A Birfurcate Merging post: Christmas thoughts as divided into dress-ups & Indigenous incarceration rates

Luck is often more structural advantage than chance

I had an entirely thesis-and-writing-free day yesterday, the first of its kind in a very long while, and it was terribly wonderful! Among other things I mowed the lawn in the sunshine with a manual mower in a 1950s swimming costume and horse-riding boots, played music impolitely loud all day, dressed up in an assortment of my house-mate’s finest dresses and carried on like a two-bob-watch. It is probably just as well that I don’t give myself holiday days too often.

I didn’t make the journey back home to the farm this year but have been sharing in all the excited morning joy this morning – opening presents and the like with my family via Skype-video. ‘Santa’ was so generous and organised that he arranged to have a parcel of beautifully wrapped gifts delivered to my door well before the day.

The fact that I am able to celebrate Christmas in the breast of family even so far away (~ 4000km in fact) makes me feel exceptionally love’ed and exceptionally lucky. Feeling lucky is a strange thing because it’s almost always in contrast to (or to the exclusion of) others ‘having’ or feeling the same benefit or joy.

Watering the vegetable garden a little later in the morning I was thinking of my Yolŋu family and the fact that I should call them for Christmas and in the drift of thought I was thinking about the number of young Yolŋu men that I’ve heard have been imprisoned this year. More than previous years, more than usual it seemed.

Anyhow, I checked the statistics this afternoon and unfortunately my hunch was correct. The thought of anyone in prison is an unhappy one, particularly on days like today – but the overrepresentation of Indigenous people – is something else entirely.

Here in Australia, Indigenous people make up just 2.5% of the population but they comprise 26% of the prison population (an over-representation factor of 10.4).

In the Northern Territory (N.T.) where my research is based where one in three people (32%) are Indigenous the imprisonment rate has risen 46% in the past decade. 

And what of the percentage of the total prison population in the N.T?

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders now comprise 82% of the total prison population in the NT.

These are the latest Bureau of Statistics figures for 2011.

In the Yolŋu case it is predominantly young men who face imprisonment. These are young men who have rarely if ever spent any length of time alone away from kin and Country, who’ve spent almost their entire lives in the breast of close kin in remote communities, for whom English is a third or fourth language if they speak English and to whom the Court system is entirely alien.

In the Yolŋu case these are young men who also happen to be outrageously under-represented when it comes to culturally-appropriate resources & services available in legalistic situations or run-ins with the law – particularly in that crucial margin of socio-judicial distance and time in between their first encounter with the law and any consequent or subsequent encounter or engagement.

While living in remote N.T. I accompanied one of my Yolŋu sons, my waku, to Court. He would not have ended up in Court, he was told, if he had simply addressed previous notifications, warnings or requests. This is someone who has no fixed address, no postal address, who is illiterate and who – while he speaks more than four languages – does not speak English.

The first he knew of having to front the Court was two police officers arriving in camp to warn his older kin (because he was too intimidated and frightened to speak to the police directly), that he only had “one more chance” to attend Court. The threat or prospect of imprisonment was clear.

Waku and I made the ~4 hour journey from camp (a remote Homeland community) to the nearby township on the day of the hearing. I took ten pages of notes that day and well into the night upon our return to camp – first in disbelief and then complete outrage. Where was the legal support officer? Who or where was the translator?

Not hair nor hide.

Waku did not understand a single word of the proceedings, nor the ruling, both of which were in ‘legalistic’ high English. It was only happenstance that I was there that day and able to provide a translation of what was said and an explanation of what was going on. What about every other time and case? I am aware that such services do exist and I am almost certain that they do a wonderful job, however, they are obviously far too limited. I have no doubt that this a Government funding issue (or lack thereof).

This is one social-justice issue – one area of research – that deserves a lot more attention in Australian anthropology.

I hope you all had a wonderful day and have a wonderful evening & night with family or friends or however ’tis best spent. I also hope we all consider how and why the State system denies so many the freedom or right to do the same.

~ Bree.


Freelance journalist Inga Ting is the person to follow on these issues if you only check-up every now and then; she covers these issues brilliantly on Crikey. I highly recommend, for example, ‘Why are Deaths in Custody Rising‘.

On broader associated issues it is definitely worth entertaining possible alternatives to the prison system – a good place to start is the wikipedia page on Prison abolition movement.


Filed under Anthropology, Current social issues, General personal writings

5 responses to “A Birfurcate Merging post: Christmas thoughts as divided into dress-ups & Indigenous incarceration rates

  1. Diatribe

    Merry Christmas to our countrymen in Berrimah, and their families who miss them.
    Overcast and thankfully cool here in k-town.

  2. Warm Christmas regards.

    Thoughts definitely shared re those in Berrimah Prison tonight. Berrimah was already officially 100+ individuals over capacity in February this year.

    Warm Christmas to the Katherine River also.

  3. One day, SOON now, the nation state will wake up to the fact, that in having caused Aboriginal men to become the largest single faction with anything in common among the total population of gaol inmates across Australia, they have inadvertently given Aboriginal men the upper hand in gaols, which effectively translated into the upper hand within every organised crime context all over the nation, of course, as men involved in organised crime as a profession, need to regard incarceration alike to a workplace health and safety issue, . . . and wherever Aboriginal men are dominant in gaols, they also dominate those issues for all the bikers, and other organised crime, all over Australia. Aboriginal men are not criminally inclined within real cultural traditions, and therefore, we can readily find an analysis, backed up by facts on the ground, which argues that the incarceration rate of Aboriginal men, was helping police do their job, by diminishing how much crime, organised crime groups could get away with, all over Australia. I say, how about some of that undercover surveillance at the Tent Embassy, gets itself into prison, (where they will find they need to avoid disclosure to prison authorities of being undercover police, if they are going to find what they need), and does the job they are supposed to be doing, rather than letting Aboriginal families have to. Or were the police in fact too scared for their own safety to do that, . . . and if so, WHO were they so scared of, the Aboriginal inmates, or the prison employees, or white organised crime? . . . as I think that most police already know, or at least ASIO know, that they are less at risk among Aboriginal former gaol inmates, than among all other former gaol inmates.

  4. Pingback: Prisons and poetry: Merry Christmas everybody, all the bodies. | Fieldnotes & Footnotes

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