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6 minutes

Must watch: Incarceration Nation

Desmond Rogers
Last edited: August 16, 2023

Incarceration Nation is harrowing and heartbreaking. Released in August 2021, it takes the viewer on a journey through the legislative and policy changes, both historic and contemporary, that create systemic incarceration and racial injustice. I commend all involved in the producing, filming, storytelling and making of this very powerful, truthful film.

Watching Incarceration Nation didn’t fill me with rage or grief – I am already full of rage and grief. This documentary articulated the reasons for it, in the voices of those who feel it too; in the voices of those who have lost what I’ve lost and, like me, are fighting to reclaim it.

We know the statistics of Aboriginal incarceration rates – 3% of the population, but 28% of the prison population. As the Uluru Statement from the Heart says:

Proportionally, we are the most incarcerated people on the planet. We are not an innately criminal people.

But this landmark documentary contextualises this statistic and the contemporary problem of incarceration in its colonial roots. Incarceration Nation clearly evidences that there is a causal relationship between the actions by settlers and the governments that followed and where First Nations People are today.

The documentary makes it clear that these incarceration rates have been intended and designed by modern Australia’s criminal justice system; policies, wilful actions and deliberate blindness that began at colonisation and have continued, overtly and insidiously. The ways laws are written and enforced, the institutions and approaches to policing, continue the racism that began at colonisation, that was intended to kill our people and take our land.

Incarceration Nation gives us other kinds of evidence too, not just the enraging numbers. Proud and eloquent First Nations activists show us how systemic racism and deep generational disadvantage mean that First Nations Australians are more likely to come into contact with the criminal justice system.

The criminal justice system both creates and accelerates disadvantage. Arrest, being held on remand, and incarceration of any length of time (even short-term sentences), have lifelong consequences for our people, our families (in particular our children), and our communities. The current punitive approach to criminal justice does not address the underlying drivers of offending and incarceration – these include intergenerational trauma, poverty and inadequate access to essential services like education, health, and pathways to employment.

When people lack these services and support systems, they are more likely to offend. If they’re Aboriginal, they’re more likely to be arrested and placed in custody. When they’re released, they’re more likely to be homeless, less likely to get a job, less able to access education, AOD (alcohol and other drug) treatment, and health services. They are pushed deeper into trauma and poverty. And they are pushed closer to recidivism that sees them back in the justice system, often within two years of their release.

This documentary hurt me – it should hurt me and every Australian that watches it, not just the First Australians. It hurt to hear Keenan Mundine recount how, when he left detention, a prison officer said:

There you go son, do your best but there’ll be a bed for you when you get back.

It hurt to hear an Aboriginal police officer recount how, when he tried to put his lunch in the station fridge, he was told:

No! You boongs do all sorts of things with your food and you ain’t putting it in our fridge. Go out the back to the store room and get a fridge, clean it and that’s where you put your food.

The Aboriginal officer said he worked through it because he wanted to become a police offer. But the trauma on his face and the tears in his eyes, tells me he has never forgotten how he was treated as “sub-human”.

It hurt to watch the footage from Don Dale and the treatment of our children. It hurt to watch them stripped naked, abused and chained like animals. As the Uluru Statement from the Heart says:

Our children are aliened from families at unprecedented rates. This cannot be because we have no love for them. And our youth languish in detention in obscene numbers. They should be our hope for the future.

The documentary reminds us that Stolen Generations 1.0 lead to almost irreparable intergenerational trauma, slavery, servitude, rape and the loss of connection to everything we hold dear – Country, community and culture. The documentary also tells us that Stolen Generations 2.0 is happening, with our children being removed from homes at far higher rates than non-Aboriginal children. Children in care are ‘cross over kids’ – more likely to end up in juvenile detention, and later, more likely to end up in adult incarceration.

I love my children and my grandchildren. They are my hope for the future. Watching this footage hurt me but I didn’t look away.

Incarceration Nation challenges us to keep our eyes open and our hearts strong. It wants you to sit in the pain of Tanya Day’s daughter, Apryl, as we watch the footage of her mum’s dying hours. She should never have been arrested – in fact, five minutes after her arrest, another woman, a white woman, was also picked up by police at a pub in the same area and driven home safely. She goes on to live her life – but Tanya Day was placed in a cell and fatally hit her head. The police failed to follow their own safety and checking protocols because she was Aboriginal. Her death, like so many others, was preventable. Her death, like so many others, should never have happened.

Incarceration Nation reminds us that the time for commissions, inquiries and reports is over. We’ve had enough of those. Governments use them to deflect attention and diffuse political heat. The countless recommendations in countless reports are ignored. Instead, the documentary urges us to listen to First Nations People – we know what problems our people face, and we know the solutions. Instead of spending $100,000 per person per year and $525,000 per young person per year to keep them locked up, Incarceration Nation calls on Australia to invest in our communities, in our families and our young people, so we can design and deliver the solutions that will make our communities strong.

As the documentary concludes:

Just treat us like you treat everyone else. It’s not that hard.

Incarceration Nation is essential viewing for all Australians.

Desmond Rogers
ANTAR Board Member

Des is a respected Southern Arrernte man of the Pertame Clan from Central Australia and resided in his home town of Alice Springs for many years. He now lives in Brisbane. From founding an Aboriginal business incubator, mentoring youth in Alice Springs in response to culturally appropriate skills development and economic opportunities needs in the community for many years he has continued to be mentor to many people. Des is a highly skilled executive leader with extensive Board memberships in the not-for-profit and public sectors. He has provided strategic direction, demonstrated operations and facility management, community engagement, financial management and has a proven track record in driving organisational performance improvement and reform in line with corporate governance and Governmental requirements. Des was elected to the ANTAR Board in December 2019.