When Cyril Rioli started playing football inside Australia’s most infamous youth detention centre, he found teenagers ready to change
AFL legend Cyril Rioli is a long way from the MCG.
The pitch at Don Dale Youth Detention Centre has a barbed wire fence and correctional officers as spectators.
Many of the teenage boys he is coaching today come from remote Indigenous communities, just like the Norm Smith Medallist.
Growing up, footy boots were optional.
They’ve ended up in Don Dale for breaking into houses, stealing cars, and even violent assault.
Inmates at Don Dale Youth Detention Centre play football with former AFL superstar Cyril Rioli. (ABC News: Emilia Terzon)
The teenagers greet their new coach with fist bumps.
“Cyril’s trying to make us go forward,” they say. “Not go back.”
The ABC was granted exclusive access to the young people at Don Dale to follow their journey as they leave the facility.
Before going inside
Trent is one young offender who was recently released from Don Dale and his story is common for those who are held at the facility.
He started by breaking into cars and hustling for cash.
“I don’t know why,” he said. “I was just bored.
“I got suspended from school. I had no sports to attend. I was just at home doing nothing.”
He first landed himself in custody at age 14. It did not stop him offending.
“I have got out with no support and literally a week later I’m back in detention,” he said.
By the time he was 17, Trent’s crimes had escalated.
He was addicted to drugs, acting senselessly, but he still thought about people after he broke into their homes.
“Every single time,” he said.
“I feel sorry for them. They’ve got a family and imagine that I’d broken into their house.
“The money was for drugs and clothes, and the cars were for the thrill of it.”
By the time of his last conviction, Trent had been in and out of juvenile detention a staggering 16 times.
And that is not uncommon.
The Northern Territory has the highest youth recidivism rate in the nation, meaning teenagers regularly cycle in and out of its justice system.
Data given to the ABC by the NT Government shows two thirds of the 168 youth detained last financial year had been in prison within the past 12 months.
The vast majority are Indigenous.
Two years ago, the failures of the Territory’s youth justice system were highlighted for all to see, during the Royal Commission into the Detention and Protection of Children.
The commission heard many of those cycling through the NT’s two youth detention centres were from extremely disadvantaged backgrounds. Trauma, poverty and conditions like Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD) are common among them.
For instance, in 2017, a 13-year-old boy was remanded in custody for property offences. His mother had allegedly been murdered by his father just a few months previously.
Some of those ending up in custody are best described as children. The Territory’s age of criminal responsibility is 10, meaning children as young as this can end up in detention.
Steve (whose name has been changed because he is still a minor) first wound up in custody at just 11.
“I started stealing and shit like that,” he told the ABC.
“It was pretty scary because I was in [Don Dale] with a lot of the big boys, and I was the smallest person in detention.”
Like Trent, it also did not stop him offending. He’s cycled in and out of Don Dale for years.
“When I come into Don Dale, I get healthy. I get my mind back, because on the outside I’m heavy on the drugs.”
“I hate myself for the things I’ve done.”
Life in detention
Don Dale works on a reward system. Good behaviour gets you “Champion” status.
“If you’re good, you get a TV and a Playstation and your own shower,” Kane said.
A sign outside the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in Darwin warns ‘No Entry’. (ABC News: Tristan Hooft)
But Don Dale is not an easy environment. The royal commission documented an environment that for years had been punitive, inhumane, and lacking in basic programs that would help rehabilitate youth.
Two years on from the commission’s recommendations, youth are still being housed in the former adult prison, and a new site for a centre that will focus more on rehabilitating youth has only just been announced.
Former Indigenous legal aid lawyer Sophie Trevitt said many inside Don Dale are also far away from home and family support.
“A really horrible outcome of the youth detention centre in Alice Springs being so small and inappropriate to look after children, is they get removed to Don Dale and they’re hundreds of kilometres from families,” she said.
Even those from the Top End are often from remote communities in Arnhem Land, which makes it hard for family to come see them.
Despite all those realities, during his last stint in custody, Trent decided he would make the best of his situation.
Part of this change in mindset came from contemplating what would happen if he kept offending.
“I was just in teenage prison but I was coming close to my 18th birthday and I was a bit scared of the adult prison,” he said.
“There’s people in there for murder.
“I didn’t want that life anymore, I wanted clean money.”
But the real turning point for Trent was when a group of Indigenous leaders came into Don Dale earlier this year and started explaining his options.
The group includes Cyril Rioli and Jason Jones, a local construction boss passionate about giving back.
“Rather than sitting back like everybody else — and others have lots to say about youth justice — we have an opportunity to do something about it,” said Mr Jones.
Weekly football games have become part of a mentoring program at Don Dale. (ABC News: Emilia Terzon)
Trent decided he wanted to be a builder like Mr Jones, and after some hard work and getting himself to “Champion” status, he was allowed out on day release to work alongside his new mentor at his construction company in Darwin.
“Oh, that was all kinds of emotions. I was super proud because I was one of the first kids in years to get day release,” Trent said.
The Indigenous leaders have now formalised what they are doing into a newly funded program, First Step, which is reaching out to more youth in Don Dale through activities like Mr Rioli’s weekly footy games.
It’s Mr Rioli’s new career, post-AFL.
“I used to run amok once,” he said.
“This is all about giving back and helping these kids have a normal life.
“People should try to understand [youth offenders] before they can judge them.”
Mr Rioli has been mentoring at-risk youth in the Northern Territory, including some of the young men at Don Dale. (ABC News: Emilia Terzon)
The outreach program is so far having a good impression on Steve, who hopes to get day release from Don Dale too.
“I want to get out of here and go to First Steps,” he said.
Lots of other youth inside Don Dale have hopes for their future too.
“I want to be a ranger on the Tiwis,” one told the ABC.
“I want to go back to Western Australia and go back to boarding school, get my education, hopefully get into the army and become a mechanic or a chef,” said another.
And does anybody want to be a footballer?
A few months ago, Trent left youth custody for the 16th time.
He has been balancing rehab with a part-time traineeship with Mr Jones. The support he has been receiving from him and the wider First Steps program has been very different to the other times he has left custody.
“They give me a lot of support, they helped me get my drivers licence,” said Trent.
“This place really helped me. Something to look forward to, you know.”
He hopes to apologise to his victims one day, “so they can see I’m not a monster”.
Mr Jones said Trent just needed a chance.
“I see him as a young kid who just needed people to believe in him and be given the opportunity. He has a bright future ahead of him,” he said.
So far, Mr Jones has helped three other former Don Dale detainees get work. One ended up going back into adult prison after breaking his bail. He’s now back out again and still with the First Steps program.
“That was a learning curve,” said Mr Jones.
“I’m not promising that we can help everybody. But we can give everybody a crack.”
Youth from Don Dale are being given access to day release programs. (ABC News: Emilia Terzon)
First Steps is also doing outreach work once a week with youth out on parole and bail, as well as vulnerable youth, to help them stay on track.
The program is one of several new measures the NT Government is funding in the wake of the royal commission to try to keep kids out of detention.
For the first time in the NT, police, government agencies and NGOs will soon be able to refer young people under the age of criminal responsibility to diversion programs.
The changes are being embraced by the NT Children’s Commissioner, Colleen Gwynne
“There are things changing. We just have to keep our foot on the pedal and make sure we see this reform through,” she said.
But she’s worried — like previous times in the Territory’s history — reform could stall.
The NT Criminal Lawyers Association president Marty Aust shares these concerns.
“Green shoots are vulnerable. As are the children. A change of government could come down like a torrent of rain and wash them away,” he said.
He’s particularly concerned many recommendations from the royal commission, such as raising the age of criminal responsibility to 12 or not building the new Don Dale next to an adult prison, have not happened.
NT Families Minister Dale Wakefield said the Government will raise the age of criminal responsibility by 2021 and it’s working on other measures.
“We have already completed 67 of those 218 recommendations within 12 months and we’re committed to continuing that work,” she said.
She said other measures the NT Government has brought in includes accommodation for youth after they get out on bail, in the hope this will stop them breaking their conditions and ending up back in custody.
“The royal commission said very clearly that having a punitive system with kids locked up does not make our community safer,” said Ms Wakefield.
Those still inside Don Dale said much more could be done.
“We need guidance. We need more support with our parents. And we need more organisations to help support our parents look after us,” one detainee said.
They said society should give them a chance.
“We are still young and we’re still learning,” said another young man. “We are good people and we can be better.”
It is a delicate balancing act for the NT Government. There is not enough data to prove the NT Government’s approach is working to reduce youth crime or rehabilitate offenders.
Anecdotally, so far Trent is testament to what a bit of hope can achieve.
Still on parole, he celebrated his 18th birthday a few days after getting out of Don Dale. He wanted to go nightclubbing with his friends but stayed home instead.
“That’s because of my conditions,” he said.
“I have my job and all my support people. I didn’t want to let them down like I have previously.”
He says without that support, he “probably would go back on the drugs and the crime”.
He hopes to be a builder one day.
“Still working [with Jason Jones] hopefully. But just with better pay.”
- Reporter: Emilia Terzon
- Photography: Emilia Terzon and Michael Franchi
- Digital Producer: Scott Mitchell