know that Dylan Voller was violent, angry, disturbed. I know he was in jail (this time around, anyway) because, at the age of 16, he smoked ice and tried to run down a cop. I know he’s been arrested for over 50 offences, including violence, in the past five years.
But I also know that he is that way because since the age of 11 he has been shaped by a system that doesn’t care about the unlucky ones.
He has been treated as an unpredictable animal, an entity to be contained and to be managed… Not to be nurtured and loved.
But for us, the lucky ones? We’ll never know what it’s like to be left in a cold and isolated cell, naked, as guards hiss that they will ‘pulverise’ us through the bars.
We’ll only know what it’s like to sit with out family, over a warm meal, as we shake our heads at the news on the TV and thank god we’re lucky enough to live in Australia.