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The ones who came with chains


I don’t write to State Premiers very often. However, a month ago I did. It was to the Western Australian Premier, Mark McGowan. It was not about Test cricket, the Juukan Gorge or opening the state’s borders. It was in relation to a photo on the front page of The Australian on the weekend of the 6/7 November showing an Aboriginal man in Western Australia boarding a plane under arrest. He was barefooted and with both a wrist and ankle chain.

The abduction of young Cleo Smith attracted the attention of many within Australia and overseas. There was palpable joy when she was found safe and, apparently, unharmed. The person in the photo and who had been taken into custody in relation to her abduction was Terence Darrell Kelly. He had been arrested and was being flown to the maximum-security Casuarina prison in Perth. Since then has appeared in court facing charges.

The reason why I wrote to the Premier was not about the particulars of the alleged crime but that image of an Aboriginal man being taken away barefoot and in chains. It was an image that evoked past images of Western Australian Aboriginal men being taken away in leg and neck chains. And it seemed, particularly in this case and context, so disrespectful of his dignity and unnecessary. And, it needs be added, disrespectful of the dignity of those who accompanied him.

Some years ago, I knew a highly respected Aboriginal elder who, decades earlier, had been arrested for killing sheep. He and two other senior and respected men were arrested by the police and taken away in chains and forced to walk to the prison in Wyndham, hundreds of kilometres away. The story goes that this man managed to free himself of his neck chain and, over some weeks, walk all the way back home. From then he was referred to as Tjaintjanu. The name literally meant ‘chain-from’. In English we might have called him the ‘chainman’. But he was more than another Aboriginal man who had been chained. He was one who had escaped the chain.

The linguist William McGregor has explored the various terms for ‘policeman’ found in Australian First Nations languages.[1] Many such words exist and there is great variation across Australia as to how the police were originally perceived and named. As McGregor points out, these were significant white men at the forefront of colonisation and who came with much power, often associated with aggression and force. They were seen as the protectors of the property of the colonisers and often with little regard for the legal rights of the Aboriginal people they arrested. It is not surprising that they were given names to describe some key aspect of their behaviour.

McGregor explored more than one hundred First Nations languages. He found some words that suggested the policeman as an animal, such as a shark; a bird, such as an eaglehawk; or an insect, such as a ‘biting fly’. Others referred to their distinctive clothing, such the stripe on their uniform or the badge on their hat. Some suggested qualities such as sour or bitter, aggressive or fierce, angry or ‘on for fights’. Others referred to them as stone or money, perhaps referring to one of their roles as ‘protectors’ and in control of peoples’ finances.


'A number of languages in the Western Australia have used words that refer to rope, string or chain in naming police. They include words such as "the chaining horseman" or "the one with the chain".' 


He found one that came with a very distinctive memory, black cockatoo. It seems that the police in those early days wore dark uniforms with a red stripe down the side of the trousers, a reminder of a black cockatoo. However, they were also seen coming as packs or flocks making a lot of noise as only cockatoos can.

But, amidst these many and varied names, he came across a particular group of words that referred to the manner by which people were arrested. In many parts of Australia, but particularly in Western Australia, it was the custom of police to patrol with chains and use them to ‘bind’ Aboriginal prisoners. This practice of binding included the arrest of murderers but also witnesses to alleged crimes and the sick, eg. those believed to be carrying leprosy.

McGregor discovered that a number of languages in the Western Australia have used words that refer to rope, string or chain in naming police. They include words such as ‘the chaining horseman’ or ‘the one with the chain’. He discovered more than twenty different languages used words that either described ‘tying up’ or ‘artefacts of bondage’.

These words hold a very particular Western Australian memory of first contact where the police came to ‘bind’ and remove people. Such words remember and repeat images of a painful past. Arrest came with shame, punishment, the presumption of guilt and with little dignity.

This was the letter I wrote:

Dear Premier,

I am assuming you saw the front page of The Australian on the weekend of 6/7 November where it showed a photo of Terence Darrell Kelly boarding a plane in the custody of the WA Special Operations Group. He was in barefoot and in a wrist and ankle chain.

The finding of baby Cleo Smith by the Western Australian police brought much joy to many, and not just in Australia. After days of fruitless searching, she was found safe and physically well. It is unfortunate that this one image of her abductor’s arrest has damaged what was, until then, an united national celebration.

I have spent a number of years in the Kimberley and was a Senior Research Officer with Pat Dodson (now Senator Pat Dodson) in the underlying issues component of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. As you may know, that Commission examined in much detail the racist and often violent history of behaviour by police and the resulting imprisonment of many First Nations people.

I have visited many prisons in Australia and been a chaplain in some. I have welcomed prisoners home to remote communities for funerals. In nearly fifty years I have never witnessed a prisoner in a wrist and ankle chain.

It would seem reasonable to ask. Who authorised this and did they realise how First Nations people and many others in Australia would have perceived such an image?

What was the reason why he was chained? Was there a concern he might be violent and escape? Was there a previous history of violence? We have not been provided any evidence that there was a justifiable reason for him to be chained in this way. In fact, the more we hear and learn about Terence Darrell Kelly the more we are concerned about his own mental and vulnerable state at that time.

Some of us are very familiar with many stories of past violent and even criminal police responses to First Nations people. We have heard many stories of violent treatment as they were taken into custody even before they came to court.

Some of us are even old enough to have heard first-hand stories of those men in the Kimberley who were taken away in chains, some never to return to home and to their families. Many of these men were not violent offenders but were simply arrested for crimes against property, such as the killing of sheep. 

It may be worth adding that, in the language of the Kukatja people of Western Australia, the word that they have come to use for police is wayirnuwatji, literally ‘chain possessing’. The police are remembered as the ones who came with chains and it is most unfortunate that the Special Operations Group, a service agency within the Department of Justice, would remind many of this past practice.

While there are, undoubtedly, good and trustworthy men and women in the Western Australia Department of Justice, this one recent and public image has done enormous damage. It will prove even more difficult for the police of Western Australia to be ones that First Nations people will trust when their association with ‘the chaining of their people’ continues to be reinforced.

A month later, I have yet to hear back from the Premier.


[1] Cockatoos, Chaining-Horsemen, and Mud-Eaters, Anthropos 95, 2000 (3-22).


Brian McCoyBrian F. McCoy SJ is the former Provincial Superior for the Australian Province of the Society of Jesus (2014-2020). He was the Director of the Australian Jesuit Tertianship program from 2013-14. He completed a doctorate in Aboriginal men’s health at the University of Melbourne, later published as Holding Men: Kanyirninpa and the health of Aboriginal men.

Main image: Iconic Aboriginal mural at Aboriginal Advancement League on St Georges Road Thornbury, Victoria. (Kazadams / Wikimedia Commons)

Topic tags: Fr Brian McCoy SJ, Indigenous justice, Premier Mark McGowan



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Existing comments

The Qld prison system also showed a lack of respect for a prisoner visiting the Rockhampton General hospital this month. His hands and feet were chained and he had to walk past patients a few times as she went from room to room accompanied by two guards or policemen.

Joan Wharton | 14 December 2021  

Thanks for the letter, Brian. Exactly my sentiments. I was shocked.

Jan Carter | 14 December 2021  

Brian McCoy
Thank you for sharing this thoughtful 'history' which directly relates to growing an informed understanding of the complex analysis required to engage as a citizen in progress toward the achievement of a path forward to an inclusive diverse genuine Truth & Reconciliation process with open minds, open hearts & hopeful spirits.

Nancy Peck | 15 December 2021  

A month later, it's time you sent a copy of the letter to the Australian with your references to McGregor.

roy chen yee | 15 December 2021  

Chains were, of course, used to restrain prisoners in England long, long before the First Fleet arrived in 1788 and contact in depth really began with Aboriginal people. From my reading and I could be wrong, there appears to have been no sexual assault on Cleo. Kelly appears not to be a paedophile, but somewhat retarded. He really needs a psychiatric assessment. I lived in WA for 13 years and some of my clients in DEETYA were Aboriginal people. Historic treatment of them was not good, as epitomised in the brilliant Jack Davis play 'No Sugar'. That says it all. We have a mixed history in Australia. Things have changed. I think we need to emulate the criminal justice system in the Scandinavian countries. I doubt you'll get a response from McGowan, Brian. He's an Australian politician. They're Teflon men and women. Nothing ever sticks.

Edward Fido | 15 December 2021  
Show Responses

Edward, unfortunately there will be uninformed outrage in this case because of the suppression of information; this extends even to Cleo's parents who are unable to make public comments so as not to jeopardize or prejudice the evidence. The man in chains has already self-harmed in custody. It is alleged he has made verbal threat: "I'm coming for you" to members of the gallery. WA police policy on restraints governs the use; it's as simple as: he qualified. The elders from the local indigenous community have made public appeals not to turn the arrest into a matter of race. They have met with the police minister already; there are fears for wider safety even extending to vilification at schools and in public if the case carries any air of race-determined scrutiny. They're trying to put "a lid on it" so it doesn't boil over into a black/white circus with implications for the community; well-meaning as Fr McCoy writes, this article defies their request and turns it into a pressure-cooker. Try to observe some respect for the wishes of the elders and refrain from the guessing of the accused's culpability.

ray | 17 December 2021  

I would urge the WA Premier to reply to your letter with as much forthrightness as he does when addressing the threat of Covid to his State. In the last couple of weeks I’ve had the opportunity to read Richard Flanagan’s excellent “Gould’s Book of Fish”. The book shows the profound violence enacted on Aboriginal people and prisoners during colonisation.

Pam | 15 December 2021  

Dear Fr Mc Coy. While I have great respect for you as a human being and a Jesuit, I think you should adjust the focus on your tunnel vision and look beyond the confines of that vision. You have not seen a prisoner with both hands and feet shackled over the last 50 years you say. Joan Wharton comments above on such a scene recently on public display in a Queensland hospital - she does not identify the aboriginality or otherwise of the prisoner. Our television evening news bulletins have recently shown a notorious drug king, white without a trace of Aboriginality, arrested after a two week manhunt and brought back to NSW, accompanied by half dozen police officers and with both arms and legs shackled in chains. Similarly the famous con man, Peter Foster, was similarly escorted in chains by officers on his way to confinement. Harping on a past that no longer exists in this country achieves nothing and simply drives division. But then again, I suppose Western Australia might still not have grown up and the perspectives are coloured. That latter is not a completely unfounded comment. In 1966, working in the University Dept of Surgery in Perth I found myself removing a spearhead from a 17 year old aboriginal youth's shoulder - the spearing had been ordered by the Elders justice system in punishment for his apparently unacceptable courting of a young girl outside the necessary rituals required. I also found it somewhat depressing to amputate the leg of an elderly Aboriginal man who suffered a stoke which paralysed his leg - he could have been successfully rehabilitated. However, he believed as did the elders of his community that he had a snake in his leg and so burn it beyond repair in a campfire - fortunately the stroke had also obliterated the sensation in his leg and at least he didn't suffer the intolerable pain of the burning. Thank goodness Chloe was unharmed. Thank goodness her parents were relieved of what could have become lifelong agony at the loss of their little girl. And finally, the arrest quite rightly should have come with shame, punishment and little dignity. Whatever is it in your opinion that exonerates an Aboriginal person who causes such heartache and distress to so many? Should the arrest have come with praise and celebration instead?

john frawley | 15 December 2021  

Fr Brian McCoy he did snatch a child from a camp ground and deprive her of her liberty for 18 days. No one knows if she was molested by her abductor or what possible motive he might have, other than ransom. That remains to be verified by medical analysis.

Yes, the number of aboriginal people in custody in WA and NT is disturbingly disproportionate. 90% of them are in gaol for crimes against property.

The fact that he was barefoot is probably a coincidence. His mental health assessment will no doubt come out in the wash.

Whilst the visual images of the shackles are distressing, much more distressing is the abuse of children within the church in Australia, even some at Xavier, and according to the RC, 60% of that abuse was, (and is) by catholic clergy and religious, the vast majority of whom still believe they can indulge in this type of behavior with impunity and hide behind canon law.

We need to get our own house in order.

Francis Armstrong | 15 December 2021  

Oh dear, a letter and an article written in the leisure of comfort of knowing things are ok now. Cast your minds back little more than a few weeks ago when the child was first determined to be "missing", the diligent, fervent searches of the site and subsequent abduction theory; at no time was there the luxury of any assurance. 18 days of nation-wide anxiety; fearful for a child's life. The admiration I have for the perservence of the WA police force is immeasurable; but no, I didn't write to the Premier nor the Police Commissioner a letter of appreciation, as I'm sure most Australians didn't. It seems that though every one of us had hope for a miracle we were satisfied with the outcome and didn't lift a pen in approval or gratitude. That pains me now. If you didn't shed a tear on the joy of Cleo's discovery you have no right to shed one for her alleged captor. We cannot yet and may never know what happened to the child for those weeks but the torment of not knowing her condition to her family and the nation for weeks was something wholly in the control of the person that stole her away in the night from her family. And you deplore restraints?

ray | 15 December 2021  

Thanks you so much for alerting us to this shocking practice. (Wonder whether there is any current documentation of other than First Nations people being treated in this way? Just out of interest - he hasn't been convicted...just that I didnlt know he was aboriginal until I read this; nor did I need to) .
Have you considered raising it with a member of state - or federal - parliament? As one who votes for your premier's party, it pains me to say that a question from outside that party could be interesting.
I didn't know

Julia Nutting | 15 December 2021  

I once saw a young man, with a job, convicted of a fairly minor offence shackled and not allowed to kiss his grandmother as he was led off in chains. He was white and this was in Brisbane. OK, we have really dangerous psychopathic criminals, but these have to be in the minority, surely? What really is needed is that others incarcerated with them need to be protected from being violently buggered and otherwise assaulted by them. Any criminal, black, white, brown, yellow or purple, needs to be treated with respect. We need to forget our British penal heritage and emulate the Scandinavians. They actually reform criminals! Good Lord! Whatever next?

Edward Fido | 16 December 2021  

Needless to say, there's a better than good chance that the police knew exactly the significance of what they were doing. It's all about maintaining white supremacy, bro.

Paul Smith | 17 December 2021  

Paul Smith. Some might say its all about maintaining the law, bro. Break the law and quite correctly the police will arrest you regardless or race, skin colour or any other identifier. I imagine that if you personally suffered through another person breaking the law you would seek justice through the policing and legal systems.

john frawley | 19 December 2021  

I hold more concerns about shackling a man who is more than likely suffering from a severe mental illness. Given the details about the way he was grieving the death of his grandmother, and his obsession with dolls and dressing up, my instincts tell me this isn't a dangerous man but a fragile and broken man in need of psychological relief and therapy. As the facts unfold, I may turn out to be mistaken, but that's my initial reaction.
The photo that appeared of him lying in the back of an ambulance, cowering under a blanket as he was hounded by paparazzi is just as harrowing in my view.
He'd tried to harm himself in his prison cell and was in the ambulance getting medical attention when the press hounded him for that photo.
What he did was obviously a serious and grave offence, but getting revenge by traumatising him is not a humane and fair way to seek justice for the abducted girl and her parents.

AURELIUS | 30 December 2021  

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