Systemic failure in NT youth jails: MP

Lucy Hughes Jones
'We could have done better': NT govt

Former Northern Territory corrections minister Gerry McCarthy accepts responsibility for systemic failings in the youth detention system, but denies he knew about rampant abuse.

It was under Mr McCarthy's watch between 2009 and 2012 that children were allegedly sexually harassed, physically assaulted and subjected to solitary confinement.

The current Gunner Labor government housing minister told the juvenile justice royal commission he was only informed about staff using excessive force in three incidents, two of them involving former inmate Dylan Voller.

A Don Dale youth detention centre worker was suspended in 2010 after Voller complained to police about "rough treatment", while an Alice Springs detention centre guard was stood down in 2011 after he slapped the boy in the face.

"(And) I do not recall being briefed nor made aware of strip searching, the inappropriate use of restraints or restraint tools," he told the inquiry's Alice Springs hearing on Friday.

Mr McCarthy said when he saw CCTV footage of alleged assaults on boys aired last year he was shocked "as an Australian, as a Territorian, as a father, as a teacher, as a person who had been involved in that juvenile justice system".

But he refused to blame then Corrections Commissioner Ken Middlebrook for misinforming him.

He defended the decision to transfer kids from Don Dale to Darwin's adult prison after a riot at Christmas 2011, but admitted it was an "extreme" measure.

A former detainee identified as BY on Thursday told the inquiry he was put in a spithood, forced to shower with adult prisoners, and threatened by guards with rape while at the adult jail.

Mr McCarthy admitted detaining children with no outdoor recreation space wasn't suitable.

"Was it appropriate? No, it wasn't appropriate. Could we have done better? Yes, we could have," he said.

"Did I have ambition to do that? Absolutely. Did I achieve that? Not yet."

He added that Aboriginal children, who make up around 95 per cent of Territory inmates, should be on country.

Mr McCarthy's government ignored a 2010 recommendation from its own expert panel to build a new 75-bed facility to address overcrowding and security risks.

The completion of Darwin's $1.8 billion adult prison was prioritised instead because of budget constraints.

Upgrades to the Don Dale and Alice Springs youth facilities were deferred, and all plans for new infrastructure faded when Labor lost power to the Country Liberal Party in 2012, he said.

"I had concerns, and it was far greater than just facilities," he said.

"It was about programs, it was about operations, it was about rising numbers of juvenile detainees and the high complexity of their needs."

Mr McCarthy noted inadequate school programs and delayed medical treatment for inmates.

He also said extremely limited training, and dismal pay and conditions contributed to high staff turnover and recruitment challenges, which he says Labor will address now it has returned to government.

But he warned that meaningful reform and a reduction in indigenous incarceration rates were unlikely unless the Commonwealth helped fund the inquiry's recommendations.

Mr McCarthy said he'd welcome any investment but the Territory hasn't yet received any assurances from the federal government.

The $50 million inquiry was announced by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull before NT Labor took office last August, but both governments have agreed to split the cost.