The guards gathered in a tight pack by the isolation cells, with tear gas canisters and a German shepherd security dog barking and pulling at its lead. From the other side of the reinforced door came the sound of a 14-year-old boy smashing the concrete walls with a broken light fitting.
Video footage of the 2014 incident at the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre shows the guards laughing and calling him a "f---ing idiot". "I'll pulverise the little f---er, grab the f---ing gas and f---ing gas them through," says one. "That'll learn him," says another, as the child and five other teenagers in the cell block are tear-gassed at close range.
What little we know of these youth justice workers and correctional officers in the Northern Territory comes from snippets of CCTV and handicam footage of this and other atrocities, broadcast by Four Corners this week. Some of the guards seem angry, agitated or excited, even as they terrorise teenage detainees – tossing them across cells and knocking them to the ground, stripping them naked or strapping them, hooded, to a chair. The guards in the footage are all men and all in uniform. Some have muscled biceps, testament to their hobby of cage fighting.
Are they mad, bad or neither? Corrections officers deal with damaged individuals in a high-stress environment – and many have the best interests of inmates at heart. But what makes some harm, frighten and brutalise the vulnerable children in their charge?
Forensic and clinical psychologist Ken Byrne says the power imbalance in prisons brings out the worst in some people. "At one end of the spectrum you have a person who likes kids, who knows how to be firm with kids but is also very fair and who is genuinely interested in helping kids," he says.
"At the other end, you have people who are overly aggressive, with very poor judgment, little interest in caring for kids, poor self-esteem, a high need to dominate or push people around, and a punitive approach."
Dr Byrne is director of Safeselect, which does pre-employment psychological testing of corrections officers, police and firefighters. Based on the Four Corners footage, he says that some of the officers at Don Dale "should never have got past first base". There are many reasons why such types of abuse occur, he says. "Some people just want to hurt kids," he says.
Others find it difficult to resist when colleagues enact or condone abusive behaviour. People who lack self confidence or a strong values system are particularly vulnerable to peer pressure, he says. "Some people have a strong need to belong to the group. Someone who is depressed or anxious tends to have low self-esteem and needs to fit in, to be one of the boys."
The lack of transparency within correctional centres and other institutions caring for vulnerable people – such as nursing homes, churches and schools – tends to exacerbate such personal flaws. "I have always said that the walls of prisons are intended largely to keep the community ignorant of what goes on behind them," says former Melbourne prison chaplain Peter Norden.
"They have staff who are poorly paid, poorly trained and liable to use a lot of discretion in their actions, rather than be required to act according to regulations or rules. We have seen this in aged care facilities, intellectual disability institutions and in the royal commission into child abuse. Any concentration of power means there is going to be less accountability, less freedom to report or to object. Young black offenders in Northern Territory institutions are, if you like, the worst possible scenario of that occurring."
Norden, an adjunct professor at RMIT University, has worked in the criminal justice system for more than 40 years and over that time has seen prison inmates "bashed stupid" by guards using batons and boots. Some officers are sociopaths who abuse power, he says.
Others succumb to job stress and lack the resources to cope. "If you're not professionally trained and you are working in difficult and complex situations, it is difficult at times not to take it out on your work," he says.
An official report into the 2014 incident at Don Dale cited a lack of adequate training among largely casual staff, "non-existent, outdated and inadequate" detention procedures and a lack of consistency and direction in managing damaged adolescents. Staff were then trained for three days only, which was found to be "grossly inadequate" – youth justice officers now undergo eight weeks' off-the-job training.
But it's telling that the Don Dale revelations aired the same night the ABC's 7.30 showed footage of a nursing home worker in Adelaide, apparently attempting to suffocate an 89-year-old man with advanced dementia. Separately, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has heard evidence of systemic mistreatment within churches, schools and the Australian Defence Force.
Some argue that the potential for dark acts lurks within us all. The 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, in the United States, divided volunteers into the roles of prisoners and prison guards in a simulated prison environment to test how they would respond. But the brutality of the guards and suffering of prisoners was so intense that the two-week experiment was terminated after only six days.
Stanford researcher Philip Zimbardo argues such aggression is "a 'natural' consequence of being in the uniform of a 'guard' and asserting the power inherent in that role". People descend into tyranny because they conform unthinkingly to their assigned role, no matter how malevolent, he suggests – also citing atrocities by officers at the US military prison Abu Ghraib.
Former NSW inspector of custodial services John Paget, who stepped down in October 2015, says the ethical and moral climate in a prison can override the intentions of officers. "Everyone is accountable for their actions but the situational variables can be more powerful than individual predispositions," he says.
While declining to comment on Don Dale, he notes comments the now Northern Territory chief minister Adam Giles made in 2010, while in opposition: that he would put criminals in "a big concrete hole" and "might break every United Nations' convention on the rights of the prisoner". "When you have politicians saying things like that, what message are you conveying as to the expected behaviour of staff?," Paget asks.
The majority of corrections officers manage inmates with professionalism and humanity, he adds. "Every now and again you get an incident where a few people let down the many. But what tends to get forgotten is that most of the people locked up get through every night quite safely."
NSW Corrections Officer Mark Hutchinson, who works at the maximum-security Metropolitan Remand and Reception Centre, in Sydney's west, argues that officers use tear gas as a last resort and then only when authorised to do so. The Four Corners footage does not tell the whole story, he suggests.
"Everyone is watching in isolation a five-minute window of a 24-hour day," he says. "Imagine coming in and seeing people eat their faeces or brutal self harm. Imagine you have people who just hit you for no reason. Prison officers aren't thugs. We are just people dealing with other people with major issues."
Zimbardo's essential claim, that good people do bad things in unthinking acquiescence to authority, has come under scrutiny. The "guards" in his experiment, rather than being objective participants, were instructed about ways to make prisoners feel humiliated and powerless. Violent disputes were overlooked by Zimbardo, who played the role of prison superintendent. Even then, some guards still acted humanely.
"Zimbardo's argument that people just conform like sheep and zombies, and go along with a toxic situation, is not what the evidence shows," says social psychologist Alex Haslam, at the University of Queensland. "People have a choice and they have responsibility and accountability."
There are five steps that take such people down the wrong path, he says. Perpetrators first identify as a close-knit group. Second, they exclude another group, which they see as inferior. This outsider group is then perceived as a threat or hurdle. Fourth, perpetrators champion their group as being virtuous and in the right. And finally they celebrate their mistreatment of the other group as being for the greater good.
"Far from thinking their behaviour to be problematic, they feel everybody else doesn't understand," Professor Haslam says. "They justify ill treatment as something that is necessary: 'We are doing this crap job and making an important contribution to the security and welfare of Australia, because we're dealing with a particular problem.'"
Corrections officers and authorities in the Northern Territory are jointly at fault for abuse at Don Dale, he says. "How you behave in your workplace comes down to leadership and what people think the group is trying to do," he says. "Very few people mistreat other people just for the sake of it. They don't just sleepwalk into it. It's not something that happens by accident, it is something they think through and talk through collectively."
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