An Individual Or Systemic Problem?

Last night the ABC’s Four Corners program aired shocking footage of the treatment of young Aboriginal children in custody in the Dondale Detention Centre. What I witnessed fills me with shame and a sense of responsibility to speak out.

The CC TV footage revealed assaults on young Aboriginal boys as young as 14, with groups of guards kicking, beating, goading, forcibly restraining them and using tear gas on them. The accompanying image to this post is taken from that footage. Independent Ombudsmen report the extraordinary and unacceptable use of solitary confinement, while other minors describe being pressured to attack those targeted by warders as troublemakers.

When questioned about the treatment of minors at the Centre, the NT Minister for Correctional Services, John Elferink, deflected any focus on his own failure to act on extensive reports on the problem by benignly raising questions about whether the personnel dealing with these youth had been adequately trained.

To dismiss this behaviour as a reflection of inadequate training ignores the systemic dimensions of this situation and offers little confidence that the disgraceful patterns of behaviour and norms that have developed within the institution will be addressed. And I say this as someone in the learning and development field!

Yes, training is important. When people lack the necessary skills to operate in high stress environments they are more susceptible to falling back on reactive or survival driven behaviours. In an environment in which tensions and conflict are high, the fight and flight response kicks in - both for those in custody and those charged with their care. In corrective services, educational, welfare, policing and emergency management environments this needs to be managed.

So, why am I arguing a skills-based response isn’t enough? Because it conveniently positions the issue as an individual rather than systemic issue.

While it’s important to focus on and address the behaviour of the warders and adult prison guards involved in the incidents, it is also critical to ask why the NT government’s failed to respond to the reports of NT Children’s Commissioner Dr Howard Bath and the evidence within CCTV footage readily at their disposal.

The events at Dondale must be seen in the context of a political and policy framework in the Northern Territory which has introduced paperless arrest laws. As a community it is our responsibility to question what values are reflected in such and what messages are conveyed to those working within the system.

In 1971, Phillip Zimbardo conducted the now famous – or infamous – Stanford Prison Experiment in which university students were randomly allocated to the roles of warders and prisoners. After six days the experiment was called off due to the cruel and inhumane treatment of prisoners by the guards. Many of the participants receiving psychological treatment for years thereafter.

The researcher Professor Phillip Zimbardo reports that, ”In only a few days, our guards became sadistic and our prisoners became depressed and showed signs of extreme stress.”

His experiment, like the footage from Dondale, was truly shocking and stimulated great debate and soul searching as to how normal university students could become cruel monsters. For Zimbardo the experiment revealed the darker side of human nature, rather than reflecting a specific individual’s aggressive tendencies. Our duty of care demands that we understand and counter this potential.

So when training is designed – especially in environments in which there is high stress and a potential for the abuse of power - it is important that it covers more than dealing with challenging behaviour and explores the traps of power and potential for its abuse.

We’ve worked for years with leaders and their teams to build better understandings of how the role and environment itself exert an influence on individual behaviour. Some of our earlier posts have explored issues such as entitlements and the abuse of power as a way of dealing with insecurity.

In the Stanford Prison Experiment, warders had been assigned to their roles with the freedom to create their own rules. There were no checks and balances. In the Northern Territory those in authority ignored and silenced those responsible for independent review, effectively replicating such an environment.

In an environment protected from scrutiny, a fall sense of impunity develops. The allocation of reflective sunglasses as part of the Stanford guards’ uniform contributed to a power imbalance, by removing the others’ capacity to ‘see them’. The use of spit-hoods at Dondale not only isolated young offenders, it heightened their sense of vulnerability, while establishing the power of the warders. Now the Four Corner’s program has removed the protection of anonymity to reveal the abuse of children, deep systemic failings and neglect.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, has announced a Royal Commission into the treatment of children in Northern Territory Juvenile Detention facilities – amidst calls to make the enquiry nationwide.

In the Northern Territory 48% of those held in juvenile facilities are Aboriginal. Let’s hope the Royal Commission explores the role of racism in allowing such appalling situations to develop. And if indeed it does find a correlation – as other enquiries such as the Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody and the Royal Commission into the Stolen Generation have found in the past the question will remain:

What will we as individuals and a society do to address it?

What do you notice about your own use of power in different roles?

How do you use your own power and privilege to address the misuse and abuse of power?

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