By Neda Vanovac
Teen inmate Dylan Voller says being hooded in a restraint chair and tear-gassed are the scariest things to have ever happened to him, and that he felt like he was “going to die”.
The 19-year-old inmate at Darwin’s adult prison is a key witness the royal commission into youth detention and child protection, and has spoken publicly for the first time, giving several hours of evidence.
Images of Voller hooded and shackled to a chair in an ABC Four Corners program were beamed into households across the country and pushed Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to call for the investigation.
He said when restrained in the chair he felt completely defenceless.
“I was getting dizzy from panicking, I was getting agitated because the officer holding the camera was sitting there. He’d act nice and then turn the camera off and start trying to agitate me and then turn the camera back on,” he said.
“The feeling of not being able to do anything, those officers could have done anything to me for that three-and-a-half hours and I wouldn’t have been able to do anything about it.
“Fear of them having control … there was no responsible person who would have said, ‘that’s enough, we need to get him out of that restraint chair now, he’s been in there for too long’.”
He said he vomited in his mouth while hooded, and that he wet himself while restrained in the chair.
“Being put in a restraint chair was one of the scariest things that’s happened to me, that and the tear-gassing,” he said.
He said when he and five other detainees were gassed, he “felt like I was going to die”.
“My heart was racing … my eyes were burning, couldn’t hardly see properly.”
Voller read out a personal statement to the commission, saying the justice system as a whole was the problem.
He said judges sentenced people to serve jail time, and that they were additionally punished by abusive staff.
“As a victim and a young man I feel upset and let down by the system that these bad things were allowed to go on for so long,” he said.
“Young people need love and someone to talk to, not to be locked in a cell with nothing to do for days on end.”
In care from the age of 10
Voller’s lawyer previously told the commission he had been waiting six months to give his evidence, after Four Corners broadcast an episode on abuses within the Northern Territory’s youth justice system.
Dressed neatly in a suit, he was composed and articulate throughout his testimony as he outlined years of abuse and mistreatment.
Voller said his schooling ended when he was about 10. He had ADHD but was not permitted to attend school unless he took medication, which he said made him physically ill.
He was first sent into care at around the age of 10 in Alice Springs, where he said older boys introduced him to smoking marijuana and encouraged him to commit crimes with them.
He described small, institutional rooms with painted-over windows.
“It was disgusting: cockroaches, dust, you felt trapped, you couldn’t really talk to anyone else,” Voller told the court.
“The only bit of the outside world you got was when you were driving to court or yelling out at the top of your lungs to young people next door at the school.”
‘He didn’t agree with them starving me’
Voller also described several incidents in youth detention in Alice Springs and Darwin when he was denied food and water by the guards.
He said once in the Behaviour Management Unit at Don Dale, a youth justice officer came in to offer the inmates water.
“Because that officer didn’t really like me, he asked me, ‘do you want water, Voller?’ and I said ‘yes’, and as he was walking out he threw it on the ground and said ‘there you go,’ and walked off.”
Sometimes inmates would be forced to wait hours before a guard would let them out of their cells and escort them to a bubbler for a drink, he said.
He also described being starved as a punishment after becoming frustrated that he was being kept in his cell, and swearing at staff.
“Because I was swearing they would punish me, they wouldn’t give me dinner, I had to wait for the next day, or they wouldn’t give me breakfast, or lunch, depending what time of the day it was,” Voller said.
“One time one youth justice officer could see how hungry I was and he chucked fruit and muesli bars through the cell door and said, ‘here, eat’. He could see how hungry I was and he didn’t agree with them starving me, I guess.”
Voller also described a prison economy where detainees could earn money through good behaviour which they could then use to buy things including underpants, deodorant, and CDs.
“The max you could earn was $4.50 a day and they’d take $1.50 off us every day for rent,” Voller said.
He also described a period of regular strip-searches, including after every family visit, court trip, or trip to the toilet.
‘They wouldn’t let me go to the toilet’
Voller said that while in youth detention in Alice Springs he was forced to defecate into a pillowcase.
“I’d been asking to go to the toilet for four or five hours and they kept saying no, and I ended up having to defecate into a pillowcase because they wouldn’t let me go to the toilet,” Voller said.
“There’s been other times I had to urinate out the door or back windows because they wouldn’t come down.”
He said other detainees also had to urinate into water bottles and then throw them out the next day when staff wouldn’t let them out of their cells to go to the toilet.
He also detailed a transfer from detention in Alice Springs to Darwin, a 1,500-kilometre journey during which he was kept handcuffed in the backseat.
He tried to choke himself with his seatbelt in order to prevent being transferred so far away from his family, he said, and during the trip he threw up because the guards smoked heavily the whole way.
“I was vomiting, vomiting, I couldn’t get up, I was laying down in the chair and I was trying to break the chair so I could lay down flat,” he said.
“There was no windows I could open or look out… I couldn’t get any air, there was no air-con, no water I could drink.”
He said there were no toilet breaks and guards told him to urinate out the door. He told the commission he had to defecate into his shirt, and then sat shirtless in the car for the rest of the journey.
Stripped of clothes and bedding
Voller also said that while in detention guards would often strip inmates and empty their cells as punishment for things such as ringing the intercom.
“There was a time they left me in there with no clothes, no sheets, no mattress, no nothing all night, and they turned the air-con on full blast. I was crying, asking for a blanket,” Voller said.
“It was a punishment for them to take our mattress or our clothes, if we blocked our camera… if you got kicked out of school they’d take it out so you didn’t get to lay down and be comfortable.
“Once they left me with the mattress and nothing else… and I tried to wrap myself up with the mattress.”
He also described guards leaving the lights on all night in his cell so he couldn’t sleep.
But he told the commission that during his time in youth detention there were three officers that took an interest in the inmates and tried to talk to them and their families, but he didn’t want to name them in case they were subject to retribution.
“Most of them didn’t make an effort to make sure family relationships were strong… they just came to work to get paid and go home, they didn’t care about what was happening with the young people in there,” Voller said.
“They would say to me that my family didn’t really care about me, stuff like that. For a long time I started believing it, I guess.”
Multiple self-harm attempts
Voller told the commission that he often threatened to self-harm so he would be placed into isolation away from bullying guards and inmates.
“I cut my wrist on one occasion, I tied sheets around my neck at least five times to the point that I passed out and had to be taken to hospital,” he said.
“I was depressed and I didn’t know how to handle it… I kept being bullied by officers and other inmates and they [the authorities] weren’t doing anything about it.”
During the 210 days of his previous sentence, from July 2012 until February 2013, Voller spent 90 days in the Behaviour Management Unit (BMU), including 24 days immediately prior to his release from prison.
He said there was “not really” any access to therapy or education while in the BMU, and when asked how that period prepared him for release, he said: “It didn’t.”
The commission continues on Tuesday.
This post originally appeared on ABC News.
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