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

Thalia Anthony, Harry Blagg

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


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.”

Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Bioethical Inquiry
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 31 Jan 2021

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