Last Night’s (25 July 2016) Four Corners programme was without doubt the most horrific documentary I have ever seen on Australian television. Sure nothing can be more horrific than beheadings in the Middle East or genocide in Rwanda, but what made this so horrific was that this was happening in Australia and perpetrated by paid officials of an Australian government.
It will take a long time for the images to leave my mind. They did look like Guantanamo Bay – not Australia. They looked like the worst form of cruelty you could meet out to hardened adult criminals, not young boys. Even if one holds the perverse view that incarceration is all about punitive action, even with this mind set it should not be possible for one miniscule second to believe that such cruel and tortuous behaviour on young children was even remotely appropriate.
It is not simply enough for the authorised NT minister to be removed from his office, as has happened today, investigation must be pursed as to his role and the tacit or implicit support and encouragement that he must have given. The officers concerned must be brought before the courts. There is no way that their actions can be considered permissible within the bounds of their responsibilities.
But let me come to the hub of the issue. More than 25 Years ago I was involved in the Church’s response to indigenous incarceration. The report was entitled Prison- the Last Resort. Since that time all the figures and statistics have deteriorated. Why? For one reason for which all Australians must take responsibility –our “Correctional” system is all about punitive not restorative action. As a nation we have led our politicians to believe that we are more likely to vote for them if they will put more people in gaol – for their punishment.
All the boys in last night’s documentary had done bad things that simply could not and should not be ignored. But the one common factor between them, a factor to a greater or less degree true of most prisoners in Australian gaols from poor socio/economic backgrounds, is that their bad behaviour emanates from the brokenness of life’s experiences. What they so desperately need, and deserve, is programmes that deal with the brokenness and lead to the possibility of a productive and happy life. What they received was more unfathomable pain to add to the pain they already bear. Will they have ‘learned their lesson’? What lesson did we want them to learn? What they inevitably learned is not to trusty anybody in authority and to be almost permanently and incurably angry about a system which seems out to destroy them.
The prime Minister has announced a Royal Commission. - great. But this will not be enough if it deals with this terrible incident in isolation from a culture in which we invest only in punitive action and therefore increase not only the probability of further dysfunctional behaviour, but add to the already unbearable pain of those who find society, as we know it, an alien place.