There is something unsettling about the way we think about punishment. This week, as Four Corners revealed shocking conditions and treatment of juvenilles at the Don Dale detention centre in the Northern Territory, the first response was reflective horror.
Then, today, we began to see the arguments that really, this treatment was for the children’s own good.
Writing for News Corp, former governor of Grafton Gaol John Heffernan called the response to the revelations an “overreaction”.
He argued the restraint chair that has appalled the nation was an “approved” way of giving a “time out”.
“I’m sorry, but through my experienced eyes I see a juvenile offender, who has obviously been acting out, being provided time out, restrained in an approved chair, with an approved “spit hood” covering his head,” he said.
Sorry Mr Heffernan, torture is not just tooth extraction, nail pulling and the rack. It’s not just hanging people upside down, or scalding them with boiling water. It’s not just syringes full of truth serum administered by accented goon squads in films.
Watch a clip from the Four Corners episode. Post continues after video.
Children are never supposed to be kept in isolation. It’s also not recommended for adults.
Involuntary sensory deprivation is considered a form of torture, and that spit hood certainly fits that bill.
These items might be approved, but it doesn’t make them OK.
When someone is convicted of a crime, no matter what that crime is, they enter a system that is designed to punish them, yes, but also to protect our society and rehabilitate them.
The goal of incarceration must be twofold. It must be punitive and rehabilitative, because most prisoners are eventually released. In Australia, all juvenile offenders certainly are.
Would we rather send them into the world damaged, violent and institutionalised or with a shot at a different life? A life that doesn’t involve a cycle of imprisonment and release.
— Sally Neighbour (@neighbour_s) July 27, 2016
Of course it is important that the staff that work in these facilities feel safe while doing their jobs, but I cannot see how treating children as monsters will improve their safety or foster respect for them among their charges.
If we erase a person’s humanity, what do we expect?
Heffernan is right when he says the public expects government to be tough on crime, and view that through a prism of deprivation and long, tough sentences.
The international evidence though does not back up that harshness gets results.
Just look at the United States justice system. They have some of the most punitive sentencing laws in the world. The incarceration rates are ridiculously high (particularly among black men) and repeat offending is an ongoing problem. So is overcrowding in prisons, a heavy-handed use of solitary confinement as punishment and a real emphasis on the punitive side of incarceration. Rehabilitation is almost an afterthought. Over 75 per cent of inmates re-offend in the first five years after their release.
But in Norway, just 20 per cent of prisoners re-offend. The incarceration rates are also very low. Norway’s emphasis is on normalcy on the inside, on what is called “restorative” justice.
The systems are worlds apart. And so are the outcomes.
What was going on at Don Dale might have involved approved equipment and techniques. But the backlash shows Australians are not convinced this is the path we want to take.
Strapping a child to a chair and putting a bag over their head is not a "time out".
It's reducing them to something less than human. When we do that, we tell them its OK to behave in a way that matches that expectation.
Raising our own minimum standards of decency and respect is the only way to do better, and the only way to demand that others do better.
So yes, we need a royal commission, because this isn't just about one incident, one iconic nation-capturing image. It's about the fundamentals of our society.
What kind of a country do we want to be?