Illustration by artist Megan Forward
21 September 2013
“That’s me sitting on the bench in the cell to the left”. How I came to be sitting in an Alice Springs prison cell, and the broader implications of this in relation to the local population, is explained here. I believe my jail story is a window into a strange and disturbing world that is a routine problem for Indigenous people.
This evening is the Bush Bands Bash, down by the dry Todd riverbed that runs through town, flanked by eucalypts awaiting the rains. The Bash is preceded by three days of professional development and rehearsals for the bands. It is the peak Central Australian Indigenous music showcase event.
I head down in the late afternoon with a couple of friends I have met here. The music has already started at Snow Kenna Park, and groups of people are sitting together on the grass watching the stage as we move into the park to join them.
The air is warm and relaxed; and keen with the enthusiasm of the young musicians. Smiles are radiant in the space.
As the sun starts to set, we decide to take a break and go for an amble up Anzac Hill. Outside the gate there is a remarkably strong police presence, which rather surprises me given the good-natured festival feel to the event.
As we leave the event my companions and I stop to look in the direction of a distressed call that splits through the otherwise happy sounds. Some Aboriginal women are being taken into custody by a group of policemen.
“Protective custody” is a police power in the Northern Territory, which enables police to apprehend an Aboriginal person who is intoxicated and incarcerate them until they are sober;a controversial law. There is an overrepresentation of Aboriginal people in the prison system, which is hurting families and communities.
The women we can hear are in their middle years and posing no evident threat to themselves or anyone else. They have had a few drinks. My companion, who works locally in a supporting role with the Aboriginal communities, moves forward to question what is happening as the women are directed into the back of the police van. The police do not want to engage in this conversation, and after my companion – a quietly spoken, respectful young woman – tries a few times to have her questions answered, the police ban her from returning to the Bush Band event.
We leave to continue on our walk. About an hour later we return to the event. We both re-enter the gate.
We have gone no further than a few steps inside when two large policemen suddenly appear from behind, grab my companion by the shoulders and pull her backwards. “You are under arrest”. I turn in shock and follow them back towards the van. I stand back a little watching the scene before approaching my companion and asking if she would like me to accompany her. Then I turn to the policemen and say in quiet disbelief, ‘You can’t do this!”
I am immediately surrounded by policemen. Two large men grab me, one on either arm with enough force to make me stumble. That same phrase, “You are under arrest”, and I am pushed towards the back of the van.
One Aboriginal man is spread out on the floor of the van. I don’t see him at first in the dark enclosed interior. It is my foot touching something soft that makes me look down. Another man is sitting hunched beside us on the little side bench. We look through the grill to the world outside as we are driven along the streets of Alice Springs to the jail. I phone my husband, back in Brisbane, to alert him to the course of events, and tell him I will call again when I know what is happening.
At the jail we are taken out of the van one person at a time and led to the front desk. I am first and the others are kept inside the back of the van.
At the front desk I try to engage with the policemen there, explaining that I am in Alice Springs to do an art exhibition as part of the Commonwealth Games Festival events, telling them I am a visitor to town, suggesting amicably, when they don’t respond, that they might even feature in the show. But there is no way past the wall that now stands between us – the arrested and the enforcers of the law.
There is one officer who seems less certain of the procedures. He says in a moment when no one else is around, “I don’t know what you are doing here. You seem like a nice person”. Though this is meant, I am sure, as a gesture of support, I am a bit disturbed by the implications of how others in the jail are being perceived. I imagine, after all, that most people in this jail are in fact nice people.
I am frisked, and all my possessions are taken away. My shoes are removed and I am left vulnerably barefoot. I am given a green towelling blanket, a heavy-duty sheet and a foam mattress. I am walked down the corridor to the cell.
Walking down the corridor, I ask for a phone to call my husband. “Later”, I am told. “I thought it was my right to have a phone call”, I say. “No”, comes the reply. “But they have that right on the telly”, I say with an attempt at a friendly smile. Silence.
I ask how long I can be locked up for without a charge. “There is no ruling”, comes the reply. “It just depends on the circumstances and how busy we are”. “But there’s a limit on the telly?”, I suggest, pushing my luck at humour again. Silence.
I say I would like to make a complaint to someone. Silence.
I put my foam mattress on the moulded concrete bench that runs down one side of the cell and carefully place my folded sheet and blanket on top. I sit on the cool bare concrete beside my mattress as the key is turned in the lock. I look up at the averted eyes of the person who is turning the key.
It is about half an hour before I am joined in the cell by my companion. We can hear the distressed calls of the Aboriginal women through the wall. There are just two of us in our cell. Next door there must be about fifteen.
Inside the cell, grey concrete benches are moulded into the floor and walls. A large black number 6 is painted on the wall above one bench. At the end of the other, a narrow, waist-height stainless steel partition marginally conceals the stainless steel toilet, and above the toilet, a water fountain on the wall, which from my visual memory could only be reached by leaning across the toilet. I can’t bring myself to use the toilet and sit uncomfortably on the bench.
I ask my companion if she would like to learn some Scottish songs. She smiles and we sing together for a good few hours – Will ye Go Lassie Go, Mo Ghile Mear, Banks of Loch Lomond – I can only remember the really well-trodden songs. My brain is numb to anything that hasn’t been with me a long while and I can’t seem to retrieve the words of other songs. My companion then teaches me an Arrarnta song.
Every now and then a policeman looks in. My companion and I pull out Bob Dylan’s Blowing in the Wind and, by this time, it is with some defiance that we sing.
Our voices sail out into the space, mixing with the calls and cries from along the corridor, briefly glancing off the ears of the occasional officer that passes by our way.
I feel homesick. These words leave my mouth so thin that they evaporate as soon as they touch the air. But inside of me they are 3-dimensional, full of bulk and weight and taking a form that presses outwards on my rib cage, squeezing against my throat.
We are brought some food and water that we pick at and leave. I ask again if it is not the law that I should be allowed a call. “Not until you are charged”, they say.
It is now 5 hours since I phoned my husband in Brisbane from the back of the van. I think of him, sitting there in the night, wondering what is happening. Finally the policeman who showed some humanity earlier in the evening arrives with a phone for me, and a message, “Be quick. I’m not supposed to do this”.
It must be about midnight, the first time I am called out of the cell. It is not explained why I am being called. I am sat beside an officer with a notepad and pencil. He asks me what happened. I don’t know if this is my statement or a complaint, or what really, but I tell him what happened and he writes it down. At the end he asks if I will sign it. I don’t know the implications of signing it or what difference it might make and say it concerns me to sign it. “Why am I signing?” I ask. He says I don’t have to sign. I say I won’t bother. I feel vulnerable, uninformed, tired and unsure. I am sent back to my cell. Is that my complaint dismissed? I don’t know.
It is 1.51am before I am taken to be charged – about seven hours after our arrest. I am hungry and tired. My companion left the cell an hour ago and I have been here on my own, not knowing what is happening.
At the front desk again, I am taken to a booth and photographed from all angles, all my fingerprints are taken and the palms prints of my hands, over and over again as the machine doesn’t seem to be doing its job properly, until I feel exasperated. I feel I am already a criminal. “Why do you need my fingerprints?” I ask. “I haven’t done anything!”
I am taken to the desk to give my statement and I launch into an account of the evening. But I am immediately stopped. “Just three lines I am told”. I pause and stare into some middle distance. “I was only trying to check that my friends were OK”
I am issued with a bail statement. $500 if I don’t turn up in court on Monday morning at 9am. I look at these men in silent wonder. Are we from completely different planets!? If I hadn’t been so tired I think I could be almost fascinated by them and the workings of their brains.
It is 2.30am when I am released into the dark and empty streets of Alice Springs, the crime capital of Australia where one is told not to walk alone at night. My companions appear from the shadows across the street as I exit the hot, bright lights of the station through the sliding glass door. It is just as well. I do not know where I am and could not find my way home.
The policeman who showed a little humanity during the evening had said they would drive us home except they are not allowed to. At least the thought did cross his mind.
As we walk home I am too tired to feel much but my mind wanders with the Aboriginal people of Alice Springs against whom there is clearly an underlying prejudice; who might have no support on the outside; who do not understand the system; many of whom do not speak English as their first language; and whose starting point as they face the jail is one of dispossession and displacement and generations of disempowerment and fear that has led them to this place where the oppression is repeated. More of their stories will follow in this blog.
I believe my jail story illustrates an overzealous approach to arrest and detention by the Northern Territory police, when it comes to matters relating to the Aboriginal population.
It is for this reason that The Northern Territory Police are included internationally in the Grounded exhibition, and on my blog and Facebook page. I thank them for this opportunity. They have provided material to raise a debate on whether perhaps the Aboriginal people of Alice Springs are being locked up without justification. I am putting this out there now in the hope this story is picked up and carried.
Next I will post the story of events in court. In the meantime, please do take the time to look at some articles I have linked to below.
(Articles relating to the wonderful music event and a chance to listen to some Australian Aboriginal singers are also added as links on the Digital Resources, Australia page of the blog).
Australia is Still Fighting a Land War and it is the Country’s Great Divide Article by Ali Cobby Eckermann, Artist in Residence at University of Sydney in The Conversation
Ten dark secrets Australia doesn’t want you to know Buzzfeed article
Central Australian Aboriginal Legal Aid Service report
Megan Forward is the talented artist who did the prison illustration. Check out her web site here.