Manus Prison and the Kyriarchal System

Behrouz Boochani, appearing at the ANZ Criminology Conference, 6 December 2018

The journalist and poet, Behrouz Boochani, fled Iran after the storming of his magazine’s offices by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Accused of promoting Kurdish culture and language, his colleagues were arrested.

Boochani made two attempts for political asylum in Australia, nearly drowning on the way. On the second try, the fully-laden boat was rescued by a British tanker. All those onboard were taken to Christmas Island and, from there, authorities transferred him to Manus Island.

Manus Island, in Papua New Guinea (PNG), looms large in writings on asylum. The neutrally-titled ‘Regional Processing Centre’ (or what Boochani calls ‘Manus Prison’) was part of the Australian government’s ‘Pacific Solution’. It represented a control fix for the Australian government who had been struggling with ever-growing resistance and solidarity with those held in ‘onshore’ centres, like Woomera. Any plight was to be out of sight, out of mind. Besides, politicians might record that no-one had arrived onto Australian soil, so they bore no legal obligations to provide internationally-established protections.

Over the years, thousands have been incarcerated on Manus (in 2014, over 1,300 were held). It formed a node in the bigger carceral archipelago for those who had the temerity to flee terror and seek refuge. Most travelled from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Myanmar… places that have often been made unstable and dangerous from Western interventions.

Manus (like all Australian immigration sites, including Christmas Island, Nauru, Villawood in Sydney, Yonga Hill near Perth) faced heavy criticism from detainees, human rights organisations, doctors, lawyers, academics, advocates, and others. Sexual violence, physical assaults and threats dominated. Two workers were sentenced for the murder of a young Iranian asylum seeker during a detainee protest.

Ramping up the controls, here and elsewhere, the Australian government established the 2015 Border Force Act that now enables the two-year imprisonment of ‘entrusted persons’ who speak out about gross human rights violations in immigration detention centres.

In 2016, following a PNG Supreme Court decision that the ‘Centre’ was illegal for its breaches of constitutional rights to personal liberty, local politicians retracted their support for the prison. It closed in late 2017. Three new ‘transit centres’ have established to hold the men.

Boochani remains on the island. He has spent over five years there.


Boochani’s writings – on his journeys to reach Australia; the nature and scale of casual degradation, dehumanization and brutality in immigration detention; the legal blackholes that detainees face; and the desperate realities of trauma, self-harms and suicides – have been published across many sites (most recently in The Guardian). In 2018, his brilliant work ‘No Friend but the Mountains’ (a book laboriously written through social media messages, and translated by Omid Tofighian) arrived on the shelves.

It is a difficult read, it provokes a visceral response. You can hear the clanks of the doors, the grind of the tractor generator and the ‘deafening ruckus of displaced people, like sheep to a slaughterhouse’ (p121). You feel the ‘oppressively hot’, ‘agonisingly humid’ and ‘suffocating’ weather (p103). And, you smell the drenched bodies and rotten excrement, ‘the stench of sludge…laid out for both microscopic and mammoth mosquitoes’ (p111). In just one section of the prison, ‘nearly four hundred people are kept in an area smaller than a football field…it is like a city in which a plague has sent everyone into a frenzy’ (p122).


Attention to asylum issues, or Australian immigration abuses, remains on the periphery of Criminological attention. Albeit with some exceptions (see, for example, the work of Michael Grewcock, Claire Loughnan, the Border Crossing Observatory or Deathscapes), there has been a muted engagement with immigration prisons. Last year, the ANZ Society of Criminology (ANZSOC) caused consternation by distributing ‘Border Force’ pens in their conference packs.

Yet, at the 2018 ANZSOC conference in Melbourne, Boohrani was on the programme as a speaker. It was a remarkable session. Over a flickering screen, and the occasional internet drop-out, he talked about his work and the nature of the carceral system he endured. It was a call to arms for all scholars who, for the large part, have allowed these abuses to pass by in their name.


Central to Boochani’s discussions is the kyriarchal system. The concept of kyriarchy reflects the multiple intersections of oppression that sustain psychological controls. Techniques of dehumanization, isolation and division are vital elements.

At Manus, the people were numbered, not named. Stringently enforced rules and regulations were stripped away or rescheduled by officers, on a whim. Nothing was certain. Authorities managed everything to be fought over. Every person was pitted against others.

With no control over the distribution of food, the strongest or most determined would eat the most. Hungry people became ‘vicious’ to survive (p232-3). Confrontations were incited by ‘twisted and convoluted’ health services, such that prisoners had to ‘employ violence’ to receive medical attention even for the most serious complaints (p305). Demeaning conditions led people to develop ‘perverse habits and sordid and barbaric behaviours’ (p166) – the toilets were so wretched, that some pissed anywhere, even on flowers.

Some attempted to impose their previous ‘order and formal behaviour’ into Manus, but all had to succumb to this place that had no ‘scent of ethical order’ (p180). To survive, prisoners had to accept their wretchedness, and be ‘alienated’ from their ‘sense of self’ (p220). Those who could not might ‘choose’ to leave.

In short, the kyriarchal system operated ‘to turn the prisoners against each other and to ingrain even deeper hatred between people’ (p124). The system produced suffering, destroyed compassion, removed solidarities.


The initial agreement for the development of the Manus prison noted that the private contractors (Broadspectrum/Ferrovial, who mainly employed Australians and New Zealanders) would also engage Manusian workers. As an aside, Australian authorities promised other developments – such as schools, hospitals, roads and other infrastructure projects – that never materialised.

The kyriarchal system ensured that local workers were ‘stripped of any kind of autonomy or power in the prison’ (p270). They were ‘expected to follow orders from the Australians without any thought or question’; their monthly salary equated to five days of their Australian peers’ work (p145).

Colonial logics seeped into broader ‘divide and rule’ exercises – Manusians received a steady diet of denigrating representations of migrants, and vice versa: prisoners were ‘dangerous criminals’ or ‘terrorists’ while Manusians were cast as ‘uncivilized’, ‘violent cannibals’. Terror was manufactured between them:

The kyriarchy produces terror /

Inhibitions of terror /

Foundations of terror /

Two groups living in terror (p168).

Amid these productions, some have struck ‘alliances’ and some ‘kindness and empathy’ emerged (p145). Dozens of children have now been born between Manusians and those detained.


Any kyriarchal system depends on the involvement of multiple organisations and agencies for its legitimacy. It is propped up by political, legal, governmental, media and educational actors, all of whom must either ignore, downplay or support its existence.

Through his book, Boochani continually observes those who play crucial roles in this oppression. He sees the ‘vulture-like’ journalists, who are always looking for horrific events to trade (p91). He castigates the interpreters, those ‘forbidden to express emotion’ and who have ‘totally surrendered their agency’ to become spokespeople for the system (p315). He denounces the doctors who encouraged drug dependency, and who never ‘set foot on the island’ (p312).

Within discussions, he reflected on the legitimising function of human rights workers. Gaining access to the prison via authorities, rights organisations research and write reports for the Australian state. Pleased with their work, they wait for change to occur. But nothing shifts. These human rights activities bolster the system and provide a cover for fundamental democratic deficits. They give the illusion that rights are engaged.


Amid the terror and the fear, Boochani is insistent about the power of creative actions – through prose, poetry, dancing, music and cabaret. Creative resistance cannot be easily controlled – for example, singing or writing can entertain, provide a piece of happiness and spite those in power. His book is dedicated to Janet Gilbraith, who set up Writing Through Fences, a space for refugee artists and writers. Alongside others, her actions have opened the possibilities for humanity and a sense of freedom to exist.


The kyriarchal system extends beyond Manus into a ‘border-industrial complex’ that controls subaltern groups across the world. While there is a common refrain that prisons like Manus are an anomaly in an Australia that is otherwise fair, generous and kind, Manus ‘is Australia itself’ (p158). The colonial logics that allow the gross over-representation of Indigenous people in carceral sites, their over-policing and their early preventable deaths are those that allow Manus prison to ever exist.

Still, the lived experiences on Manus, or other sites, are usually hidden from our view. We seem to prefer it like that. Despite the steady flow of criticism directed to Australia from UN members, New Zealand has avoided direct formal criticism of the Australian treatment of asylum seekers. Perhaps it is too politically difficult, or maybe Australia acts as our ‘gatekeeper’, doing our dirty work and keeping ‘them’ out. Whatever the rationale, we are inevitably part of the same kyriarchy that sustains these forms of state-institutional violence.

Elizabeth Stanley, Institute of Criminology, Victoria University of Wellington.

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