‘Passing Blame Along’: on poetry and prison

The dirty word

I wandered into a little theatre hosting a spoken word night – a corrugated iron shed on the banks of the Todd River in Alice Springs. It was a still, warm night. There was a foyer space to buy tinnies, and then the space opened up to rows of plastic chairs sloping toward a floodlit stage framed by heavy red curtains. It was a full house; I stood at the back. A girl in shorts and thongs said something about reciting her poem to support her brother, who was there to read his. Dylan Voller walked on stage. He had co-written a poem with his pal Zak Grieve, who is serving a twenty-year mandatory sentence for a murder that a Justice ruled the boy wasn’t even present at.

Halfway through his reading, Voller said:

This poem is to the people who stuck by me

And supported me while others vilified me.

I would like to remind the public

Of the lives that never survived the whole justice system.

He was referring to Wayne ‘Fella’ Morrison, who died in custody in South Australia’s Yalata prison last year, synonymous with the case of Ms Dhu in Western Australia. In 1991, the major finding of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was that Aboriginal people die in custody not out of organised racial conspiracy, but because they are arrested at a much higher rate than non-Aboriginal people. The Report is infamous for its toothlessness – royal commissions have no legal force – and incarceration rates have almost doubled since its recommendations.

In the car I listened to Malcolm Turnbull’s Closing the Gap speech (tragically off target), and in the streets I witnessed the policing of public space. ‘You’ve got curfew conditions, haven’t you?’ I heard two police officers with folded arms ask a kid at the entrance to the Yeperenye shops.

Public sentiment in the Territory, in legislation, politics and public forums, tends to encourage harsh responses to law and order breaches. These attitudes manifest in mandatory sentencing requirements, the removal of the presumption of bail for past offenders, three-strikes legislation and the rationalisation of the use of restraint chairs, of Guantanamo Bay fame, including the use of spit-hoods on youth offenders.

Dylan Voller, the young man reciting the poem, has become the poster boy for the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory. He was released on bail in February. Infamous for being the ‘teen criminal’ who attempted to run down a police officer in an ice-fuelled state, for being embroiled in the spin cycle of the justice system since he was eleven, for prompting ‘spithood’ legislation, for being forcibly stripped and tear-gassed, for being forced to shit into a pillowcase during a transfer, he divides public opinion about what is to be done about youth crime.

In a Facebook post in May 2016, then Chief Minister Adam Giles stated ‘Enough is enough … nobody wants to see a kid in jail, but nobody wants to see our cars smashed up and our houses broken into.’

In the Territory, the prioritisation of property rights outweighs those of the child. A youth lawyer tells me about a kid getting done for property damage, for breaking into cars but not taking anything. She asked, ‘C’mon now, what’s this all about?’ and he shrugged and said ‘Lady, it’s just about breaking stuff.’ As long as the focus is on imprisonment rather than the circumstances of offending, the wheel will keep spinning. In January this year, Northern Territory Chief Justice Michael Grant publicly defended the judiciary against the idea that an increase in property crime was correlated to a perceived decrease in imprisonment sentences for youths.

Voller isn’t a martyr for troubled youth. He is a hopeful emblem for change. The lock-em-up catchcry is surely another example of tired out-of-sight / out-of-mind rhetoric, the type of indifference that characterises Australia’s relationship with its First Peoples, who form the overwhelming majority of those incarcerated in the Territory.

Prison and punishment embody the revocations of the social contract the individual has with the state: that your rights and liberties are worth less because you broke the rules. But what does this mean for people who were excluded from the social and political franchise, or for their kids? Continued indifference is a powerful means of disenfranchisement, and appears to be an acceptable excuse for the inadvertent damage done.

Prison doesn’t have the deterrent effect those rattling the chain links think it does. The call to fetter the kids has an insidious criminogenic effect. According to Dr Maggie Brady of the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at Australian National University, ‘Prison has lost its deterrence, contact with the criminal justice system is itself criminogenic, and imprisonment contributes to Indigenous disadvantage.’ So if it doesn’t work, why insist on it? Who is it easier for?

According to Jamal Turner, one of the detainees who gave evidence during the hearings, ‘Most of us that come out of detention come out acting more tough and more angry than when we went in. It didn’t make me want to be a better person.’ So, what to do?

When hearing how Voller was treated in detention, the question people initially ask is ‘What was he in prison for?’ as though that determines whether he deserves what he gets. In Aranda House, the ‘holding facility’ used to deal with overcrowding in Alice Springs, the windows are painted black so you can’t see in and you can’t see out. Nobody seems to know what the way forward might be, but assuredly it isn’t kids shackled with bags over their heads.


The Convention Centre

The Alice Springs Convention Centre was on the outskirts of town, close to ‘The Gap’: a wall of compressed red rock that rings the southern entrance to Alice Springs. It was on the same palm-fringed road that houses the Casino, a ‘sports-cinema’ and a members-only pool. There were six rows of arched chairs for the public, and then three long benches for counsel. At the front of the room, the commissioners sat at a tall bench draped in black cloth. Their microphones were long and thin, bowed slightly, like lily reeds. A black curtain fell from the ceiling behind them.

Peter Wallace, an Eastern Arrente man with white hair in a trucker cap and a cane, welcomed us. He said ‘You are doing a good job … we are proud of you guys … proud to welcome you all.’

People had high hopes for the commission’s work; according to counsel for the RC, Tony McAvoy, it was an ‘opportunity to commit to change’. But it’s hard not to be sceptical. Two reports detailing the failings of the detention and care systems in the Territory already tell the story the commission is committed to retelling. During the opening statements, McAvoy stated the evidence would reveal ‘a culture where bullying, lack of support, chronic and constant short-staffing and woeful training are the norm.’ The testimonies played back like an outback re-telling of the Zimbardo prison experiment.


The testimonies

As Fyodor Dostoevsky famously said, ‘The degree of a civilisation can be judged by entering its prisons.’ The kinds of things elaborated on during the Alice Springs hearings included allegations that detainees didn’t know what the rules of the detention facilities were. A kind of ‘Welcome to Prison!’ booklet used in evidence included the line: ‘Different officers have different approaches and as a detainee you will need to learn the different ways that officers deal with situations,’ as though that was a reasonable request. It was accepted that justice officers both swore and spoke inappropriately to detainees, including allegations of sexual harassment. Former shift supervisor Trevor Hansen said that it was ‘hard not to talk to detainees in the language they were talking to you in.’ Commissioner Mick Gooda reminded him that the difference between detainees swearing and officers swearing is that the kids go to isolation for it but the officers don’t.

Detainees’ complaints, about the use of force, about inappropriate comments, were never followed up. Strip procedures for ‘at-risk’ detainees involved the forced removal of clothing from female detainees by male officers. Kids were called ‘dumb black kids’, ‘dumb fucks.’ There were allegations of officers telling kids to come to the toilets, where there were no cameras, so they could ‘kick your fucking head in.’

Detainees would be collectively punished for the acts of an individual, could be left indefinitely in isolation, in hot, dark, piss-stink cells. Spit-hoods were used without communicating what they were, on kids without a history of spitting. Kids were publicly handcuffed during transfers, and then transferred to adult prisons. The youth facilities had dire security concerns: there were no on-site procedural manuals or legislation for staff to consult, there was no toothpaste for two weeks, they used outdated compliance techniques (such as ‘the wedgie’). Overcrowding meant kids would be transferred without notice up to Darwin. An officer insisted families were notified out of procedure; I watched Voller’s mother scoff in disbelief and leave the room.

Gerry McCarthy, former Minister of Corrections testified: ‘It was the best that we had. Was it appropriate? No. Did I want to change it? Yes. Have we achieved that? No.’

Trevor Hansen, former shift supervisor at Don Dale, sat in a black shirt and spectacles. He characterised the use of isolation as a ‘consequence of actions’, then claimed that you ‘never punish a detainee.’ Commissioner Margaret White interrupted to ask what the difference was.


Closing statements

The officers denied their characterisation as ‘bullies,’ though it is difficult to be dissuaded from this portrayal when one sees the footage. Philip Zimbardo, the psychologist behind the infamous Stanford prison experiment, wrote that ‘bullies may be the perpetrators of evil, but it is the evil of passivity of all those who know what is happening and never intervene that perpetuates such abuse’. The symptoms in those Don Dale cells were the result of a much larger, more complex issue for Australia than unqualified staff abusing power relationships.

From another of Voller’s poems:

I have a lot of questions I really want answered. Like why weren’t my cry’s for help ever answered.

Does [name removed] really not care? Or is [they] telling the truth and they didn’t know what was going on in there.

Why can’t [name removed] admit [they] was wrong? Instead of pointing fingers and passing Blame Along.

For five days, Dylan Voller sat in the public gallery of the commission hearings, listening to youth justice officers, management and parliamentarians shirk accountability. A woman next to me, a lawyer maybe, or media, scrolled through Country Road sales on her smartphone. Attendance in the public gallery disappointed me – the hearings were being held on the brink of town, near The Gap, still out of sight and out of mind.

‘I deny that allegation,’ Derek Tasker said, when asked about CCTV footage from 2010 depicting him thrusting Voller against the wall by his neck, then pinning his knee into the small of his back and stripping his clothes off. The act was later subject to court proceedings – the use of force was ruled ‘reasonable’. Likewise, the use of tear-gas on youths in Don Dale in 2014 was ruled reasonable in the circumstances in a recent judgment by Justice Kelly. ‘I was found not guilty,’ Tasker reminded everyone.

‘It was procedure,’ said Trevor Hansen, former shift supervisor at Don Dale, in response to his arm and leg lock during the forcible removal of a fifteen-year-old girl’s clothing during an at-risk ‘cell placement’.

‘All I can say is that I had a responsibility to investigate the matter and I tasked [name] to investigate the matter,’ replied John Fattore, the former General Manager of Don Dale.

‘I did the best that I could at the time,’ said Gerry McCarthy, former Minister for Corrections.

The commission’s final report is due in August. Scrolling through the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody’s 1991 recommendations, I find startlingly relevant headings addressing youth crime. In 1991 there was an ‘urgent need for governments and Aboriginal organisations to negotiate together to devise strategies designed to reduce the rate at which Aboriginal juveniles are involved in the welfare and criminal justice system.’ The evidence for such acknowledgements and recommendations are sound – but here we are again. Again.

Only time will tell whether another royal commission is necessary to provoke meaningful action on Australia’s shame.


Read the royal commission’s interim report.

Read Dylan Voller’s poems.

M Bakewell

M Bakewell is a creative writing and law graduate from South Australia.

More by M Bakewell ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays