‘Incarceration Nation’ Is Not Here To Make Settlers Comfortable

Never once does the SBS documentary provide a moment of reprieve, or even a second where you are inclined to disregard the ongoing violence against First Nations peoples as statistics that can't concern you.

incarceration-nation-main sbs on demand photo

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In the last seven days alone there have been two deaths in custody, one in Ballarat and one in Darwin. While it has not been disclosed whether those who died were First Nations, the issue of Indigenous incarceration and deaths in custody remains at the centre of systemic colonial violence perpetrated on this continent.

This is the subject of Incarceration Nation, a new documentary from Guugu Yimithirr man Dean Gibson that dissects the distressing and complex reality behind why so many Indigenous men, women and children are behind bars. At the time of writing this article, the number of deaths in custody stands at 474 (and those are the confirmed and recorded ones) with no convictions or justice for their murders.

The statistics forming the foundation of Incarceration Nation are confronting, but unshocking, especially for Mob. Blakfellas make up 3.3 percent of the general population but account for over 25 percent of the male prison population, 34 percent of the female prison population, and over 55 percent of youth in detention. And these numbers have only been increasing experientially over the past three decades since the 1991 Royal Commission Into Aboriginal Deaths In Custody.

But Incarceration Nation isn’t a numbers game. In a stylistic approach similar to Ava DuVernay’s documentary The 13th, which dissected incarceration rates of Black citizens in the US, Incarceration Nation is woven with testimony from Indigenous inmates, survivors of police brutality, and emotional accounts from the loved ones of those who have been killed in custody — including the families of David Dungay and Tanya Day.

As a director, Gibson ingratiates humanity to the Blakfellas behind the numbers by centring the voices and of First Nations peoples who have experience with the brutal cycle of incarceration. Alongside the testimonials of previously imprisoned Blakfellas Keenan Mundine and Carly Stanley, deadly Blak academics, activists and experts such as Australia’s Human Rights Commissioner from 2009 — 2016 Mick Gooda, and Associate Professor Chelsea Watego share their decades of knowledge and experience with both the system and its history.

Between its powerful testimonies, voices of expertise and use of graphic footage that shows a fraction of the horrific indifference and violence Blakfellas endure at the hands of the state, Incarceration Nation does not let up on its audience. Never once does it provide a moment of reprieve, or even a second where a viewer might be inclined to disregard the ongoing violence against First Nations peoples as statistics that can’t concern you.

Gibson lays bare a timeline of events and policies; from the massacres of the 1800s that culled Indigenous peoples by the 100s of 1000s, to the mission policies that made slaves of the survivors, to the stolen wages that built this country, to the forced and ongoing removable of Blak children from their families, that created a systemic cycle of violence designed to do one thing.

This continent began its colonial life as a penal colony and it has remained that way for First Nations peoples ever since. To this day, NSW has the highest rate of child removals by the state.

A Call To Action

In lieu of hope, Incarceration Nation offers viewers a call to action. Solutions to the ongoing colonial trauma within First Nations communities that perpetuate this cycle of deaths in custody have long been known. Justice Reinvestment organisations like Deadly Connections, Sisters Inside, PwC’s Indigenous Consulting and the Dhadjowa Foundation are Blak led, offering self-determined, community-orientated strategies to support incarcerated Blakfellas and their families, keep them out of prison, and abolish laws and policies that lead to deaths in custody.

Never once does it provide a moment of reprieve, or even a second where a viewer might be inclined to disregard the ongoing violence against First Nations peoples.

Even now with COVID-19 ripping its way through NSW’s prisons and remote Aboriginal communities, awareness of why these communities need support is life or death. As is the knowledge of how viewers can help. The reality is that settler silence, regardless of heritage, has gone on far too long and is complicit in the ongoing colonial abuse of First Nations peoples.

The documentary is not easy to view, but it is vital viewing, especially for settlers and allies. Incarceration Nation is crafted to galvanise viewers into understanding why their action and allyship is so important. If it makes you uncomfortable, angry, disgusted, upset — then you’re experiencing only a fraction of what all Blakfellas have felt in this colony every day for over 200 years.

So, put it to use.

Incarceration Nation is streaming now on SBS On Demand. Blakfellas should be warned that it contains images of those who have passed away. The documentary also features graphic footage of police brutality and murders in custody, as well as accounts of sexual assault.

Merryana Salem (they/she) is a proud Wonnarua and Lebanese–Australian writer, critic, teacher and podcaster. You can follow them on most social media as @akajustmerry. If you want, check out their podcast, GayV Club where they gush about LGBTIQ rep in media. Either way, she hopes you ate something nice today.