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.

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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.

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Aboriginal prisoners in the courtyard of the Wadjemup Prison circa 1889. / State Library of Western Australia

Ironically, the decision to send people to Rottnest was justified on the paternalistic grounds that it would “relieve the suffering of Aboriginal prisoners” who would be able to move more freely than on the mainland. However, the containment of an undesirable population on an island beyond the consciousness of the wider community was more than a convenient outcome for the State. One of the effects of removing Aboriginal leaders and Lore Men from their countries was the breakdown of resistance movements that had emerged during the 1830s following the establishment of the Perth colony. Of course disconnection from country was not the only way that criminalized men suffered; they were homesick, missed their families, and were placed in conditions where their fundamental rights were violated. The use of islands to warehouse, silence, and render invisible undesirable racialized populations is a strategy that continues to be employed by the Australian government. As a part of the contemporary, cynically named policy “Operation Sovereign Borders,” people seeking asylum who arrive in Australia by boat are sent to Manus Island and Nauru — two islands with a long history of colonial intervention by Australia. Over the past couple of years some of these asylum seekers have started referring to themselves as political prisoners.

Aside from the claim that Aboriginal prisoners would be brought to Rottnest to relieve their suffering, other objectives were firstly to punish and secondly to “rehabilitate” them into a colonial society. According to historian Neville Green, Australians wanted Wadjemup to be a place where criminalized Aboriginal men would learn to “respect white justice.” The provision (or imposition) of training in Western farming and building practices was intended to allow men to “better assimilate into European society” upon their release. At this time, however, there was no obligation to pay Aboriginal people for their work; therefore the government was effectively preparing Aboriginal men to participate in slave labor. The prison known as The Quod was built in 1863 at the top of a small hill facing Thompson Bay. Over the course of its operation hundreds of men died within its walls. The plan, designed by Superintendent Henry Vincent, was influenced by Bentham’s panopticon prison. It was a limestone building with an octagonal plan of about fifty meters in diameter that comprised a continuous ring of thirty-six cells which faced a central courtyard. Six cells were assigned to European prisoners, another two were set aside as sick wards and the remaining twenty-eight cells were for Aboriginal prisoners. These measured less than two meters by three meters, and typically held four to five people. This effectively meant each man was given a sleeping width of less than sixty centimeters. The symmetrical enclosure bound Aboriginal prisoners within a regimented colonial order where surveillance was used as a means of discipline. The overcrowded conditions led to outbreaks of diseases, which resulted in dozens of deaths in custody.

For the past hundred years this site of imprisonment has been superficially transformed into a place of leisure and privilege. The prison was officially closed in 1904, and in 1911, the Quod was repurposed as part of the “Rottnest Lodge” to provide accommodation for tourists. For decades now tourists have been ferried to the island and choose to pay money to sleep in the former cells where Aboriginal men were brutalized. The rooms vary in size and some comprise of multiple former cells whose dividing walls have been knocked down. The walls have been plastered and both physically and metaphorically whitewashed. The Quod includes a central grassed area where a few picnic benches have been placed, on the same ground where five Aboriginal men were reportedly hung between 1879 and 1888. The former hospital-turned-morgue is now used as a kitchen for the staff living on the island. For many years, a sacred burial ground was unacknowledged and used as recreational camping grounds. Gift shops, a supermarket, and take away food outlets have gained more prominence than the island’s violent history. “Rotto” is advertised as a scenic island getaway and most visitors remain blissfully unaware of the dark history that is buried beneath the surface in the form of unmarked graves. On the Rottnest Island website, acknowledgement of the violence enacted upon the bodies of Aboriginal men is limited to an “Aboriginal” tab under the “Our history” section of the site.

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Current views of the Wadjemup Prison as turned into a lodge. / (top) Google Earth (2017). (bottom) Unknown photographer (2015).

Regardless of whether the stated intent of the island prison was assimilation, rehabilitation, or punishment, the reality is that Rottnest became a death camp, a place that represents the insidious processes of colonization and illustrates how states can render racialized violence invisible. The limestone blocks were laid with the blood of Aboriginal men, and while the presence of those who died in custody is no longer apparent, the architecture remains a visual testimony to the impact of colonization and its manifestations of human suffering. Both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal activists, academics, and community members have raised criticism about the manner in which this former prison has been appropriated for commercial gain and the associated historical erasure and disrespect it demonstrates towards Aboriginal people. Aboriginal people have battled to gain due recognition of the Aboriginal cemetery and to have holiday houses removed from the cemetery area, though some remain only meters away. In 2015, a plan was announced for the development of “high quality” accommodation on the northern side of the island. This was intended to coincide with the discontinuation of the use of the Quod for tourist accommodation in May of 2018. The Quod was to be handed back to the Rottnest Island Authority to become a cultural site. Based on statements made by former acting Tourism Minister John Day, it would appear that motivation for the change was predicated on the belated recognition that it is inappropriate to accommodate people in a former Aboriginal prison. The redevelopment plan fell through, though the use of the Quod will still cease on the original date. The intention to continue to use the Quod as tourist accommodation for three years after the announcement of the plan however does call into question the prioritization of commercial interests over the respect of Aboriginal culture and history. Australia has a habit of attempting to ignore uncomfortable truths, and it is yet to be seen when the island’s history of racialized imprisonment will truly be acknowledged and respected.

Prisons Today ///

At Wadjemup, Aboriginal people were viewed as less than human. The extent to which these perceptions have changed is debatable. Aboriginal people represent about 3% of Australia’s population but they account for 27% of people in prison. Deaths in custody have been an ongoing issue and are a predictable outcome of a system that devalues the lives of those who enter it. Wadjemup hosts the largest deaths-in-custody gravesite; nevertheless, on the mainland criminalized people continue to die in the care of the state, though often in less visible ways.

The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was a landmark inquiry between 1987 and 1991 that was expected to bring about social and political change for Aboriginal people. Its report found that Aboriginal people were more likely to die in custody than any other group. 339 recommendations and over two decades later, few proposed policy changes have been implemented and deaths continue be serially replicated. Estimates suggest that over 370 Aboriginal people have died in custody since the Royal Commission’s final report was issued. Countless Coronial Inquests have produced recommendations that are simply ignored. By failing to act or take seriously such recommendations, the State effectively renders these deaths permissible and the lives of Aboriginal people as unworthy of consideration.

The historic and contemporary design and architecture of prisons is one that consciously inflicts violence upon the bodies of vulnerable, marginalized, and often racialized peoples. The design of custodial facilities is largely based on the needs of a non-Indigenous male authority and rarely considers the specific spatial and cultural needs of Indigenous men and particularly Indigenous women or non-binary people. The inadequate and often distressing nature of the oppressive prison environment is exacerbated by the regimes, power structures, and micro-aggressions associated with rules and daily routines. In recent years there has been some discussion around “culturally appropriate” prison architecture, a supposed example of which is Iredale Pedersen Hook’s West Kimberley Regional Prison in Western Australia. Nevertheless, it could be argued that the will to decolonize an inherently colonial architectural typology is a contradiction in itself.

Patriarchal Colonialism and Women in the Prison System ///

Indigenous women experience intersecting forms of discrimination and indifference based on their Aboriginality and gender in addition to other factors. This was recently borne out in the case of Ms. Dhu, a 22 year old Yamatji-Nanda and Bunjima woman, who died in the South Hedland lockup in August 2014. Although Ms. Dhu was a victim of severe domestic violence, the police took no steps to investigate the violence that she had been subjected to. When she told police and medical staff that she was in pain she was disbelieved and accused of feigning her symptoms. She died within 48 hours of being taken into custody under a warrant of commitment for unpaid fines. Her incarceration at the South Hedland lockup and treatment at the Hedland Health Campus cannot be separated from the long and enduring colonial histories, hierarchies, and continuities of institutional racism. The Coroner noted that her death was by way of natural causes as a result of staphylococcal septicaemia and pneumonia stemming from an infected rib fracture (an injury sustained as a result of domestic violence). This is notwithstanding the fact that throughout her detainment she was treated with cruelty and contempt, and as highlighted by the State Coroner, was subjected to “inhumane and unprofessional” treatment by those who were responsible for her care. But the Coronial Inquest process did not deliver justice to her family, and instead functioned to absolve the institutions and individuals involved in her death of responsibility.

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Protest for the 25 years after the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. / Photograph by Charandev Singh (2016).

While racialized incarceration is primarily viewed in relation to its impact on young Aboriginal men, the incarceration rates of women, particularly Aboriginal women, have been the fastest growing in recent years. Aboriginal women typically represent about half of the female prison population. Research on women in custody consistently articulates the relationship between women’s pathways to offending and experiences of trauma, including physical and sexual abuse in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood and other forms of interpersonal violence. Correctional and custodial environments can result in retraumatizing experiences for women and compromise prospects for entry into recovery and rehabilitation processes. The state effectively replicates the violence that many Aboriginal women have felt in their personal lives. For those who have experienced family violence, the prison system replaces their violent partner, denying agency, privacy, and control over their own bodies, and preventing the sense of safety that is necessary to recover from multiple traumas. Women become trapped in a cycle of trauma and incarceration that is evidenced by high rates of recidivism. Typically half to two thirds of women in custody or in prison have dependent children. Women’s imprisonment thus has serious ramifications for children in their care who may be removed, thus continuing the legacy of intergenerational trauma associated with forced child removal practices. This in turn increases the risk of juvenile offending. Negative forms of institutional intervention have featured prominently in the lives of many criminalized women.

Current interpretations and representations of the island’s history are deeply problematic, disrespectful, and emblematic of contemporary race relations in Australia. Wadjemup remains a site where many died in custody, despite attempts to erase its appalling history. The physical conditions of contemporary prisons are better than they were a century ago, but prison architecture continues to oppress and dehumanize colonized and marginalized people, particularly women. Institutional racism, criminalization, and incarceration expose Aboriginal and other racialized people to further state-sanctioned violence. While Aboriginal people are no longer forced to build their own prisons, the participation of architects in this form of institutional violence itself poses serious ethical issues. The prison system is often described as broken, but one may argue that it is functioning exactly as intended since the days of the Rottnest Island prison. Michelle Bui is trained in architecture but she is currently working as a research assistant at Curtin University in Perth on a project called Deathscapes which seeks new ways to document, understand, and respond to contemporary racialized violence in the settler states of Australia, Canada, and the United States. She is also an activist and organizer with the First Nations Deaths in Custody Watch Committee and Refugee Rights Action Network in Western Australia.