By Caro Meldrum-Hanna and Elise Worthington.
Vision of the tear gassing of six boys being held in isolation at the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in Darwin in August 2014 has been obtained by Four Corners, exposing one of the darkest incidents in the history of juvenile justice in Australia.
The vision is part of an investigation set to air tonight featuring a chilling catalogue of footage revealing a pattern of abuse, deprivation and punishment of vulnerable children inside Northern Territory youth detention centres.
The tear-gassing incident was described as a “riot” at the time, with media reporting multiple boys had escaped their cells in the isolation wing of the prison, known as the Behavioural Management Unit (BMU), and threatened staff with weapons.
But CCTV vision and handy-cam recordings made by staff, obtained exclusively by Four Corners, show only one boy escaped his cell after it was left unlocked by a guard.
Former corrections commissioner Ken Middlebrook last year defended the officer’s actions in the wake of a damning report by the Northern Territory Children’s Commissioner.
“I am not in the business of overuse of force. There were two sprays from an aerosol in the area. Now it wasn’t overuse of gas,” Mr Middlebrook told the ABC at the time.
But CCTV vision from the incident shows 10 bursts of tear gas being sprayed into the enclosed area over the space of one-and-a-half-minutes.
All six boys were exposed to the tear gas, five while still locked in their cells.
Not all the children were misbehaving — two boys can be seen on CCTV calmly playing cards before being exposed to the fumes. Another can be seen repeatedly smashing the wall of his cell with a broken light fitting.
The 14-year-old boy who escaped his cell can be heard repeatedly asking how long he had been in isolation and requesting to talk to staff.
Instead of negotiating with the boy, prison staff can be heard laughing and mocking him, calling the boy “an idiot” and a “little f****r”.
Four Corners has managed to track down several of the boys who were tear gassed. They describe being highly distressed, afraid for their lives, and say that two years on they are now suffering from disturbing flashbacks and nightmares from the ordeal.
The CCTV vision also shows the children’s reactions as they are affected by the gas, running to the back of their cells, hiding behind sheets and mattresses, gasping for air, crying, and bending over toilets.
One boy is left in his cell and exposed to tear gas for eight minutes. He is seen lying face down on the floor with his hands behind his back, before being handcuffed by two prison officers wearing gas masks and dragged out of his cell.
‘Ticking time bomb’ of potentially unlawful solitary confinement
The use of tear gas at the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in 2014 came after months of tension, repeated escapes and incidents at the centre, which was staffed with under-trained Youth Justice Officers, in what has been described as a “ticking time bomb” by former staff.
Three weeks before the tear-gassing incident, five boys had escaped from Don Dale.
When they were recaptured, they were placed in the isolation wing of the prison for between 15 and 17 days, in what were described by both children and staff as appalling and inhumane conditions.