‘Bare Life’ and the ‘Camp’: the Carceral Archipelago in postcolonial Australia

Prof. Harry Blagg1, Dr Thalia Anthony2
1University Of Western Australia, Crawley, Australia, 2University of Technology Sydney, Sydney, Australia

Popular imaginaries of punishment in the Global North remain in thrall to nineteenth century and early twentieth century Anglo-American places of confinement, where the prison attained master status as the signifier of punishment and the designated site for managing the criminal.. This paper offers an alternative reading of Australian prisons as sites of settler colonial repression rather than discipline and control.  For Indigenous peoples the settler state has always been, in a literal sense, a carceral state.  We assert that correctional and penological theories of the Global North have little to offer an understanding of Indigenous imprisonment. We suggest that Giorgio Agamben’s notions of the camp and bare life provide a more promising framework.  The brutal treatment of Indigenous men, women and children in prisons is part of the same continuum of racism that reduces Indigenous lives to ‘bare life’ across a diversity of situations. Imprisonment is not an exceptional state of un-being for Indigenous people. Rather, in the postcolony, the exception is the norm.  An individual human rights framework is of limited value: instead we need to recognize and account for Indigenous dispossession, state domination and Indigenous sovereign claims. Penal abolitionism can only be meaningful within a process that decolonizes multiple sites of exception for Indigenous people.


Harry Blagg specializes in Indigenous people and criminal justice, young people and crime, family and domestic violence, crime prevention, diversionary strategies, policing and restorative justice.  He has over 20 years experience in conducting high level research with Aboriginal people across Australia (including urban, rural and remote locations) on justice related issues. He has developed a specific focus on remote communities – particularly in the Kimberly Region of WA and the Northern Territory – and has been involved in research, consultancy and policy development around community justice, FASD, night patrols, men and women’s safe places, youth justice and family violence.

Thalia Anthony’s expertise is in the areas of criminal law and procedure and Indigenous people and the law, with a particular specialisation in Indigenous criminalisation and Indigenous community justice mechanisms. Her research is grounded in legal history and understandings of the colonial legacy in legal institutions. She has developed new approaches to researching and understanding the role of the criminal law in governing Indigenous communities and how the state regulates Indigenous-based justice strategies. Her research is informed by fieldwork in Indigenous communities and partnerships with Indigenous legal organisations in Australia and overseas. Dr Anthony’s research informs her teaching in terms of advancing strategies for Indigenous cultural competencies in Law curricular, which had its genesis in 2008 when she organised an Australian and New Zealand conference on this theme

Imagined and Real Decolonizing Criminal Justice: A multi-disciplinary examination of Victoria’s reforms and implications for institutions, procedures and research

Mr Nicholas Verginis1
1Victorian Department of Justice and Regulation, Melbourne, Australia

Postcolonial critique of Australia’s criminal justice system is the most compelling explanation for the ongoing failure of the system to improve outcomes for the First People of Australia.  Apart from the scholarship of Anthony, Blagg and Cunneen, the theoretical framework of postcolonialism has had limited application to Australian criminology, public policy and the law.  In these orthodox disciplines, the ‘aboriginal problem’ remains within a colonial frame, an issue on the margins with limited appeal. For the few non-Indigenous Australians that have taken it further, this methodology involves a reckoning with personal identity, culture and history which is difficult to sustain.

This paper is a provocation for postcolonialism to have a greater role in these disciplines. Victoria is the case study for decolonised justice and the 2018 Aboriginal Justice Agreement (AJA) is examined as the latest step on that path. Entitled ‘Burra Lotjpa Dunguludja’ (Yorta Yorta for ‘senior leaders talking strong’) the AJA focusses on reversing the widening gap between the rates of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people under justice supervision, and the Government’s commitment to self-determination.

Consistent with Blagg and Anthony, the Victorian experience has been a largely organic response lead by strong Aboriginal leadership, design and control of new processes in the legal system with a focus on healing and reintegration.

The final part draws from Canadian scholarship to explore what ‘indigenizing, reading, reframing and restoring’ (Smith, 1999) criminal justice might look like if the principle of self-determination is advanced in Victoria. To stimulate the audience and provoke critical self-reflection, it will explore key cultural barriers (eg, the legal doctrine of individualised justice), imagine alternative justice processes and (time permitting) Land’s ‘moral and political framework’ for non-Indigenous leadership in this area.

*This paper does not reflect the views of the Department of Justice. The opinions and errors in the presentation are his own.


Nicholas Verginis is Director of Police Policy and Governance in the Victorian Department of Justice and has over 15 years experience in legal and government roles in Victoria and the United Kingdom.

He has advised two Premiers, three Attorneys-General and a Minister for Police on crime prevention, policing and criminal law issues and been at the forefront of generational sentencing and bail reforms.

Nicholas holds a Masters in Public Policy and Management and degrees in Law and Arts from the University of Melbourne.

Nicholas is an advocate for the universal right to artistic expression and its transformative power and channels that passion as Deputy Chair of the Melbourne Fringe Festival – the city’s most inclusive, participatory, accessible and vibrant three weeks of the year.

A question of meaning: First Peoples women and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment

Ms Sjharn Leeson1,2, Dr John Rynne1,2
1Griffith University, Southport, Australia, 2Griffith Criminology Institute, Mount Gravatt, Australia

Understanding how incarceration is lived and survived by First Peoples women is an evolving section of the penological literature, primarily concerned with prison performance measurement. However, such investigations naturally raise questions regarding qualitative differences in experience, creating an avenue to interrogate the one-size-fits-all approach to criminal justice that prioritises the values and worldview of non-First Peoples men. Consequently, from research conducted in the Northern Territory and Western Australia regarding the lived experience of incarceration for First Peoples women emerges reflections on prison practices and the meaning of torture, and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (“ill treatment”) for gendered and culturally-diverse groups.

While the parameters of torture are explicitly demarcated in such United Nations instruments as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, what ill-treatment means is considerably more fluid and subject to interpretation. With that in mind, there is room to argue that common aspects of incarceration may constitute ill-treatment of First Peoples women. This paper considers the potential for First Peoples women to experience ill-treatment during incarceration, and explores the behaviours and approaches to incarceration that may question Australia’s compliance with its international obligations regarding the prohibition of ill-treatment.


Sjharn Leeson is a doctoral candidate at Griffith University examining the potential application of prison quality to gendered and culturally-diverse groups. Her thesis utilises aspirational human rights standards and commentary from incarcerated First Peoples women in the Northern Territory and Western Australia to determine “what matters” in prison. The aim of her research is to create a framework of prison performance measurement that builds on prison quality to appropriately account for intersectionality and the far-reaching impacts of colonisation.


Indigenous women’s lives matter: Reflections on Coronial Inquests into Intimate Partner Homicides

Dr Kyllie Cripps1
1Faculty Of Law, UNSW, Kensington, Australia

In Australia, Indigenous women are more likely to experience violence than any other section of society. In recent years in response to horrific examples of Indigenous women’s deaths, Australian Coronial courts have investigated, wanting to know more about the circumstances that have led to these deaths. This paper critically examined 14 Coronial Court investigations from around Australia, analysing them thematically. The analysis highlighted the differential vulnerability of Indigenous women to intimate partner homicides.  In all the cases reviewed, it was evident that the women’s deaths, in most instances were entirely preventable. Evidence was also presented demonstrating that services including those within the justice system (Police and Department of Corrections) were aware of the women’s heightened risks but were unable to sufficiently coordinate themselves to provide wrap around support to minimise the risk of violence and to maximise the women’s safety. Consequently, putting the women in environments where their deaths were both predictable and inevitable.  The profound system failings at the intersections of law, policy and practice ultimately cost Indigenous women their lives.  This paper firstly, explores the nuances of the Coronial Court findings – demonstrating the similarities and differences present within the cases. Part two, interrogates the reported system failings, and part three considers potential improvements in system integration to prevent future deaths.  The paper concludes recognising that Indigenous women play important valued roles in Indigenous communities, their loss has profound costs and consequences, to honour their memory we must learn from their deaths and improve responses to intimate partner violence.


Kyllie is an Indigenous academic and Scientia Fellow in the Faculty of Law at UNSW. She has worked extensively over the past twenty years in the areas of family violence, sexual assault and child abuse within Indigenous communities. Her work has been largely focussed in the following areas: defining and contextualising Indigenous violence; the epidemiology of Indigenous family violence particularly through the quantitative analysis of administrative and national survey data sets; and empirical research reflecting on policy development, service provision and outcomes for Indigenous families and communities experiencing violence.


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