Slow violence of incarceration

In 2011 the Princeton literary studies scholar Rob Nixon coined the term slow violence to mean ‘a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space’. As he points out, we are accustomed to conceiving of violence in terms of its eye-catching and newsworthy immediacy, as an explosive or spectacular event or action. He lists falling bodies, burning towers, exploding heads, avalanches, volcanoes and tsunamis as vivid, visceral examples.

Nixon formulated his concept as a way to bring together social justice and environmental issues. He uses a compelling example to illustrate his point. In 1991, Lawrence Summers, then president of the World Bank, suggested that the bank develop a scheme to export garbage, toxic waste, and heavily polluting industries of rich nations to Africa. ‘Had Summers advocated invading Africa with weapons of mass destruction,’ Nixon writes in Slow Violence, ‘his proposal would have fallen under conventional definitions of violence and been perceived as a military or even an imperial invasion. Advocating invading countries with mass forms of slow-motion toxicity, however, requires rethinking our accepted assumptions of violence to include slow violence.’

What I have been put most in mind of, as news of the lives of those held in detention on Nauru and Manus Island reaches the public, especially now through the Guardian’s release of the Nauru Files, is the slow violence of incarceration. There is the immediate violence of people being held against their will, of indefinite detention, limbo, strained living conditions, of tensions between guards and detainees as well as among fellow-detainees, lack of meaningful activity, and the corrosive effects of a profoundly uncertain future. There is the violence of self-harm, suicide attempts and the self-immolation of Iranian man Omid Masoumali. Of people forced to reclaim some notion of agency to regain the shape of a life by choosing the means of their death. As psychologist and traumatologist Paul Stevenson states, detention forces people against themselves ‘to use themselves as currency. All they have is their own body to negotiate with.’

And then there is the slowly seeping aftermath yet to come: the long-term damage wrought to individuals, their potential, and the shape of their lives.

I know something of this slow-motion aftermath through my father and his brothers’ experiences of incarceration as children during the Second World War. My father was twelve when first imprisoned by the Japanese army in Indonesia, his middle brother was nine. His youngest brother was born during these earliest weeks of Japanese occupation, and would spend his first three-and-a-half years inside prison-camp walls.

There are striking parallels to these events of decades ago and the situation on Manus and Nauru. There is the geographic setting in the equatorial region where the tropical climate is not merely a backdrop to human dramas but plays a significant role in terms of people’s health and wellbeing. When living in overcrowded conditions in tents, converted shipping containers and other provisional structures without air conditioning, heat is a physical force to endure. ‘Nearly every first-hand account on Nauru makes reference to its overwhelming heat,’ notes the Australian Human Rights Commission’s report The Forgotten Children. The average temperature on the island is 31 degrees and inside the ‘detention centre tents, temperatures regularly reach 45–50 degrees’. One detained child reported that ‘the weather here is so hot that if you sit outside in the sun for a period of time you lose consciousness’; during the Second World War Japanese guards on Sumatra used climate as part of a set of punitive practices, forcing women and children to stand in full tropical sun for prolonged periods as punishment. Nauru’s high temperatures, humidity and heavy rains are also implicated in rates and spread of infection and disease, especially when coupled with makeshift infrastructure including inadequate drainage and shower facilities, and overflowing and blocked toilets.

There is also the fragmentation of family. When pressed to talk of his experiences as a prisoner, my father mentioned that the worst and most damaging period was when he was separated from his mother and brothers in the women and children’s camp and removed to a men’s camp where he knew no one. His mother was very ill and low in morale when he was forced to leave and he had no way of knowing whether she had survived. Uncertainty and isolation wreaked havoc on his mental state. He spent his days in hiding.

In March 2014 there were 56 unaccompanied children held in Australian detention centres, including at least 27 on Nauru. The Forgotten Children reports on the ‘acute vulnerability’ of these children. In regard to all detained children, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Detention Guidelines reports the ‘well-documented deleterious effects of detention on children’s wellbeing, including on their physical and mental development’. The guidelines suggest that unaccompanied children should not be detained, and that detention cannot be justified on the basis of their migration status.

Other similarities include the demoralising effect of having nothing to do, constant surveillance by guards, and the removal of agency in terms of everyday life. Simple things such as choice about when and where to eat and bathe are removed. So too is privacy. And there is the recurrent theme of destructive uncertainty, of indeterminacy and unpredictability, not knowing when the period of incarceration will end.

The Netherlands government established the Benefit Act for Victims of Persecution 1940–1945 or the Wet uitkeringen vervolgingsslachtoffers (Wuv) to award financial support to people who were persecuted in Europe or Asia during the Second World War. The scheme defines persecution as incarceration in a permanently guarded camp or prison. It defines permanent damage to health as a result of persecution as mental and physical complaints that cause permanent limitations in daily life. Many of these, such as anxiety and depression, may not surface until later in life.

Decades after their internment, my father and his brothers were assessed by psychologists as part of the Wuv and awarded benefits. According to these assessments, the power of the experience of prolonged incarceration to shape worldviews, to foster chronic depression, to limit the ability of individuals to achieve their full capacity and potential, and the pervasive shattering of trust in other human beings is undeniable. This is the slow violence of incarceration. These are the calamitous, invisible and accretive repercussions that play out over long stretches of time, shaping entire lives.

Psychologists, quite rightly, might use other terms such as trauma to characterise these phenomena. But the concept of slow violence has the advantage of highlighting the question of accountability and responsibility right now when the damages wrought by prolonged internment will ‘patiently dispense their devastation’ over lags of time and geographic setting.

On supposedly humane grounds, Australian government policy trades the possibility of immediate and spectacular violence of deaths at sea for the actual and permanently damaging psychological effects of indefinite incarceration.

Beyond the disturbing immediacy of life on Manus and Nauru is the equally disturbing question of how these people’s lives and futures, especially those of children in their formative years, are being shaped, right now, for decades to come.


Image: ‘Hot sun’ / flickr

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Saskia Beudel’s most recent book is A Country in Mind: Memoir with Landscape, which was shortlisted for the Adelaide Festival Literary Awards. She is also the author of the novel Borrowed Eyes, and a study of public art and urban sustainability, Curating Sydney: Imagining the City’s Future (with Jill Bennett). Her essays have appeared in a number of publications including the Iowa Review and Best Australian Essays. She is currently a Fellow at the Rachel Carson Center for Environment & Society, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich, Germany.

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