• Keenan Mundine in Dean Gibson’s ‘Incarceration Nation’. (SBS)Source: SBS
Dean Gibson’s landmark documentary explores the injustice and violence faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Jim Poe

20 Oct 2021 - 5:17 PM  UPDATED 20 Jun 2022 - 2:44 PM

UPDATE: Incarceration Nation was awarded the 2022 Logie Award for Outstanding Documentary or Factual Program. 

“I can’t breathe.” Those are among the first words we hear in Incarceration Nation. They were made tragically famous by George Floyd, as he was murdered by police in the U.S. last year. But here in Australia, it’s important to remember that those were also the last words of David Dungay, as he died in custody at Long Bay Correctional Centre in Sydney in 2015. 

The distressing video footage of Dungay, a Dunghutti man, being held down by guards as he cries out for help, before going silent, establishes the tone of this uncompromising and urgent documentary. Directed by Dean Gibson (Wik vs Queensland), Incarceration Nation takes a hard look at racism and violence towards Indigenous people in the Australian justice system.

The facts alone are shocking: First Nations peoples in Australia are some of the most incarcerated in the world. Though they represent only 3% of the population, they make up almost a third of the prison population. Among children in juvenile prisons the disproportion is even more stark: more than half are Indigenous. All this carceral control often results in death: since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1991, there have been 474 more such deaths, with zero resulting convictions.

Explainer: What does 'Incarceration Nation' mean?
An examination into how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have become the most imprisoned on earth.

As health expert and activist Olga Havnen says near the start of Incarceration Nation, “If you go back to the early days of white settlement in this country, we started out as a penal colony, and we’ve continued to be one ever since.”

Incarceration Nation presents the harsh data as well as interviews with First Nations activists, legal experts and academics. Rapper Briggs is also featured: a clip of one of his videos, staunchly criticising the detention of Indigenous juveniles, provides vivid commentary. In a moving sequence, activist Keenan Mundine visits the Parramatta prison where he was locked up for three years. “It’s not a place for people to go and get better,” he says.

But it’s the video footage of violence against First Nations people in custody – many of them children – that will stick with you. Gibson unflinchingly shows us Dungay’s death; sixteen-year-old Dylan Voller’s torture in Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in the Northern Territory; the horrific fate of Tanya Day, who died in a Melbourne hospital after suffering a head injury in a police station; and many other instances of institutional violence at the hands of police, prison guards and other representatives of the state.

Incarceration Nation presents this violence not as a series of unfortunate incidents but as a systemic problem, exploring broader implications about our society. It takes time to lay a historical foundation by recounting the genocide of First Nations people over centuries. Then, Gibson and his interviewees make a powerful case, backed up by evidence, that Australia’s racist prison system is the latest manifestation of the oppression and injustice that began in 1788 – drawing a straight line from then until now.

New NITV documentary reveals the hard truth of Australia's 'Incarceration Nation'
A searing documentary puts the justice system on trial.

They argue that not only is the collective trauma, poverty and dispossession of First Nations people an important factor in crime statistics, but that the system deliberately targets them. The explosion of the First Nations prison population in the 1970s and ’80s came after a series of laws criminalised their lifestyles – and that explosion has not abated. In the decade between 2011 and 2021, the rate of incarceration of Indigenous people has risen by some 67%.

The film also details the cycles of despair created by this system. As Mundine and other speakers testify, many prisoners are released only to face homelessness, before reoffending and being incarcerated again. First Nations children are still being separated from their families at alarming rates – whether placed in juvenile detention or out-of-home care. A majority of Indigenous women who are incarcerated are mothers, and most have been victims of family violence. All of this entrenches poverty and social breakdown in First Nations communities.

In many ways the system appears to be “warehousing” Indigenous people (in the words of Havnen). And this benefits someone: the doco reminds us that many prisons are now for-profit affairs in a multi-billion-dollar industry. As prison abolitionist Vickie Roach argues, “The system isn’t broken. It’s doing exactly what it was intended to do.”

Incarceration Nation is a very confronting film, by design. But it doesn’t just dwell in anguish; it has a purpose. The conclusion of the film outlines the concept of justice reinvestment, in which prisons are defunded in favour of investment in communities and social services. It’s a basic demand that would be a beginning towards redressing the systemic devastation the film details.

All in all, it’s impossible to watch Incarceration Nation without coming away fired up to do your part to fight the racist system responsible for this violence and captivity.

Incarceration Nation is part of the Australia Uncovered documentary series and is streaming at SBS On Demand. You can also stream it with subtitles in Arabic, Korean, Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese and Vietnamese.

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