The art project aiming to keep Australia’s Indigenous people out of jail

Melbourne, Australia – More Indigenous people are behind bars in Australia than ever before, making them the world’s most imprisoned people.

Despite making up 3.8 percent of the national population, Indigenous Australians make up 33 percent of the prison population and are 17 times more likely to be jailed than non-Indigenous people.

In Australia’s southeastern state of Victoria, a group of artists is working to break the cycle.

The Torch is a community-led organisation that works with Indigenous inmates to teach artistic skills and reconnect prisoners with their cultural heritage. Inmates also generate income selling their work in galleries and to private collectors nationwide, with the money being saved in a trust, ready for their release.

The results have been startling – inmates engaged with the programme have a return-to-prison (recidivism) rate of 17 percent for First Nations prisoners compared with the national average of more than 70 percent, according to The Torch.

“Before I went to prison, I was in domestic violence and I was on the verge of being homeless,” Stacey Edwards, a former inmate, told Al Jazeera. “My Torch fund helped me put a deposit on a house and now I’ve got a routine and a structure. I’m OK with who I am and my place in the world.”

What experts call the “hyper-incarceration” of Indigenous people in Australia is a legacy of colonisation and its racism, as well as successive governments’ focus on law and order. In particular, the trauma of the Stolen Generations – the forced removal of Indigenous children from their families – continues to reverberate.

In the state of Victoria, where the Torch programme operates, about half of all Indigenous people have been directly affected by the assimilation policies, which only ended in the 1970’s.

A woman holding up a placard at a rally. It reads White Australia has a Black History' on an Indigenous flag, and there are black handprints across it. There is a sea of peope in front of her.
Protests have continued to raise awareness of the mass incarceration and deaths in custody of Indigenous Australians [Ali MC/AL Jazeera]

Edwards, of the Taungurung and Boonwurrung nations, is one of them, telling Al Jazeera that the legacy of trauma underscored her descent into drug use and eventually, jail.

Stacey, now 43, grew up in a poorer neighbourhood. She told Al Jazeera her grandfather had been forcibly taken away and placed in white-run institutions, a separation that scarred her mother’s life.

“My mum’s ability to parent was impacted, she had her own addiction problems too,” she said. As a child, Stacey also felt the intergenerational trauma.

“I didn’t have the emotional tools to self-regulate and get myself together,” she said. “I think that’s all pain, all the challenges and struggles and the hurt and pain being passed down over generations.”

Colonial legacy

Indigenous women – many of them mothers – are the fastest growing group of prisoners in Australia, largely due to domestic violence and experiences of homelessness.

But the economic benefit of the Torch – which ensures inmates have a source of funds on their release – helps break that cycle.

Indigenous Australians come from more than 500 nations in what is now known as Australia, which was colonised by the British in 1788.

Genocidal practices, historical discrimination and ongoing racism have fuelled inequality across all social indicators, including homelessness, unemployment and poverty, which are also factors that underscore imprisonment.

Kent Morris, of the Barkindji nation, was one of the founding organisers of the Torch in 2011. He told Al Jazeera that the economic model was crucial to the programme’s success and that one of the big questions, when it began, was how artists could earn income from their work while stuck inside prison.

“How can the skills and talents of a mob in prison who are creating art and exploring culture – how can that translate into some economic support, so they’re not facing the same circumstances that leads them back to prison? This is what the programme was built around,” he said.

In Australia, inmates can earn some income while participating in prison programmes and training, but since the Torch model allows them to sell their work in galleries outside of the prison walls, it is unique.

In 2023, more than 1 million Australian dollars ($665,785) was returned to 494 participants through the sale and licensing of their artwork, with the earnings either saved or used to assist inmates’ families, such as ensuring their children go to school.

Roey, a former prisoner and from the Warumungu and Yawuru Nations, told Al Jazeera that the Torch programme meant he could continue to support his children despite being jailed.

“To be able to support my kids whilst being in prison was probably one of my biggest achievements,” he said. “Supporting my kids and being able to practise my culture in that process and feeling good about myself.”

‘Perfect storm’

Along with the economic benefit, the Torch programme also reconnects artists with their Indigenous culture, language and heritage, a link that was often broken due to colonisation.

Sean Miller, of the Gamileroi nation, told Al Jazeera that the Torch helped him find a sense of identity.

“I really wanted to learn more about my culture,” he said. “It’s something that’s built into you; you strive to find out where you come from, what your people are about, what our culture, and our language is. Because of colonisation that was taken from us. To be able to have the opportunity to learn all that, I’m so proud of that.”

Miller has exhibited his works nationally and is one of seven former inmates now working on the Torch programme. In 2018, he returned to prison to deliver the programme to other inmates.

“It gave the brothers and sisters inside prison a little bit more comfort to know that I was an ex-prisoner,” he told Al Jazeera. “They can relate to me and they can also see that they too can be successful with their art as well.”

Sean Miller. He is standing in front of a ceramic art work. He's wearing a black short and coat as well as a hat.
Sean Miller, of the Gamileroi nation, was once on the Torch programme and now goes back into jail to work with other inmates [Ali MC/Al Jazeera]
Ash Thomas. He is wearing a black shirt with a white logo sweatshirt. He has dark hair and glasses. He's standing in front of his art
Ash Thomas said that without the Torch programme, he would be dead [Ali MC/Al Jazeera]

Despite the success of the Torch, the programme only operates in the state of Victoria and has not yet been rolled out elsewhere. It is not funded by the federal government in Canberra and relies largely on philanthropy and state government grants.

Experts say recent government decisions at the federal and state levels – such as the Queensland Labor government suspending human rights protections to lock up Indigenous children in adult jails – are exacerbating the incarceration crisis.

“The key causes of the mass and unprecedented imprisonment of First Nations people is state policy and practice,” Thalia Anthony, a criminologist with the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), told Al Jazeera. “The statistics do not show higher levels of crime. Expanded police powers and tougher bail, sentencing and parole laws that have contributed to the growth. When you combine these policy drivers with the systemic racism in the penal system, it is a perfect storm for the hyper-incarceration of First Peoples.”

In 1991, the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody tabled a report in parliament that showed unequivocally that the high rate of Indigenous deaths in prison correlated with the high numbers of Indigenous prisoners.

The report made 339 recommendations with a key focus on reducing the incarceration of Indigenous peoples. However, many of the recommendations were never implemented and the number of Indigenous prisoners has risen exponentially in the years since. Recent data published by the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that between 1994 and 2021, the number of Indigenous people in jail increased by 10,241, from 2,798 to 13,039 inmates.

Over that period, more than 550 Indigenous people have died in prison. In 2022-2023, 21 Indigenous inmates died in custody, the highest since records began.

Policy change needed

Josh Kerr – a former Torch participant – was one of them. He died in Victoria’s Port Phillip Prison.

A coronial inquest heard that the 32-year-old, of the Yorta Yorta and Gunnaikurnai nations, reportedly called out “I’m dying” and remained unresponsive for 17 minutes before medical assistance was provided, despite being seen on CCTV by prison staff.

Kerr’s artwork produced as part of the Torch programme was shown at the entrance to the court.

“At the recent inquest into Joshua Kerr’s death in custody, we honoured Joshua by including his Torch portfolio into the coronial brief and displaying his artwork outside the courtroom,” Ali Besiroglu, the principal lawyer for the case, told Al Jazeera. “Joshua’s mother, Aunty Donnis Kerr, believed this was crucial to showcase his profound talent, deep cultural connection, and to humanise his memory beyond the forensic documents which commonly consume the coronial brief.”

In response to questions submitted by Al Jazeera, Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney acknowledged the severity and pervasiveness of the problem.

“More than 30 years on from the Royal Commission, deaths in custody continue to have a devastating impact on First Nations families and communities,” Burney said in an email. “We know that the key to addressing this national shame is reducing the rate at which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people enter the criminal justice system.”

Donnis Kerr. She is at a rally and speaking into a microphone. She has far curly hair and is wearing a black shirt.
Donnis Kerr (right), the mother of Josh Kerr, a former Torch participant who died in custody, speaking at a protest in 2023 [Ali MC/Al Jazeera]

In this month’s budget, the Australian government announced justice reinvestment strategies, which aim to address the underlying cause of criminal behaviour before it occurs, along with prison-to-employment programmes.

“These projects are designed to address the factors that increase First Nations people’s risk of contact with the criminal justice system,” Burney said. “Importantly, these justice reinvestment projects are community-led in each individual community.”

While it is Australia’s state governments that largely control legislation over the justice and prison systems, UTS criminologist Anthony says policymakers across the country need to change the way they look at law and order issues, and see prison as the last resort.

“Any option other than prison would be better than prison,” she said. “Prison is traumatising. It cuts people off from family, homes, jobs and support. The Torch is a great example of building peoples’ skills in prison and providing support upon release.”

Kent Morris agrees and hopes that the Australian government will instead provide leadership and funding to roll out programmes like The Torch on a national scale.

“So much of our community are behind bars. And we know how much potential our community has,” he told Al Jazeera. “We need to free them from the criminal legal system.”

Editor’s note: Details regarding crimes and lengths of sentences have been omitted at the request of interviewees. Such details can affect parole, job prospects and relationships.

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