Chaos erupted at the notorious Don Dale Youth Detention centre last night after two inmates attacked a guard, stole his keys, and released dozens of detainees from their cells. Police, ambulance officers, and firefighters surrounded the centre at about 7pm as smoke and flames poured from the facility and escaped inmates ran riot along the roofs. One group of teens set fire to the facility’s school, destroying it, while others cut fences with angle grinders in an attempt to escape. All in all the incident lasted for about eight hours.
Duty Superintendent Rob Farmer told the ABC that many of the youths, aged between 14 and 17, surrendered shortly after police arrived at the detention centre, located 15 kilometres outside of Darwin. A dozen of the inmates still remained at large by midnight, however, prompting authorities to deploy tear gas grenades into the facility.
"The youths had access to power tools from the workshop and some were making attempts to cut fences using grinders," said Duty Supt Farmer. "[They] were also throwing batteries and other items at police around the perimeter fence… Some of them were sniffing [the accelerants used to start the fire] and danger also existed that further buildings could be destroyed by fire or the accelerants could be used as weapons against us."
A public address system relayed a message to the inmates throughout the night, declaring: "This is the police. Drop your weapons. Your actions are being monitored. There will be consequences," SBS reports. Police entered the facility at about 1am and located the remaining escapees by 2:15am. Duty Supt Farmer insisted that no tasers were used whilst apprehending the youths, as each of them surrendered when confronted by the Territory Response Group—that is, the tactical response arm of Northern Territory police.
By 3:00am the fire had been extinguished and the detention centre reclaimed. All 25 inmates are currently being held in cells at the Darwin police station watch, according to The Guardian, and the centre has been declared a crime scene.
It was two large inmates with cognitive problems—described by authorities as being "really, really challenging"—that allegedly attacked the guard and incited the riot. It marks the second time in three weeks that keys have been snatched from a corrections officer at Don Dale.
When pressed on how something like this could happen twice within such a short period of time, Territory Families general manager youth justice Brent Warren argued that the situation had been "extremely violent" and the detainees were "very complex".
A number of the youths’ parents—who drove out to the facility after hearing about the riot on social media—criticised the police’s handling of the situation, particularly their approach of fighting fire with firepower.
"[The kids] want to surrender but they're scared because there's people running around with guns, pointing them at them," one parent told the ABC. "What they need to do is get elders involved. Not only here, right through the Territory. Elders go in with negotiators. Get family members to go in, to talk.”
A former detainee at the detention centre also suggested that last night’s riot was merely the latest manifestation of a much larger, recurring problem within Don Dale.
"It's really heartbreaking to see since I first went in there 10 years ago, 11 years ago, looks like the same sort of treatment is still happening," the man said. "I've been involved in riots and I know that every single riot that we have had in there it hasn't been just for no reason, hasn't been just for the fun of it. It's been because something has been happening."