‘An SBS musical documentary has taken an unprecedented look inside a Northern Territory prison to reveal the dark, sometimes tragic histories of its inmates - and their day-to-day lives.
It took more than two years of negotiations with the NT corrections department for the film-makers to gain access to Darwin’s Berrimah prison. A previous attempt to shoot in Western Australia resulted in the government flatly refusing access to any of its facilities.
Film-makers held auditions at Berrimah and a few dozen inmates lined up to tell their stories, hopeful of appearing in the documentary to share their feelings and experiences through blues, hip-hop, reggae and gospel.
Berrimah, the Northern Territory’s largest prison, opened in 1973 with 116 inmates. Over the decades that number increased to about 800 with men and women housed separately. More than eight in 10 inmates at the prison are Indigenous and data shows that half will return to prison. Prisoners have endured chronic overcrowding in the centre which has reached up to 130% capacity at times.
Shellie Morris, an Indigenous singer-songwriter and Australian of the year nominee whose original music features in the show, said the crew had to navigate not just the initial access to the facility, but working around inmate programs, routines and liaison officers.
“It taught us to be patient,” she told Guardian Australia.
The crew built up trust with those who eventually participated in the show. “We told them: there are going to be cameras in your face, we’ll be looking right into your life,” said Jone Vuqe, production assistant and Indigenous consultant for the film. “We had to be honest.”
The creators sought to highlight the issues around incarceration - particularly of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people - and to show the real people behind the statistics, while staying aware of the victims of the crimes that put some of these people behind bars.
The film features a number of male and female prisoners, each with their own past. Common themes emerged linking the tales – family violence, drugs and alcohol.
While the songs were written by Morris and Casey Bennetto - the award-winning composer of Keating: The Musical - the lyrics came from participants’ own words and they had final approval. “It was really important with the sensitivity of people’s life stories that they had absolute control over what the Australian public and the world would see,” said Morris.
Max and Dale, both 27, rewrote the lyrics for the hip-hop track The Middle which described feeling stuck between two worlds as light-skinned Aboriginal men.
Phil, a 53-year-old Berrimah inmate, has spent more than half his life inside. In Prison Songs, he speaks of how hard it was to get a job with a criminal record when he got out, and of young guys around him getting on drugs including ice. Phil took his first hit of heroin on the day his father died, and says being in jail keeps him straight.
“It’s like this is my home,” he tells the camera.
“When I get out I miss this place … When I’m in here I’m straight, I get my health back, I’m alive … When I’m out on the streets I’m running around fucking getting mixed up in crime and shooting drugs. Once I have that first shot I’m fucked. It’s nonstop. I get in too deep. The place that saved me is this Berrimah Hilton.”
Phil is not a singer but Morris and Bennetto wanted to keep his voice in the film somehow. They latched on to the moniker he had given the prison - the Berrimah Hilton - and created a cheesy commercial, complete with female prisoners as backup singers and dancers.
“Is this your first time at the Berrimah Hilton?” a smiling Phil asks the camera. “Prepare to be amazed. Checking in is all to easy.”
The tongue-in-cheek take was very much a part of Indigenous humour, said Morris. “We live in so much trauma at times that sometimes all you can do is laugh.”
She added that she didn’t know if people would be affronted by the humour in such a dark topic, but that Phil laughed when he first saw the finished video. Some of the female prisoners had asked her if it was a “happy film”.
“I said there is enough tragedy in this film to last a lifetime, we’re just having some light moments.”
In November, the prison population of Berrimah began moving to a new facility at Holtze after years of additions and extensions to keep pace with the increasing incarceration rates. The old Berrimah prison, where Prison Songs was filmed, will be renovated to house juvenile detainees from Don Dale.’