Prison populations are often divided along ethnic lines and those who fall in with Middle Eastern criminals in Australian prisons will face pressures to radicalise.
For a nation originally established as a prison colony, Australia has never really come to terms with the business of crime and punishment.
The Four Corners program aired at dinner time Monday and a royal commission was announced by breakfast on Tuesday.
This might seem precipitous. Besides the grim and shocking footage screened by Four Corners, there was nothing especially revelatory in the program. The issues raised around the Don Dale Youth Detention facility and more generally around the detention of young offenders in the NT had been widely reported last year.
· The NT incarcerates both youths and adults at rates higher than the United States. Adult or child, more than nine in ten inmates are indigenous Australians. Practices employed to curb disruptive and violent behaviours in youth detention like the use of solitary confinement have largely been shunned in the US as evidence grows of the great harm to the development of young people behind bars, starved of contact and stimulus.
In the NT, crime and recidivism rates are growing, prisons for children and adults fit to burst. Persisting with tried and failed practices and policies is the ultimate act of futility.
There are no votes in prison reform so the political axiom goes but there should be.
Prisons are breeding grounds for criminality and any young person who is detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure for a period of time runs the risk of returning to the community as a more dangerous individual than they were when they first were locked up. The longer the period the greater the risk.
This is what criminologists refer to as the criminogenic effects of incarceration and the rule of thumb is the more brutal the institution, the more willing and violent the individual can become.
More recently adult prisons in Europe and in Australia, too, have become hotbeds of Islamist radicalism. Prison populations are often divided along ethnic lines and those who fall in with Middle Eastern criminals in Australian prisons will face pressures to radicalise they would otherwise not face.
The tough on crime push speaks of locking people away where they can do no harm but when that detention runs the risk of turning street criminals into something far more lethal, we need to examine the nature and conditions of our prisons.
It should come as no surprise to learn the most appalling men in our recent criminal history, mass murderers, contract killers, gangsters, gunmen, traders in heroin on a vast commercial scale, were products of a youth detention system where violence, physical and sexual abuse were commonplace.
Many young detained people run the risk of returning to the community as a more dangerous individual than they were when they first were locked up and drawn to the jihadist cause.
Sydney’s criminal elite in the 1970s and 80s, the triumvirate of Len McPherson, Stan Smith and George Freeman — known collectively as The Team, counted Gosford and Armidale Boys’ homes as their alma maters. They entered these dark places as young teens and by the time they left they determined they would extract a terrible vengeance on society in general.
In those days youth reformatories operated under the British borstal system, where older detainees meted out arbitrary punishment and when the hierarchy was challenged, the guards would step in and often did their worst.
As an older man Len McPherson spoke openly about being sexually assaulted at Gosford Boys’ Home at 13.
Christopher Dale Flannery was a light-fingered kid who came from a good home. His older brother would become a lawyer, his sister a nurse. Flannery entered Morning Star Boys’ Home as a 14-year-old for car theft. Ten years later he hung out his shingle as a hitman.
By any measure that is an astonishing criminal career trajectory. Those who knew Flannery well say he was subject to physical and sexual assaults from the Franciscans who ran the reformatory. By the time Flannery turned 25 and with two stints in prison as an adult under his belt including a period in Pentridge’s notorious ‘H’ Division, he was ready to rock ‘n’ roll.
Flannery committed a handful of murders for money. McPherson killed or had killed as many as 20 men. Police believe his sidekick, Stan Smith, was involved in 14 murders. Freeman murdered three men in cold blood.
Underworld hitman Christopher Dale Flannery
Arthur Stanley ‘Neddy’ Smith, Graham Henry, Ray Denning, Russell ‘Mad Dog’ Cox, Roy ‘Red Rat’ Pollitt. The list goes on. All products at one time or another of youth detention.
The social cost is immeasurable. Those who lost their lives, the families left behind, the deaths by overdose, the toll of drug and substance abuse, the related property crime, a cycle of poverty and crime, multi-generational consequences.
The really bewildering thing is we don’t seem to have learned anything since.
There is pressure on the Prime Minister now to create a Royal Commission to examine the causes, conditions and consequences of all state incarceration and corrective facilities across the nation.
Certainly, this is not a problem peculiar to the Northern Territory although the evidence suggests the excesses in the Territory are of a greater dimension than elsewhere. Nevertheless, at any given time there are hundreds of youths locked up in solitary confinement for unfixed periods across the nation for a variety of reasons. Reducing solitary confinement for children to a period of not longer than 24 hours would be a good start.
Yesterday a wise old ex cop of very senior rank told me, “There are two types of people in this world: punishers and redeemers.”
We can have a tough on crime mentality and lock up offenders in brutal institutions or we can have a cohesive, functioning society. The punishers among us need to understand we can’t have both.
The redeemers need to appreciate their efforts do not always bear fruit. People commit crimes for all sorts of reasons. Poverty is a clearly a key factor. But those, including the criminal luminaries mentioned above, brutalised and monstered as youth in state run or sponsored youth facilities, chose to continue to commit violence on society. What makes a criminal is a complex and demanding question but the best answer is a combination of nature, nurture and choice.
For all that, what the redeemers offer is a better and cheaper solution that seeks to mitigate the vast social costs of the cycle of crime. Locking people away, especially children, out of sight in grim, violent oppressive
facilities is a recipe for disaster.
We have been dining on its results for decades.