DUCKING FOR COVER: Screengrab of a boy strapped to a mechanical chair in the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre as shown on Four Corners this week. BELOW: John Heffernan
DUCKING FOR COVER: Screengrab of a boy strapped to a mechanical chair in the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre as shown on Four Corners this week. BELOW: John Heffernan SUPPLIED

Response to 'torture' footage an overreaction: ex-jail boss

I DON'T think I have ever seen such an unprecedented overreaction during all my years working in the criminal justice system.

After more than 33 years working in both adult and juvenile corrections, I feel I am qualified to present an informed opinion on this situation.

The ABC Four Corners a few nights ago showed just a few seconds of edited footage which has now resulted in politicians from all over the country jumping on the bandwagon and declaring years of torture and cover-up in the management of juvenile offenders in the Northern Territory.

As evidence of this "torture", the ABC presented an image of a detainee in a chair with a hood over his head and proclaimed this is the way prisoners of war are treated, not kids.

I'm sorry, but through my experienced eyes I see a juvenile offender, who has obviously been acting out, more than likely threatening self-harm and spitting on staff, being provided time out, restrained in an approved chair, with an approved "spit hood" covering his head.

Please don't misunderstand me, I would never condone the use of excessive force and a couple of incidents shown on video would suggest that staff may have crossed the line and gone too far on those occasions.
 

Former Grafton jail boss John Heffernan.
Former Grafton jail boss John Heffernan. JoJo Newby

These juveniles are not locked up for stealing lollies

But that said, force must be used in certain instances within adult and juvenile correctional centres, that is a fact of life. These juveniles are not locked up for stealing lollies from the local corner store. By the time they are actually incarcerated, they have been given every possible chance by the courts.

I find it somewhat ironic that society demands of our governments and the judiciary that both adults and juveniles who commit extremely serious crimes receive the maximum penalty available.

Our politicians respond to these requests and talk tough in the process and vow to protect the community by ensuring the offenders are put behind bars for as long as possible.

Yet, when those same offenders, when incarcerated, choose to behave in the same manner that resulted in their imprisonment by kicking, punching and spitting on gaol staff, politicians want to become all self-righteous when prison staff are forced to address that behaviour within the limited means available.

The policies and procedure relating to the use of force with jails and detention centres are very specific in nature. They are also very restrictive in the amount of force that can be used, particularly when it come to juveniles.

Everyone in authority is ducking for cover

There are approved levels of force and permission must be gained from the relevant authority as the level of force to be used increases. Departmental heads have approved those policies and politicians are aware of them; however, it appears right now everyone in authority is ducking for cover, leaving officers on the ground to assume the responsibility.

Correctional centres and juvenile detention centres, by their very nature, are dangerous places to work. Every day staff are abused and quite often assaulted by those housed within. The work the officers perform is difficult and demanding.

When it comes to the management of young offenders, I have found some of the most compassionate people work in these centres.

If anyone is at fault here, it is the parents who have raised these children, and I use the term loosely. Officers trying their best to manage these offenders are dealing with the consequences of their parents' distinct lack of parenting skills.

No respect for the law

Often, these young offenders come from generations of individuals who have absolutely no respect for the law. By the time the offender reaches a point where a magistrate decides incarceration is the only answer, the damage is well and truly done.

In my opinion, what is happening now is completely unfair to those staff tasked with managing young offenders.

There is another side to this story - a side that I do not believe for a moment to be as sinister and as secretive as certain people would have us believe.

It should not require a Royal Commission to determine the full facts of this matter. A full investigation at a fraction of the cost, I believe, would achieve the same result.

Talk about using a sledgehammer to crush a walnut ...


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