Dylan Voller Is the Prison Reform Activist Australia Needs

"I just think using the jails should be an absolute last resort... as a young person, it can definitely wreck your mentality."

by Enoch Mailangi and Jonno Revanche
10 August 2017, 10:58pm

Photo by Jonno Revanche

It's been a little over a year since Australia first met Dylan Voller. You've no doubt seen that infamous photo of him: Head slumped, forcibly bound into a wheelchair by guards at the now-notorious Don Dale juvenile detention centre. You know, the kid in the spit hood.

This image became a symbol around the world for the stark cruelty of the Australian prison system, how it still jails Aboriginal youth at disproportionately high rate. Many likened it to the treatment used against inmates in Guantanamo Bay.

But Dylan Voller is more than just a symbol.

Since he was released in February, the 19-year-old has found a love for photography and hip-hop. He's disarmingly unrehearsed, earnest but decisive. His shoe of choice is the Nike Air Max. And for many young people in his community, Dylan has become a mentor—someone who's admittedly encountered struggle, but now aspires to be a youth leader.

When VICE meets the Ngarrindjeri teenager at the gates of Sydney's Luna Park, he's at a crossroads. Thrust into the national spotlight by Four Corners' Don Dale expose and the Royal Commissioned it triggered, he faces the question of what to do with his newfound visibility.

There's a future where Dylan Voller becomes Australia's leading advocate for prison reform and abolition. Better than almost anyone else, he knows what needs to change. But there's also a future where he casts off this fame he never asked for, and goes back to being a normal teenager.

For the moment though, he's keen to show us his new tattoo—"a goanna guiding other baby goannas." In many ways it's representative of the possibilities of his leadership, and of his dreams to safely lead his peers and siblings out of incarceration, back into the arms of the community. All over the lizard there are tiny Aboriginal flags.

VICE: You've been travelling around Australia the past few weeks, heading up rallies and speaking at them. What's that been like?
Dylan Voller: You have to be careful. I'm on a suspended sentence, so I'm on strict orders and under conditions to not participate in anything illegal, which I wouldn't be doing anyway, but you know what I mean. I'm just doing things I can that are within my capabilities—talking to people, speaking at town halls, participating in conferences, and meeting with other activists and learning off them. If you know the truth and speak from the heart, it just comes out normally… I can't speak for everyone, but I can talk about what I've seen.

Do you feel that you always have eyes on you, like you're always under surveillance?
Yeah, all the time. Someone put up a photo on their Facebook of a toy gun in my car, and I was searched by the police because of that.

Is all the media attention draining, too?
Yeah, it is draining. But, at the same time, there are some positive reports that come with the negatives. With the media profile that I've got, I can sometimes use it to my advantage and have my voice heard for people who don't really have their voices heard much.

I want to talk about the spit hood photo. Even when you're speaking at events, they use it for promotion. Is that weird? I wonder how it feels to have that photo still attached to you.
I'd rather have a picture of my face instead of me in restraint chair. It's a really bad memory. I kind of want to forget... [Here Dylan pauses, he's visibly emotional. We have to stop the interview for a few minutes] ...But, I get it. It's a proclamation, which sticks in everyone's head. It gets used a lot.

Right now, there isn't really any major public figure in Australia advocating for prison reform or prison abolition. What do you think needs to change?
I just think using the jails should be an absolute last resort... if they're going to put someone in there, like, actually rehabilitate people. Don't just expect them to learn by themselves. Especially in prisons, when people turn 18 and they are a little bit naughty—or even if they're juveniles—they put them in maximum security with people who are murderers and rapists. As a young person, it definitely can wreck your mentality. And young fullas start to listen to stories from people. It kind of gets in their heads.

After the footage dropped on Four Corners I got that same feeling I think most of us have had: What will it take for you to listen? Then I saw people I didn't expect to be mobilised, it was a call to arms. But I know Don Dale's not the only place where this shit is happening.
It's not. And that's what makes me a bit angry... that it takes something on TV to be able to make people react. I'm happy that it came out the way that it did, and it got the attention that it needed. But there a lot more other cases that should be getting more attention than my case did. People say I'm in it for fame and money, or for attention, but to be honest I hate being followed around every day and having my name published with everything I do… There's nothing I can do. The media presence is there, and I can do good with it.

I guess a lot of people don't know how the way prison system truly works though.
I think the issue is just showing that the children and even the adults in prison, that though they have made mistakes—and people like myself have made a lot of mistakes—that...

it makes you feel trapped. They can't break the cycle. I've only had one Christmas and probably one or two birthdays since I was 11 years old on the outside. If someone told me a year ago that I would be outside working, have a license, been given an opportunity to travel and share my experiences with other young people that were in my situation, I would of have told them get lost. I wouldn't have believed it...

Even to be able sit in a room full of people and talk about my experiences... I mean, I am nervous as it is now. I did one today and that was only around 30-40 people. I just know if I don't do it, nothing is going to get done.

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You were saying before that you feel like you're under strict orders. Do you feel that things like the basic card factors into that, the fact that it feels like it omits your ability to have agency?
Well, being on a basic card is just a part of being in the Northern Territory when they brought the NT intervention in. I'm on a basics card right now, and when I was in Melbourne three weeks ago and I went to buy something from the shop with my basic card I couldn't purchase anything. I had no money left. I went to try and catch a taxi and I couldn't even pay for that. I guess that's not them targeting me intentionally, but that's still something that affects me and the population in the Northern Territory. I guess it comes under pressure when I've been off work for about a month now, and I haven't been getting any sort of income. I've come to Sydney with not a single dollar in my pocket. Lucky I have good people looking after me.

Where were you working before?
I was actually working at BushMob rehab centre, the one I got out of four months ago. They took a chance on me by giving me a job and it's going really well. I was doing their media section, so taking photos, helping out, and I guess just learning the ropes. I do get to mingle with the young fullas a bit and just talk with them. I try and be a good role model for them—I don't think they've ever had any.

So you feel like your job gives you a bit of a creative outlet?
Photography has been more of a recent thing. I find it hard to articulate myself, but a picture can say what words can't. As for the poems, it was just one of the main ways to express myself while in jail. My main rap that I made with my sister was about one of the few letters that I wrote to my mum. The letters were explaining how every time I try and ring to tell her what was going on in Don Dale I just couldn't, 'cause it hurt too much... and I didn't want that pressure on my family. So I kept them. When I got out, I just turned them into a track.

I just feel so let down by the system. Elijah Doughty's mum was told... the DPP were not going to follow through with any of the prosecutions, or take it to the High Court or anything. Tonight, we're going to take a moment to reflect on Elijah Doughty. I'm going to Canberra on Wednesday where there's actually a candlelight vigil for Elijah Doughty, and I've been speaking with his mum and have permission to speak at the vigil. I want to try and talk to some local politicians when I'm down there as well.

Are you hopeful your work will be able to create some kind of change, or do you feel pressure to become a symbol for something?
I'm hopeful that if the Australian public keep making noise, and keep making demands from the government—that they will have no choice but to be forced to listen. I've had a lot of people say to me that they've gotten hope from my story: Seeing that I've come out of the tunnel and that I'm walking toward a better path, knowing that I haven't come out just to sit down and be quiet. I got out and, straight away, started fighting and making noise... maybe it gives them hope or faith to do the same.

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