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Former Don Dale detainee determined to show young offenders can change

Former Don Dale detainee, Jake Roper
Jake Roper is determined not to get into trouble with the law again.

ABC News: Jane Bardon

Troubled young people can turn their lives around, according to the teenager who helped alert the world to abuse in the Northern Territory detention system.

Key points:

  • Final report from royal commission due on Friday
  • Jake Roper is a former Don Dale detainee who gave evidence to inquiry
  • Jake hoping final report will recommend more community programs to keep kids out of trouble

Jake Roper was one of the teenagers shackled and tear-gassed by staff at Darwin's Don Dale centre after attempting to break out in 2014.

The images broadcast by the ABC last year shocked the nation and triggered the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory.

Now he's a much more grounded 17-year-old who spends his days going to school in Tennant Creek, playing football and basketball, and mentoring others.

"I'm in Year 12 right now, so I'm pretty happy with myself. I'm planning to repeat Year 12 to keep my grades up, and I want to do a VET (Vocational Education and Training) course," he said.

Jake gave evidence anonymously at the royal commission about what happened in the centre behind closed doors.

He's hoping its final report, to be handed down on Friday, will improve the treatment of children, and recommend more community programs to keep kids out of trouble.

"There is a youth centre here in Tennant Creek, but it's pretty much for little kids," he said.

"For the teenagers, there's not much for them to do around here so they just get into bad habits like smoking [drugs] and drinking."

'All the anger was just hitting me'

In August 2014, Jake and five other teenage inmates at Don Dale had been in virtual isolation in the behaviour-management unit for 16 days.

He said he became angry when the centre's bosses would not come down to talk to them about when they might be released.

Just thinking about it is difficult for him.

"I don't really like anybody talking about it because it just brings up a lot of memories, like it just becomes a normal thing, too many people keep asking me what happened in Don Dale."

He still gets flashbacks about that day.

A graffitied door opens to a cell inside the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre.
A cell inside Don Dale's behavioural management unit.

Four Corners

"All the anger and everything was just hitting me, and I just started going off, smashing the cell up," he said.

He said after breaking out of his cell and trying to break out of the centre, staff stormed in.

"I saw them coming in. They had glass shields, and they was all suited up and armoured, and when they ran in I grabbed a fire extinguisher and I sprayed them. And that's when they grabbed the gas," he explained.

"It just went everywhere, and there was like no air, I couldn't breathe."

Jake said he gave evidence to the royal commission to show the former NT government's claim the gassing was in response to a riot was wrong.

Darwin lawyer John Lawrence SC represented him at the royal commission.

"But for his actions, they may well have been in there to this day — the restraint chair, the spit hoods, the manacles, the shackles — all of those items of the regime that are now symbols of Australian justice, would still be in operation," Mr Lawrence said.

'We were just going wild'

Jake was raised in Tennant Creek by his parents until he was five, before moving to Darwin to be cared for by his grandmother.

At 14 he started using drugs and was suspended from school. He then went on to commit serious crimes.

"Breaking in, like stealing money off people when they go to withdraw money out of the bank. Snatch and run," he said.

"We were just going wild trying to get money to support our habits."

Jake had his first exposure to Don Dale while waiting to go to court for stealing cars. He was tear-gassed while still on remand.

'I don't want to be back on the same road I've been on'

Finally life started turning around when he moved back to Tennant Creek at the end of 2015.

Here he lives between the houses of a large extended family and visits his mother regularly.

Jake Roper with his grandmother Miriam Charlie
Jake says the support of extended family, including his grandmother Miriam Charlie, has helped him change his life.

ABC News: Jane Bardon

"I know I won't do anything wrong because there's too much family down here that care about me and support me," he said.

"I've got a lot of things planned for my future and I don't want to be back on the same road I've been on. I just want to put that stuff to the past."

Keeping him on track is Tennant Creek youth worker Stewart Willey.

Support worker Stuart Willey
Stewart Willey has helped Jake re-engage with school.

ABC News: Jane Bardon

"I've been working with him to support him in school, and he's also been playing for the senior football team, where school attendance is linked to playing games," Mr Willey said.

His Tennant Creek grandmother Miriam Charlie also has high hopes.

"I hope for him to one day do an apprenticeship or go to university. We're 100 per cent behind him."

She hopes the royal commission recommends tough repercussions for Jake's treatment in detention.

"They should be in prison for life, for what they did to my grandson," she said.

NT Government will 'act appropriately'

NT Families Minister Dale Wakefield said her Government would "act appropriately" if the royal commission recommended sanctions or charges.

Lawyer John Lawrence questioned the capacity of the NT Government to turn the justice system around.

"The departments responsible — youth justice and child protection — are completely incapable of acquitting their brief," he said.

"They are worse now than they've ever been, and so they can't be responsible for bringing home these recommendations because they will not do it.

"They should be brought home by Aboriginal-controlled organisations which can do it better, cheaper, and more appropriately.

Ms Wakefield said her Government had focused on "stabilising a system in crisis", and was ready to make major changes.

"As a Government we are very committed to rolling out a reform agenda for the youth justice system, and we recognise it has to be a whole-of-government response," she said.

"We have already started that reform agenda over the last 12 months, and we're really looking forward for the royal commission to enhance that reform process that we've already commenced."