Blak lives betrayed—Johnno Wurramarrba
Megan Krakouer and Gerry Georgatos work extensively in the suicide prevention space. Here they shine light on one of many unheard Blak stories and share their views on disproportionate incarceration rates.
Content warning: This article contains reference to suicide. Please refer to the services at the bottom of this article for support.
Please note this story contains reference to someone who has died.
At Don Dale Juvenile Detention Centre in the year 2000, a 15-year-old orphaned Indigenous boy took his life only days after being locked up for $90 worth of ‘crimes’.
How many Australians have heard of Johnno Wurramarrba?
Johnno’s mother died when he was a baby. His dad was killed in a car accident when he was 11-years-old. When he committed his less than $90 worth of ‘crimes’—the stealing of pens and stationery—his grandmother was seriously ill in Darwin Hospital.
This young boy is one of many Blak lives lost in and out of juvenile detention.
In general, youth come out of juvenile detention in a worse state than they went in. Hopelessness is all the mind’s eye sees. Their eyes see and their ears hear despair and the fears that go with it.
For every young life lost, thousands of others meander through broken lives.
On February 9, 2000 Johnno Wurramarrba was found in his cell. Two decades later, thousands of young Blak lives—children—lost to suicide, poverty, incarceration.
Johnno had been arrested in his hometown on Groote Eylandt for stealing goods worth less than $90. There was no counselling. No love. No mentoring or guidance. Instead, he was handcuffed, taken 800 kilometres to Darwin and jailed.
Johnno Wurramarrba lived below the poverty line—in extreme poverty. He just wanted to go to school.
Five days before he was due to be released Johnno took his own life. Because he refused to wash up, a prison officer ordered him to his cell. He was found a little while later and died nine hours after being moved to Darwin Hospital.
The penal estate, in line with the criminal justice system, is a culture of punishment. Punishment dished up in one form or another. Punishment soaked up until one is broken.
In 2009, an Indigenous boy aged 12 was arrested and jailed for the possession of a piece of chocolate—a Freddo Frog. He was charged with shoplifting from a Coles supermarket; locked up for stealing an item that would have sold for 70 cents.
This child had no prior convictions. Should we be prosecuting children over 70 cents worth of chocolate?
Western Australia is the mother of all jailers when it comes to our nation’s First Peoples. One in five of the state’s Indigenous peoples have been to prison. It also has the world’s highest jailing rate. One in 12 of the WA’s Indigenous adult males are in jail.
Already incarcerating First Nations adults at a higher rate than the United States, Australia is now competing with the States for the world’s highest rate of First Peoples in juvenile detention.
The juvenile detention rate gets higher the further west we travel across the continent, with Northern Territory and Western Australian rates the highest.
Children screaming for help and instead of listening to them we brutalise them; maltreating, abusing, degrading, diminishing, bashing, isolating them. Why do we enforce 23-hour lockdowns? Why do we enforce long-term separation from other detainees, from human contact?
The hurt is deep, damaging. It goes to the psychosocial, destroying prospects to a positive self, robbing one of all hope. Lost boys and girls—lost children. They are queued up, marched inside, and locked up.
What is missing from the criminal justice system and the penal estate are the cultures of forgiveness and redemption.
Forgiveness cultivated and understood keeps families and society solid as opposed to the corrosive anger that forces people to retreat into the darkest places of their minds, into being mentally unwell.
Anger is a warning sign of becoming unwell. Love comes more natural to the human heart, but despite that, hate can take one over. In the battle between love and hate, one will choose love more easily when understanding the endless dark place that is hate and its corrosive impacts.
Hate and anger have filled the prisons and juvenile detention centres with the mentally unwell, the most vulnerable, the poorest. Treated as no good, they play out in undesired ways, anger follows and the storm is wild.
But hate can never achieve what love can.
Like so many others, we have worked to turn around the lives of many people leaving the prison system. However, for every inmate or former inmate that people like us dedicate time to in order to improve their lot, ultimately there is a tsunami of poverty related issues and draconian laws that flood ‘offenders’ into prisons.
In our experience, jailing the poor, vulnerable, and mentally unwell serves to elevate the risk of reoffending, of normalising disordered and broken lives, and of digging deeper divides between people.
Australia jails and punishes like there’s no tomorrow.
Nearly 100 percent of children in juvenile detention and nearly 100 percent of adult prisoners live below the poverty line.
Juvenile detention centres and adult prisons are vaults of institutional racism and classism.
The boy came from Groote Eylandt, an island of three communities. It is a closed island where permission is required to visit. The disadvantage of the people is stark despite the high cultural content. Few have completed high school.
But on Groote Eylandt there is the GEMCO manganese mine—one of the richest such projects in the world. The island community had a resident counsellor predominantly for the FIFO workers but no resident counsellors for the locals, of whom near everyone live impoverished.
The degradation of homeland communities across northern and western Australia is the work of one government after another, who are responsible either for stripping social infrastructure and assets from these communities or who have denied the equivalency of services and opportunities to these communities when compared to non-Indigenous communities.
In the week after Johnno’s death, a 22-year-old Groote Eylandt man was sentenced to jail for a Christmas Day ‘crime’. He was found guilty of stealing biscuits and cordial from the GEMCO storeroom. Jamie Wurramara was jailed for a so-called crime totalling $23.
The public outcries come and go and are forgotten. The broken and ruined lives continue to pile on.
Our nation is deaf and blind to institutional racism and classism. If today’s children and tomorrow’s unborn are to share in hope, the nation’s eyes and ears need lending to.
If you or anyone you know is struggling with mental ill-health, call or visit the online resources below:
- Lifeline – 13 11 14, lifeline.org.au
- Beyond Blue – 1300 224 636, beyondblue.org.au/forums
- MensLine – 1300 789 978
- Kids Helpline 1800 551 800
- Suicide Call Back Service – 1300 659 467
- Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet – healthinfonet.ecu.edu.au
By Megan Krakouer and Gerry Georgatos
Megan Krakouer is a Mineng Noongar woman from Mt Barker in Western Australia’s southwest. Presently, Megan is the Director of the National Suicide Prevention and Trauma Recovery Project (NSPTRP) and also works for the National Justice Project.
Gerry Georgatos, a non-Indigenous individual and the son of CALD migrants, is a suicide prevention and poverty researcher with an experiential focus. He has a Masters in Human Rights Education and a Masters in Social Justice Advocacy & Civil Rights Arbitration. He is the national coordinator of the NSPTRP.