History, culture and heritage in the Australian prison system

The Australian Bureau of Statistics figures reveal that Indigenous people account for about a quarter of Australia's prison population - vastly disproportionate to their numbers in society.

The imprisonment rate of Indigenous Australians is five times higher than that of Black South African men during Apartheid; and higher than African American rates in the US today. The reality of modern Australia is that indigenous people are 17 times more likely to receive a prison sentence than non-indigenous Australians.

Records show that this pattern of incarceration has existed for over 200 years, since the British began settling in Australia.  The colonisation of Australia led to many Indigenous people being imprisoned for crimes they didn’t know existed on land that they considered their own.

The first place indigenous people were imprisoned was Rottnest Island, however, that quickly became a desirable holiday destination, so they were moved either up North to Roebourne or down South to Fremantle.

Once sentenced in courts, prisoners were forced to march hundreds of miles in hot, terrible conditions, often chained by the neck and wrists with the guards on horseback.

Once at their destination, they would be kept in chains and tethered to walls in temperatures that could reach up to 50 degrees Celsius in summer.

To gather more understanding of the cruel history of the Australian justice system, the University of Liverpool launched the Prison history, culture, and heritage’. This project was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and led by Professor Barry Godfrey, School of Law and Social Justice, in partnership with Liverpool John Moores University, University of Leeds, and University of Tasmania.

In collaboration with affected community groups, this project investigated the history of imprisonment of Indigenous Australians, looking at the causes and the legacy that remains today.

Today, the old Roebourne prison is no more than an abandoned building since its closure in 1984. However, Australian authorities intend to convert it as a heritage asset.

In a documentary, Professors Barry Godfrey (University of Liverpool) and Paul Cooke (University of Leeds) explore how local people feel about their awful history being packaged for predominantly white tourists passing through; and asks, if not tourism, what can be done to help the people of Roebourne?

Watch the Roebourne film trailer;

There is now a new Roebourne prison. But, sadly, the same harsh treatment of Indigenous people persists. 90% of inmates in the new facility are indigenous people and they endure extremely difficult living conditions. Human rights issues, unexplained deaths, extreme heat, and high suicide rates are severe issues that must be addressed.

In Fremantle prison, the indigenous prisoners created internationally recognised art. This art was used as a way to cope with their challenging lives outside of prison and the struggles they endure behind prison walls.

The Fremantle art programme was a survival mechanism at first, but it also served as a pathway to a new life when inmates left prison. This compelling story was captured in a documentary that tells the stories of friendships inside prison and about life as Indigenous Australians.

In 2023, the Arts and Humanities Research Council funded Professor Barry Godfrey, Professor Paul Cooke, and Dr Katherine Roscoe (University of Liverpool) to again work with communities in Roebourne to develop a programme of media training and film making workshops for the Aboriginal student community.

The students from Roebourne District High School made two films about their lives and their hopes for the future. Their stories present a very different narrative to the usual stories of crime, drug-use, domestic and child sexual abuse in Roebourne.

These narratives challenge the stereotypes of these children and shed light on the community’s strength and cultural identity. Beyond raising awareness, the project equips the children with filmmaking and interviewing skills, fostering a deeper connection to their community and its history.

Watch the 'My School' film where staff and students share their aspirations for the positive impact of a newly developed school.

Watch the 'My Future' film where students came together to share their aspirations beyond high school.

In our collaborations we have acknowledged the traditional owners of the land, paying respects to their Elders, past and present. We continue to create exhibitions, films, discussions, and forums for debate about inequalities and the uses of imprisonment.

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