Mapping deaths in custody to dismantle carceral logic

How to write in the aftermath of Invasion Day? How to write about colonialism and the carceral logic that shapes this country? How to write about the cops – the everyday street cops, the cops on horses, the Kevlar-covered cops with their weapons – and the damage they do? How to write about the jails and the detention centres and the border logic and the black sites?

While such conversations by scholars and activists have existed for a long time, increasingly, we are seeing turns towards other people puzzling through this question. We are seeing discourses building on discourses; projects of change mounting up. As the violence of the so-called criminal justice system continues ever on, the work of countering it, undoing it, proceeds apace.

Every child in jail in the Northern Territory is Aboriginal. Let me repeat that, in case this is something that you didn’t know already. Every child imprisoned in the Northern Territory is Aboriginal. That’s not because, of course, Aboriginal kids are more criminal, but because they are more criminalised. Aboriginal childhood is criminalised.

The grief of Aboriginal deaths in custody saturated the Invasion Day rally in Melbourne/Naarm/Birraranga this past weekend. Family members of Yorta Yorta woman Tanya Day – who died while in police custody after being arrested for public drunkenness, a ‘crime’ that the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody report recommended be abolished – as well as family members of Wayne Fella Morrison and Ray Thomas, both of whom died because of the cops, spoke to the crowd, sharing their stories and their grief.

A rejection of police control and force permeated Invasion Day, along with the sense that these situations must not be allowed to continue. A petition, initiated by Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service, is now circulating, calling for the crime of public drunkenness to be removed from the books in Victoria.

As numerous speakers made clear, the basis for white control over this land is settler-colonial. And in the words of the late Patrick Wolfe, ‘invasion is a structure, not an event’. Invasion continues in the everyday; it is a constant process.



In her speech, Meriki Onus, one of the Invasion Day organisers with WAR, noted that those incarcerated on Manus Island and Nauru are caught up in the same system that criminalises, tortures and colonises Aboriginal people. These are connections increasingly being made by migration and refugee scholars as well. As Suvendrini Perera wrote recently, talking about the Deathscapes project which she is part of, it is necessary to understand ‘the connections the project seeks to make between settler colonialism’s will to clear the land of Indigenous presence and its insistence on securing the borders.’ These matters, these spectacular and everyday practices, are intimately linked.

Building on already-existing projects of migrant/Aboriginal solidarity and critiques of settler-colonialism, Deathscapes works to ‘map race and violence in settler states’. The project ‘seeks new ways to document, understand, and respond to contemporary racialised violence’ and has ‘the ultimate aim of ending deaths in custody.’ Deathscapes plots the violence of settler states through space, politics and culture. These ‘scapes’ are physical and imaginative, political and material, aesthetic and spoken.

The historical creation of space is placed within the conceptual paradigm: Deathscapes is interested in mapping the deaths that have occurred in

police cells, prisons and immigration detention centres, working across the settler states of Australia, the US and Canada, as well as the UK/EU as historical sites of origin for these settler colonial states.

In taking this cross-border approach, the constant project of creating and maintaining settler-colonial sovereignty is highlighted. The perpetuation of deaths in custody is understood, then, as one technique, or technology, of that governmental rule. That is, the Deathscapes project understands the creation of death – the necropolitical drive – as a planned tool of government. Deaths in custody of racialised people, Deathscapes affirms, are not an accident. They are by design. They are a feature, not a bug, of the system.

This is a system that works in both the nation-state and across borders. Deathscapes ‘seeks to move away from the nation as the primary analytical unit to consider forms of governance and social relations that are transnationally linked.’

The practices of incarceration being described and analysed, charted, graphed, drawn and painted (often literally – aesthetic practice has an important home within the Deathscapes project), are created by and of the nation but they also exist cross-border. As numerous border scholars have noted, it is important to understand the ways that deaths at the hands of the ‘criminal justice’ system are a form of border controlling, managing people’s movement across borders. Just as people move, so too do modes, methods, techniques and ideologies of control. It is well known, for instance, that Australia has sold its methods of ‘border control’ to the US, and that the reverse has happened, too. Ideas travel. Settler-colonial states work together in their project of maintaining sovereign control for the white man around the world. And in doing so, racialised people are subjected to the violence of incarceration in different yet overlapping ways, all of which are part of the same colonial system.

Deathscapes is primarily funded by the Australian Research Council, and is led by Professors Suvendrini Perera (Curtin) and Joseph Pugliese (Macquarie), with partners in the US and UK, and researchers around the country and the world, working in both academic and activist contexts. It is a model in both the research and knowledge it is producing, and in the very question of how to do research.

Increasingly, it seems, humanities academics are becoming more aware of the problems inherent to research, more attentive to thinking through the ethics of making or acquiring knowledge about, rather than with, subject peoples. The ‘ethics advisory board’, the engagement in activist spaces, the descriptions of the accessibility aspects of the site, the provision of links to support services, the making evident the ‘inspirations‘ for the project, as well as the plain statement that the project’s ‘ultimate aim’ is ‘ending deaths in custody’ – all of this means Deathscapes provides a model of how to do research in a genuinely collaborative and ethical way. Indeed, this is the vital work that academics can do: using research to build knowledge, links and solidarities.

A key part of the site, and the project, is the mapping of case studies. Behind images (paintings, photos, drawings and more) sit stories of people – individuals and groups – who have faced the sheer breathtaking violence of the carceral system. Deathscapes are understood not through the jailers but through those who have been jailed, those who have suffered, resisted and died. The many faces of the carceral logic, the ways in which the mere fact of life is weaponised, are brought to the front.

And there is also a recognition that these deaths are ongoing. The other day on Manus Island, it was reported that a ‘highly depressed young man has attempted to set himself in fire’. Many are refusing food and there are daily attempts at suicide. A man in his 30s on a humanitarian visa from Sierra Leone, pushed to the brink, died at Villawood just last week. This suicidality is a technique of government; it is precisely what the Australian government is seeking. Ponder that horror.

Deathscapes tells a history, but is it not a mere charting of the past. In its calls to memory and analysis, it recognises the continuation of these projects of governance, and of the lives lived at government’s mercy. It foregrounds the human and the humane. It creates new languages and modes of description.

The day after Invasion Day (or the Day of Mourning), 27 January, is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Why this date? It is the anniversary – this year was the seventy-fourth anniversary – of the liberation of Auschwitz.

Auschwitz, that pinnacle site of the carceral logic, that space of bare life, the oblivion of humanity. As Alana Lentin has pointed out, the collision of these dates

is not immaterial because we can’t understand [A]uschwitz without the racial-colonial. This doesn’t mean all racism/racist regimes are the same. It means we don’t get to pick and choose which history we care about.

Deathscapes makes a similar claim: the links are there – racialising and colonial forms of control and government work together; we need to do the work to understand these links, make them plain, and thus work against them.

That is, there is a need to chart the spaces that already exist in order to create new spaces of description, storytelling and change.

In their 2012 article ‘Decolonization is not a metaphor,’ Eve Tuck and K Wayne Yang make clear that the work of decolonisation needs to be unsettling: a certain ‘ethic of incommensurability’ is required, wherein settlers should not be able to dwell in innocence or distance themselves from the projects of colonisation, but rather there needs to be difficulty, or discomfort. Decolonisation work, if it is to truly be decolonising, must be hard for the settler-colonisers. It must tangle with troublesome emotions. It must not simply be metaphoric but also material: there must be tangible change. This understanding creates ‘room for more meaningful potential alliances’ based around the recognition and instantiation of Indigenous sovereignties.

Deathscapes, in charting carceral logics and spaces in order to dismantle them, prioritises Indigenous sovereignties. Similarly, the rejuvenation of Pay the Rent projects, which are a product of (and can further) Aboriginal self-determination, is a way of potentially doing decolonisation. That is, there are many avenues for producing alternative futures that evade, dismantle and undo the carceral and its attendant violence. Description, storytelling, working together, are some. As one sign held on Invasion Day said, ‘Asians Jews Muslims in Solidarity.’ As another proclaimed, ‘This Land Has A Blak Future’.


For more information about the Deathscapes Sydney launch happening on 16 February, and to register to attend, visit the Deathscapes website. The project is also on twitter.

And you can follow this link to sign the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service petition: ‘Abolish the offence of public drunkenness‘.


Image: Crop from the Deathscapes website

Jordy Silverstein

Jordana Silverstein is a Senior Research Fellow in the Melbourne Law School. A social and cultural historian, she is the author of Cruel Care: A History of Children at our Borders (Monash University Publishing, 2023) and Anxious Histories: Narrating the Holocaust in Jewish Communities at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century (Berghahn Books, 2015).

More by Jordy Silverstein ›

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