Personnel Image

Written By

Tianna Killoran


College of Arts, Society and Education

Publish Date

8 June 2022

A passionate pursuit

It’s been 30 years since the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, but violence against incarcerated people in Australia still continues. After completing her Bachelor of Arts with Honours at JCU, PhD candidate Kirstie Broadfield pursued her passion to understand the disproportionate incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia.

It all started with a drive to understand important social issues during her undergraduate years.

“I was doing project management for twenty years and wanted a change in career,” Kirstie says. “So, I started off as a mature-age student at JCU. I began studying town planning but was really interested in the Indigenous subjects. So, I moved over to a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Indigenous Studies after two semesters. I thought JCU was an ideal place for doing these studies.”

But Kirstie’s tenacity did not end with her undergraduate studies. Kirstie pursued an Honours year and then also a PhD. “I was really passionate about the topic of Indigenous incarceration. It was something that had been weighing heavily on my mind, so when the opportunity to do Honours research arose, and then later my PhD, I jumped at the chance.”

Kirstie says she interviews Indigenous Australian former offenders to gain an understanding of their experiences in the prison system. “The aim of my research is to elevate the voices of Indigenous Australian people in terms of their lived experiences and their perceptions, and to express the forms of violence they’ve experienced in the criminal justice system.”

Top of a police car with only the roof of the car and the blue and red lights visible during the day
JCU PhD Candidate Kirstie Broadfield
Right: JCU PhD Candidate Kirstie Broadfield. Supplied by Kirstie Broadfield

A new way to look at power

Kirstie’s research makes use of a new approach — the theory of necropolitics — to understand incarceration in Australia. Necropolitics is a framework that investigates how institutions can subjugate a specific population’s life to the point of social, political, cultural, and physical death.

Kirstie says that she was inspired to use necropolitics after she heard about it in one of her Honours classes at JCU. “Through some of my subjects, I got a chance to see the underbelly of the criminal justice system. And I thought ‘we should hear more about this issue’,” Kirstie says.

But it can be tricky to take on necropolitics as a lens for examining the criminal justice system. “My research is very interdisciplinary. It spans across Indigenous studies, criminology, sociology, and anthropology and the different perspectives of these disciplines all play a part.”

“To make sense of the interviews I have with former offenders, the theory is used to examine these experiences for different types of violence,” Kirstie says. “Violence doesn’t just mean physical violence, but there’s also symbolic, and systemic violence.”

This fresh approach allows Kirstie to consider the whole criminal justice system, rather than just small parts of it. “As Jiddu Krishnamurti, a famous philosopher explained, it’s important to understand the whole of something not just one part of something. The goal of my research is to understand the unequal relations of power within all three branches of the system and how they contribute to forms of violence experienced by Indigenous Australian people,” Kirstie says.

“I was really encouraged and supported during my Honours. So, when the opportunity came up to do a PhD, the research just naturally grew from there.”

JCU PhD Candidate Kirstie Broadfield

Trying to make a difference

At the end of the day, Kirstie says she wants her research to make a difference. “I wanted to try and give Indigenous Australian people’s voices a platform and add to the information out there about Indigenous incarceration. I wanted to come at it from a different angle and have the opportunity to try and add something different.”

Kirstie’s research has so far provided some important results. “My research suggests that Indigenous Australians have been zombified and transmogrified into homo sacer by the criminal justice system. It results in a despondency that highlights unequal relations between Indigenous Australians and the institutions that have power over their lives. In simple terms, this means that the criminal justice system denies them of their humanity and individuality as people.”

“I would like to see some real changes to the whole system, but especially to prisons,” Kirstie says. “People in prisons need to be treated with humanity. That means taking care of their mental health, medical care, and recognising that Indigenous people in prison are vulnerable to separation from their culture and family.”

But the changes Kirstie hopes for are not just limited to inside the criminal justice system. Out in the wider community is also critical. “Community development is a really big part of the policy changes that need to be made. Sustainable economic development for communities would help lessen some of the social determinants of crime,” Kirstie says. “There needs to be more of a policy focus on culturally relevant justice reinvestment, as well as culturally appropriate rehabilitation programs that are better for Indigenous offenders.”

Discover JCU Social Sciences

Pursue your passion for social justice and begin a rewarding career helping others