Aboriginal Incarceration: Wadjemup, Deaths in Custody, and Prisons Today in Australia



I would like to begin this text by acknowledging that I work and write on the land of the Whadjuk Nyoongar people and I pay my respects to Elders past, present and future. I would also like to acknowledge all the Aboriginal people who suffered and died at Wadjemup and those who continue to be subjected to state violence in our institutions and communities.

Bui Funambulist 1
Aboriginal prisoners in the courtyard of the Wadjemup Prison circa 1883. / State Library of Western Australia

In a settler-colonial state that incarcerates Indigenous adults and juveniles at a disproportionately high rate, the prison-industrial complex can be viewed as an instrumental component of colonialism. As a penal colony established on stolen land, by the British, incarceration has been woven into the fabric of the Australian nation-state. Histories of colonial settlement and imprisonment are deeply intertwined and, arguably, the racialized violence enacted within Australia’s contemporary prison system is merely the continuation of patterns that began with the 18th-century invasion. Just as the colonial project benefitted from the incarceration and labor of convicts (most of whom had committed minor offences) and the enslavement of Aboriginal prisoners in places like Rottnest Island, today it continues to benefit from the incarceration of First Nations peoples. Imprisonment is not simply an outcome of crime; the use of the prison is a strategy of the state and a manifestation of institutional racism. Prisons, by design, are not corrective or rehabilitative institutions, they are places in which socially and structurally disadvantaged people are warehoused. In particular, for First Nations peoples, living on their traditional homelands, imprisonment not only disconnects people from their communities, but it also disrupts or severs cultural ties and practices. The cultural dislocation experienced by Aboriginal people continues legacies of intergenerational trauma and deliberately undermines pursuits for sovereignty and self-determination. It thus contributes to the preservation of the colonial project and the associated racially defined power relations and privileges.

Wadjemup / Rottnest / “Rotto” ///

The function of architecture in the making of empire is illustrated by a small island located off the coast of Western Australia, which of Australia’s eight states and territories has the highest incarceration rates of Aboriginal people. Wadjemup, which was renamed “Rottnest Island” by Dutch explorers in 1696, is a site to which Aboriginal male prisoners were exiled in chains. On this island, from 1838 on, Nyoongar and other Aboriginal men were subjected to extreme violence, brutality, and death. Men who were taken to the island were forced to quarry the limestone and supply the labor to build their own prison cells. They worked in grueling conditions, and were inadequately clothed, malnourished, and chained together at night.