Broken parole or broken communication?

A Yolngu mother called our office – her son was being offered parole but had no understanding of what ‘parole’ meant. Our Yolngu co-producer, Dianne Gondarra, checked with her contacts and found that no one within the community actually understood what parole meant either.

Without a clear understanding of the meaning of the word ‘parole’, it’s impossible for Yolngu parolees to stick to their parole conditions. This is why so many Yolngu end up being penalised and put back in jail. An Aboriginal man was tasered by police in NT last week because he showed up to ask about fines and was told he was under arrest for an unrelated parole revocation order instead.

There is so much failure to communicate mainstream legal issues with original Australians. Legislation changes, fines are handed out, and they are supposed to attend court but they don’t use calendars, so when they miss a court appearance there’s a warrant out for their arrest. People can quickly go from a small fine to a jail term.

Yolngu people tell us all the time, ‘we don’t know what the mainstream court procedure is about’. ‘What does a ‘warrant’ mean? Without proper translation of legal terms they are dependent on others to understand what’s going on. No wonder it leads to anger, depression, anxiety, and wanting to just go off and get drunk.

This is a hard subject for English first-language speakers to understand. But imagine if you were being jailed under the Yolngu Madayin system of law. And you have to work through understanding Yolngu Matha academic words like ‘bäyarra’, ‘Dhulmu Mulka’, ‘Makarrata’ and so on.

Our Yolngu co-producers have helped to create a law podcast series, providing answers to these confusing legal questions. People need access to fundamental information like this in their own language. English legal terms are examined in Yolngu Matha, like understanding what is meant by an ‘unexpired sentence’. The English word ‘sentence’ has many different meanings in different contexts. And the word ‘unexpired’ is complicated because Yolngu Matha is a suffixing language. In most cases prefix words are understood without the prefix, leading to a complete misunderstanding because ‘unexpired’ to them, simply becomes ‘expired’.

If we are to stop this cycle of imprisonment and violence, then let’s look at the root cause. Indigenous Australians need access to discussions like these, that help them navigate the minefield of concept language in the English speaking world.


For our full podcast on ‘parole’ in Yolngu Matha language click here.
To check out our ongoing law series and learn about the original Australian law, click here.

1 Comment

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  1. Rachel Wilson

    This is completely true. I have never thought about this before, we are expected to know what all the legal jargon means. I have English as a first language but I don’t understand what “unexpired sentence” means.

    So confusing! Now I have an idea of what my patients must be feeling when I’m giving them white fulla medicine and I’m trying to explain it to them.

    Thank you so much,