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Language, Life, and Indigenous People in Australia's Prison System with Dima Rusho

Updated: Feb 21, 2023

One of two short interviews by Gerald Roche with academics and other experts who work on issues related to language rights, asking them to introduce their work and discuss how language rights help to save lives.

1. Can you briefly introduce yourself and tell us what you do research about?

I am a linguist and a Research Fellow at the Monash Indigenous Studies Centre at Monash University, Melbourne. My research interests are at the intersection of language, law, and Indigenous cultures and knowledges. My current research focuses on Indigenous language interpreting in the justice system, mainly in relation to the cultural and socio-political context of remote Indigenous communities in Australia’s Northern Territory. My other areas of research include critical sociolinguistics and decolonial approaches to interpreting and translation.

2. Can you tell us about the communities that you work with and the languages they use?

As my research focuses primarily on Kriol interpreting in the justice system, I work predominantly with Kriol speaking individuals and communities in the Katherine region in the Northern Territory, including in Katherine and Ngukurr.

Kriol is an English-lexified contact language spoken by around 20,000 people across a vast geographical area in the Australian Top End, including the Northern Territory, Western Australia, and parts of Queensland. There is significant linguistic diversity in the town of Katherine, where we can find speakers of Kriol as well as several traditional Indigenous languages from surrounding regions such as Mayalai, Warlpiri and Gurindji. Kriol is also the most widely-spoken Indigenous language in the community of Ngukurr, although there are also some speakers of the traditional languages of the area.

3. How would you broadly characterize the situation for language rights in those communities?

Both traditional Indigenous languages and contact languages have historically endured low status in Australia. Kriol is a particularly interesting case as it has been stigmatised by non-speakers as well some some speakers - although there is definitely increasing pride in the language, especially among younger generations. Because it is a non-traditional Indigenous contact language, some Kriol speakers think it isn’t a ‘real’ language, particularly in light of the ongoing loss of ancestral languages around Australia (Ponsonnet, 2010). Additionally, like many contact languages around the world, Kriol is viewed as a ‘broken’ or ‘bastardised’ form of English and has even been described by some as ‘gibberish’ (Rhydwen, 1996).

Such low status inevitably means that the linguistic rights of Kriol speakers can easily be ignored by governments and institutions with impunity. For example, there has been a long-standing lack of acknowledgment of the linguistic needs of Kriol speakers engaging with the justice system. This has manifested in the inconsistent provision of professional interpreting services for Kriol speakers with lower proficiency in English. Interpreting services can be needed at varying stages of the legal process from arrest, police interviews, lawyer consultations, court trials, to correctional settings. Having access to free and timely interpreting assistance is a fundamental right which is enshrined both in international law - under Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) - and in Australian a federal law - under Division 3 of the Evidence Act 1995 (Commonwealth). Therefore, failing to provide interpreters for Kriol speakers engaging with the legal process is a violation of their rights that needs to be urgently addressed.

There are, however, some examples of language rights being considered adequately in the communities I have worked with. For example, there were concerted efforts to translate healthcare materials, such as pamphlets and posters, into Indigenous languages, including Kriol, at the beginning of the Covid epidemic where health information needed to be disseminated quickly and efficiently to remote communities.

4. The theme for GLAD23 is 'Language Rights Save Lives' - how do you see this theme as relevant to the research you do?

Refusal to provide professional interpreters in legal settings can lead to serious miscommunication and at times grave miscarriages of justice. While the absence of the death penalty in Australia means that miscarriages of justice do not directly lead to loss of life, the cumulative harm associated with unjust outcomes has been demonstrated to significantly impact both life expectancy and the quality of life.

Without consistent interpreting assistance, Kriol speakers with varying levels of English proficiency, and their communities at large, repeatedly experience negative outcomes in legal contexts. They are unable to tell their stories, seek justice, and defend themselves against charges. They may not understand their right to silence during a police interview or the questions posed to them, potentially leading to self incrimination. They may also fail to fully understand the conditions of their bail or non-custodial sentence, which subsequently leads to their imprisonment. These factors undoubtedly contribute to the over-representation of Indigenous people in Australian prisons and the associated negative effect on life expectancy. A study of the impact of incarceration on life expectancy in the US showed that incarceration leads to excess mortality and a significant reduction in life expectancy. Factors included the prevalence of communicable illnesses (as seen during the recent COVID pandemic) and the increase in chronic and acute stress leading to drug abuse, depression, chronic anxiety, poor self-rated health, and in some cases, a higher risk of fatal self-harm (Daza et al. 2020). Crucially, the impacts on health and mortality were observed both during and after incarceration, meaning that individuals released from prison continued to have long-lasting negative outcomes.

The impact of imprisonment on life expectancy and wellbeing is not limited to incarcerated people. A recent US-based cross-sectional study also found that the incarceration of a loved one was associated with lower wellbeing and lower projected life expectancy of their family members as well. The study also found evidence of a disproportionate burden among Black family members (Sundaresh et al, 2021).

While these studies focused on incarceration in the US, their findings can shed light on the harmful effects of the over-representation of Indigenous people in prisons in Australia. They demonstrate how impacts can stretch beyond individuals and encompass families and even wider communities. Here in Australia, the effects of injustice ricochet through communities and contribute to the overall harms experienced by Indigenous people as the result of their colonisation.

Another important issue to consider is that miscommunication leading to imprisonment can be a factor from much earlier in an individual’s life. For example, the low use of interpreters by organisations involved in child protection, such as Territory Families in the Northern Territory, can lead to families misunderstanding and potentially failing to comply with the conditions and orders set by those organisations. At times, this has resulted in the unjust removal of children from their families and their communities, which is a recognised driver and indicator of future incarceration. Data from the 2014–15 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey showed that people who reported being removed from family were more likely to be arrested and/or imprisoned. Given the recognised effects of incarceration on mental health in young people and the fact that suicide rates are more than twice as high in young Indigenous Australians compared to non-Indigenous Australians this is a very pressing issue that needs to be addressed with utmost urgency.

To summarise, the cumulative damage and harm caused by repeated negative experiences in legal settings stemming from miscommunication can be both severe and long-lasting. Every effort should be made to ensure good communication at all stages of engagement with the justice system particularly through the provision of professional and efficient interpreting services.

5. Thinking about the communities where you work, what kind of difference would it make in the lives of people if there was more acknowledgement of and respect for their language rights?

A wider recognition of Kriol as an Indigenous language and the acknowledgement of both the language rights and linguistic needs of Kriol speakers are vital for improving outcomes for Kriol speakers in legal contexts. Firstly, the justice system will have a better understanding of their duty to provide interpreters at every stage of the legal process, which will hopefully increase their compliance with this duty. Secondly, engaging more interpreters on a regular basis will lead to increased demand and, in turn, will potentially lead to more funding being allocated by federal and state/territory governments for interpreter training and education. In remote communities where the need for locally-based interpreters is greatest, having more interpreters who reside in the community will be immensely beneficial. Interpreters will also then be available for community members in contexts beyond the justice system, for example in healthcare and welfare settings.

Overall, efforts to ensure that Indigenous languages and their speakers are treated with respect will lead to less miscommunication, more just outcomes, better relationship with the justice system and ultimately a better quality of life for individuals and communities.


Cooke, M. (2002). Indigenous interpreting issues for courts. Australian Institute of Judicial Administration.

Daza, S., Palloni, A., & Jones, J. (2020). The Consequences of Incarceration for Mortality in the United States. Demography, 57(2), 577-598. 00869-5

Eades, D. (2008b). Courtroom talk and neocolonial control. Mouton de Gruyter. Goldflam, R. (1997). “Silence in court!”: Problems and prospects in Aboriginal legal interpreting. Australian Journal of Law and Society, 13, 17–53.

Ponsonnet, M. (2010). "Brainwash from English"?: Barunga Kriol speakers’ views on their own language. Anthropological Linguistics, 52(2), 160-183. http://doi: 10.1353/anl.2010.0010

Rhydwen, M. (1996). Writing on the backs of the Blacks. University of Queensland Press. Sandefur, J. R. (1981a). Kriol: An Aboriginal language. Hemisphere, 25, 252–256. Sandefur, J. R. (1981b). Kriol: Language with a history. Northern Perspective, 4(1), 3–7.

Sundaresh, R., Yi, Y., Harvey, T. D., et al. (2021). Exposure to Family Member Incarceration and Adult Well-being in the United States. JAMA Network Open, 4(5), e2111821.

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