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Biopower of Colonialism in Carceral Contexts: Implications for Aboriginal Deaths in Custody

  • Symposium: Institutional Racism, Whiteness, and Bioethics
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This article argues that criminal justice and health institutions under settler colonialism collude to create and sustain “truths” about First Nations lives that often render them as “bare life,” to use the term of Giorgio Agamben (1998). First Nations peoples’ existence is stripped to its sheer biological fact of life and their humanity denied rights and dignity. First Nations people remain in a “state of exception” to the legal order and its standards of care (Agamben 1998). Zones of exception place First Nations people in a separate and diminished legal order. Medical and health agencies have been instrumental in shaping colonial “biopower,” both in and beyond carceral settings to ensure that First Nations lives are managed in accordance with the colonial settler state project. This project is able both to threaten First Nations rights to live and to maintain settler self-perceptions of decency and care. We illustrate this discussion with reference to the tragic and unnecessary deaths in custody of twenty-two-year-old Yamatji woman Ms Dhu in 2014 in South Hedland Police Station, Western Australia, and twenty-six-year-old Dunghutti man David Dungay Jnr in Long Bay jail in Sydney, NSW, in 2015. Health professionals and police demonstrated callous disregard to Ms Dhu and Mr Dungay—treating them as “bare life.”

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  1. For example, Justice Health in New South Wales is responsible for health services in prisons and regularly responds to call-outs of prison officers.

  2. These Acts, which endured from the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth century in Australia, controlled all aspects of Aboriginal peoples’ lives under a regime of protectors and sought to instil British ideas of civilization and Christianity (British Parliamentary Select Committee 1837). It was rooted in imperial Social Darwinist beliefs of racial superiority (Browne 2017). See, for example, Aboriginal Protection Act 1869 (Vic), Aborigines Protection Act 1886 (WA), Aboriginal Protection Act and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897 (Qld), Aborigines Protection Act 1909 (NSW), Aborigines Act 1911 (SA), Aboriginals Ordinance 1911 (NT), Aboriginals Ordinance 1918 (Cth). Similar legislation was enacted in Canada under the 1876 Indian Act (Partida 2008; Smith 2009).

  3. Aboriginal health scholars Chelsea Bond and Juanita Sherwood have commented that it is not uncommon for Aboriginal women and Aboriginal mothers to be regarded by multiple agencies as problems who are unworthy of health screening and healthcare (in Behrendt 2019). Such perceptions in the health and allied systems contributed to the death of pregnant Wiradjuri woman Naomi Williams and her unborn baby (see Dunlop 2019a, 2019b).


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The authors would like to thank Natalie Purcell for her valuable editing of this piece.

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Correspondence to Thalia Anthony.

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Anthony, T., Blagg, H. Biopower of Colonialism in Carceral Contexts: Implications for Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. Bioethical Inquiry 18, 71–82 (2021).

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