Warning: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that the following article contains footage and voices of people who have passed, and footage and text that may cause distress.
Marking the 30th anniversary of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (1987–91), Incarceration Nation (2021) presents an unflinching 90-minute insight into the disproportionate and arguably racist over-representation of Aboriginal Peoples in Australia's criminal justice system today.
Director Dean Gibson’s documentary is confronting from the get-go. It opens with Aunty Leetona Dungay, mother of Dhunghutti man David Dungay Jr., watching footage of her son being pinned down by four NSW prison officers from Sydney's Long Bay Correctional Centre. Another prison officer, perhaps supervising, looks on. It's a highly distressing scene and watching it alongside Aunty Leetona made me think that there was nothing 'correctional' about the manner in which the gang of prison officers are subjugating the 26-year-old Aboriginal man.
Despite David's distress the guards continue to pin him down. Despite his struggle, which is obviously due to the stated fact that he can't breathe, one of four prison guards repeatedly demands that David “stop resisting!”. David’s distress echoes on Aunty Leetona's face as she watches the footage, as her son screams repeatedly, "I can't breathe". Aunty Leetona too becomes breathless watching the footage that we can only assume she's seen before. I've no doubt she's seen the footage countless times.
Watching this opening scene also leaves me breathless. As an Aboriginal man a couple of decades older than what David was at the time of his apparent murder, and having a mother who reminds me of Aunty Leetona, I too am left with an unnerving and despairing sense of futility.
The narrative of Incarceration Nation offers a series of important and searing juxtapositions. Footage of various criminal justice system representatives failing in their duty of care and causing Aboriginal Peoples' deaths contrasts with a series of Aboriginal voices who are frustrated; yet they offer insights that are informed and notably empathetic. Many of these voices speak of the distress they feel with the current colonial regime, and many of them speak of the solutions that they know will work to reduce the ongoing problem of Aboriginal deaths in custody in Australia and increasing incarceration rates.
These voices include former Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda, writer and journalist Amy McQuire, barrister Joshua Creamer, associate professor Chelsea Watego, health advocate Olga Havnen, and barrister Tony McAvoy among others. Yuin Elder Aunty Vickie Roach offers, what I believe to be the strongest and most thought-provoking statements. At one point, she says, with open arms, “Australia’s criminal justice system is not broken, it’s doing exactly what it was designed to do”.
In solidarity to Aunty Vickie’s words, Deadly Connections co-founder Keenan Mundine offers a dignified insight into the inhumane and relentless belligerence, and entrenched hypocrises, of Australia’s criminal justice system witnessed during his time in prison and in his life thereafter. In doing so, he highlights how policing and enforcement measures Australia-wide are used to bolster what is, in full-blown effect, a waste of money; a system that squanders without question tax-payers’ dollars.
There’s a notable cross-generational strength in what both Aunty Vickie and Keenan have to say, just as there is a notable cross-generational resilience.
I’m left with several questions after watching Incarceration Nation: Who’s listening? Who cares? Who has the power to change this situation?
As distressing and triggering as Incarceration Nation is, it does offer hope by highlighting the grave and ongoing human rights violations against Aboriginal Peoples within Australia’s state and territory criminal justice systems. It concludes with a clear call to divert funding from law enforcement agencies and the increasingly privatised incarceration regime that continues to grow here in Australia, and in places like the USA. It also tactfully highlights community-led solutions that empower Aboriginal Peoples and their communities, to redress the historical and current processes of colonisation in Australia.
Speaking of the current processes of colonisation, in the documentary there’s a snippet from ABC’s The Weekly featuring Charlie Pickering that’s capped off with what sounds like canned laughter from what I assume is a predominately white Australian audience. I found it jarring against the documentary’s necessarily serious tone and at first it didn’t sit well with me. Thinking about it since, and acknowledging Incarceration Nation’s narrative arc, I realise that perhaps the only way an Aussie can deal with their legal system’s racist shortcomings is to use laconic, ‘I’m with you, Brothers’ humour. There’s something pervadingly depressing about that. Aboriginal deaths in custody aren't a laughing matter. The treatment of Aboriginal Peoples in Australia's justice system is not a laughing matter. My knee-jerk reaction, where initially I found it hard to find a sense of irony, is one I feel us mob need to own, while the rest of Australia goes about its business.
Putting aside the intergenerational woes that Australia’s history bestows on us all, there's hope to be had in watching Incarceration Nation that comes directly from all the Aboriginal voices within, and the statistics presented in the documentary paint an irrefutable argument of discrimination against Aboriginal youth, men and women that I found strengthening. Because our story is rarely, if ever, truthfully told.
While the police enforcement footage shown throughout incensed me, I wasn't moved to tears by it. But I was during the following scene of pride and resilience.
'Former inmate' Keenan Mundine meets with a mob of Brothers who have been on the inside too. They're now outside, settling down for a feed at a picnic table in a park. There's a sense of solidarity among them, that's further emphasised by the striped polo shirts a couple of the men wear, as well as the baseball caps some of them sport, some with the brim over their face, some with the brim pointed back. They open pizza boxes and break bread, all the while sharing with each other their lives of late. This scene made me cry because they were together. They were in support of each other, they had each other's back. Their gathering was safe and far removed from their intentionally isolating experiences at the hand of Australia’s criminal justice system. At the picnic table they gave us a glimpse into their voices, and as part of their yarns they were talking about solutions. As I cried, I asked myself: “Who's listening? Who cares? Who has the power to change this situation?”
My Grandfather (Pop) Colin Walker, a Senior Yorta Yorta Elder, who until recently sat as an Elder alongside Magistrates in the Victorian Koori Courts, told me how he too was moved to tears when watching Incarceration Nation with my Nan Faye and my Mother May. Pop tells me he cried during a scene featuring an Aboriginal man, Inspector Geoff Regan, and his recollection of a racist situation he experienced while in his role with the West Australian Police Force. After putting a meal he’d bought from home in the communal staff fridge, Regan was told by a superior Sergeant to take it out because, Regan was told, “You boongs, you cook differently, you’re not putting your food in there.” In recalling the experience Geoff Regan fights back tears. My Pop could not.
Our lives, Aboriginal lives, after a history of violence meted out by colonial powers that continue to be upheld by the state, remain a disturbing and dehumanising palette of emotionally harrowing ebbs and flows in 21st century Australia.
We deserve better. We demand justice.
–Bryan Andy, Yorta Yorta
Watch Incarceration Nation on SBS on Demand. It's also screening on 31 Oct as part of the Australia Uncovered documentary series (12 Sep – 31 Oct).
Those feeling affected by the content of this article are encouraged to contact the following services for assistance:
- Lifeline (24/7) — Call 13 11 14 or chat online
- Headspace Yarn Safe
- NACCHO community health service