Six boys are sprayed with tear gas at close range. Not one, not two, but 10 bursts of gas. For an agonising 90 seconds. And they’re already being held in isolation, in a prison.
The children cower in the back of the cell, hiding behind mattresses, struggling to breathe. One boy is exposed to tear gas for eight long minutes. He is eventually handcuffed and dragged from the cell.
This is not a scene from some pre-UN prisoner-of-war camp. Or Guantanamo Bay. Or even a movie. In 2014, this was the nightmarish reality for children at the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in Darwin. Australia.
At the time, authorities reported the tear-gassing incident was in response to a "riot": several boys were alleged to have escaped the isolation cell, a.k.a. the Behavioral Management Unit, and were threatening staff with weapons. CCTV footage obtained by the ABC’s Four Corners program, which airs tonight, shows that only one boy, aged 14 years, had exited the unit – after a guard had left it unlocked. In the video, he asks repeatedly how long he had been in isolation, and requests to talk to staff. Without a hint of empathy or professionalism, the guards laugh at him and call him “an idiot” and "a little f—ker".
The children had been kept in isolation for between 15 and 17 days for almost 24 hours a day, with no running water and very little natural light. There were two boys per tiny cell, according to reporter Caro Meldrum-Hanna. Two more boys were in cells on their own. They were discovered by a group of lawyers on a tour of the centre in August 2014. According to human rights lawyer Ruth Barson, who was not in the group - but has visited the centre - placing kids in isolation is a clear violation of the United Nations Convention against Torture.
"The UN’s expert on torture has said there are no circumstances that justify young people being held in solitary confinement, let alone prolonged solitary confinement," Ms Barson told Four Corners.
Meldrum-Hanna tracked down several of the boys who were gassed. Two years on, they still suffer nightmares and flashbacks. Four Corners is on the ABC, tonight, at 8.30pm.