This story is over 5 years old.


Revisiting the Australian Prison Tragedies That Weren't Caught on Video

The abuse made public by "Four Corners" was horrific enough to force our attention. But Australia has dozens of similar cases without footage, and nearly all have been ignored.

If you didn't see Four Corners, this compilation from YouTube illustrates in awful detail why the episode made such an impact

Don Dale was Australia's own Abu Ghraib moment, but as has been repeatedly pointed out over the last week, the shocking footage wasn't exactly secret.

People knew what was happening a long time ago. The reports had been written; they were publicly available online. Anyone could have read them, but they didn't, or maybe they did and chose not to act.


It took a TV crew acquiring the video footage to make it global. Since then the image of a hooded teenager strapped into a restraint chair has made news in cities as far away as Toronto and Caracas, and those images have left a lot of very important people looking either incompetent or indifferent.

Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Nigel Scullion was having dinner the night the Four Corners story aired. Asked why he did not know about the situation, he claimed it never "piqued his interest".

Adam Giles, the man in charge of the Northern Territory, did his best to explain why he had not seen the footage until then. He blamed a "culture of cover up" among the Corrections Department, run by a guy called John Elferink who was put in charge of the territory's prison system in order to make it better.

Adam Giles. Image via

In Elferink's new and improved prison system, a job gassing teenagers pays a cool $55 213 a year, or 34 bucks 82 cents an hour if you're casual. Candidates must show a "genuine interest in helping young people" and "a good level of physical fitness."

Elferink has since gone to ground, and though he has been removed as Corrections Minister, he remains Mental Health Minister and Attorney General. Despite everything, Adam Giles still believes he's a good guy.

That is the power of the image. It forces us to come to terms with who we are.

The thing to remember now is that Don Dale has not been an isolated incident. From the shores of Manus Island to anonymous suburban youth detention facilities, reports of pain, abuse and horror have been publicly available for years. Yet the photos and videos are often missing.


In 2012, the Victorian ombudsman reported on the case of a 16-year-old Aboriginal boy who had been kept in solitary confinement, locked in his cell for 23 hours a day, over 99 days seemingly as punishment for an attempted escape.

There was no video.

The bleak walls of Port Philip Prison, where the 16-year-old boy was kept in solitary confinement. Image via.

Another case from South Australia involved an older woman, Jacqueline Davies, a prisoner at Adelaide Women's Prison who had repeatedly attempted to take her own life after she had suffered ongoing seizures but was denied mental health assistance because her diagnosis did not meet the criteria.

Instead she was transferred to the maximum security wing of Yatala Labour, South Australia's main prison for men, where she was kept handcuffed to her bed for 22 hours a day over eight months. During that time she told to "piss herself" by staff, was not showered, and was fed a diet of chico roles, tea and toast. When she was finally admitted to a mental health facility, staff had to cut her hair off because it was so matted from never having been brushed.

There was no video.

Ms Dhu's mother, Della Roe. Photo by Charandev Singh

A more recent case is the death of Ms Dhu, a Yamatji Aboriginal woman from Port Hedland in Western Australia. In August 2014, the $3000 she owed in fines became a death sentence after police and medical staff seemed to decide she was a junkie.

The truth was she was a young woman trapped in an abusive relationship suffering severe blood poisoning from a broken rib who needed help.


In that case, there is video—I have seen it. Those present in the courtroom when it was shown watched her die over three days. At the end, they watched her get dragged across her cell floor and handcuffed. They watched her be driven in the back of a police vehicle to the hospital where she was casually wheeled in through a hospital waiting room while slumped in a wheelchair. Guards handed out tissues.

The media put in the first requests for the footage, which were denied. Then the family put in their own application to have the footage released to the public. These were denied also. The coroner Ros Fogliani said it may cause distress, particularly among Aboriginal people. For the rest of the country the woman who died remained abstract, just another statistic in a part of the country closer to Jakarta than Canberra.

Earlier last week, the family again said they wanted the footage to be made public after the Don Dale report, but a spokesperson for the Coroner said there would be no change. The only way it will get out now is if someone either leaks the footage or someone applies to have the decision reviewed in the Supreme Court.

Australia, as a whole, likes to think itself better than this. Keeping those stories confined to dry legal papers and proceedings helps us maintain that fiction. And when images like those of Don Dale do surface, we have to face the fact that maybe we're not so kind as we'd like to think.

Follow Royce on Twitter.