‘I did kind of wonder if we were going to regret it’: Royce Akers on Vice AUSTRALIA’s Incarceration Issue

Think about this: Australia spent $3.4 billion on corrections last year; 35,467 were imprisoned at last count. Prisoners cost $292 a day, on par with the average Australian’s daily wage. Men are imprisoned 12 times as often as women. Twenty-eight percent of prisoners are Torres Strait Islanders or Aboriginal.

Those are some of the statistics unveiled today in Vice AUSTRALIA’s Incarceration Issue, a special edition focusing on what the magazine calls the country’s “complicated relationship with imprisonment.”

This isn’t about prison porn, says editor Royce Akers. It’s intended to be “an audit of Australia’s most pressing social issues from the facilities that authorities don’t want you to see.”

Here’s what Akers had to say in a Q&A with Walkley Magazine commissioning editor Clare Fletcher.

Indigenous hip-hop artist Adam Briggs went to Reiby Juvenile Justice Centre in south-west Sydney. Photographer Ben Sullivan tagged along for Vice AUSTRALIA's Incarceration Issue.

Indigenous hip-hop artist Adam Briggs went to Reiby Juvenile Justice Centre in south-west Sydney. Photographer Ben Sullivan tagged along for Vice AUSTRALIA’s Incarceration Issue.

You’ve done special issues in the past – like Saving South Sudan – what makes you decide a story or issue is primed for this intensive treatment? Is it a case of writers/contributors bringing a story to you, or as editor do you make that call?

For this local edition, we chose the topic because we looked at the stories coming in, as well the stories that our smart and passionate young readers respond to the most, and found they all shared incarceration as their worst-case endpoint. If you fall afoul of drugs, refugee policy, Aboriginal disadvantage, poverty, or mental illness in Australia, it’s likely you’ll end up in some kind of prison, at which point you’re out of sight and out of mind. We looked at incarceration as a lens for looking at Australia’s most pressing social issues.

What can you tell us about the stories in this issue – which are you most excited about?

Well for starters, these stories represent a kind of snapshot of incarceration in Australia. We’re not getting to the bottom of the problem—the answers to a lot of the questions arising from how we lock people up aren’t just floating around out there ready to be put into practice.

So what we’ve tried to do is look at the issue from as many different angles as possible and suggest to the reader that we shouldn’t take for granted that our prison and detention systems are working, because in a lot of cases they’re not.

As for what I’m most excited about, there’s a great investigation into the disappearance of the boss of Barwon Prison which is really haunting. There’s also an as-told-to by Tas Pappas (subject of the award-winning film All This Mayhem) that I think people will find very interesting and entertaining. There’s a really great interview with documentary-maker Eva Orner, who is one of our heroes. The other thing I’ll mention is that a bunch of our CD reviews were written by kids at a juvenile justice centre in Melbourne, which I’m glad we could make happen.

Tell us about some of your contributors for this issue – how did you find them, or did they find you?

We had a mixture of regular contributors and ring-ins (freelancers) working on this issue. Through our guest managing editor Nadia Saccardo, we got John Birmingham to write about supermax prisons, and a few others who hadn’t written for us before.

When you have a topic where the only people who want to talk to you are on one side of the issue, you start to worry where the balance will come from.

Were there lots of legal and logistical hoops to jump through in terms of finding and fact-checking stories that institutions, prisons and government aren’t really itching to have in the public domain? I imagine you work with a number of younger writers and their fearlessness in the face of those institutional monoliths is really valuable in getting a fresh take on the issues. Did you find they needed much editorial support in navigating access to sources?

Yes there were definitely hoops and at the beginning of the process, we took that as a sign we’d chosen the right subject. But then as time went on, and we got closer and closer to our deadline, I did kind of wonder if we were going to regret it. When you have a topic where the only people who want to talk to you are on one side of the issue, you start to worry where the balance will come from. Which is why we mostly tried to tell personal stories. Then it was mostly a case of ensuring everything was being dealt with sensitively. But yes, there were times when we had a lot of despondent young writers turning up to work to just get rejected over and over again. Looking at the finished product though, I’m glad we went down this path.

As well as the print issue hitting streets, what special coverage will you do online? How do you strike that balance of great writing, attention grabbing visuals and the documentary video VICE specialises in – and how do you package the complexity and nuance of those stories for a young audience to discover and share these stories online and through social media?

All of the print content will also run online, for all those people who can’t get a physical copy of it. There’ll also be a special multi-part documentary series looking at Indigenous incarceration that will launch at the same time.

As for how we look and feel, I think it’s less about packaging and more about delivering stories young people want to read. Our audience is sophisticated and demands to be engaged on an intelligent level. If our content looks great, it’s because we’ve taken the time to treat our subjects and our audiences with respect. If you think something is important, you make an effort to present it properly. And if you respect your audience, you do the same.

What kind of online (and offline) conversation are you anticipating to spark off the publication of the Incarceration issue?

Well, there are plenty of questions. For example, are prisons for punishment or rehabilitation? At the moment we kind of have this semi-defined belief that we can have it both ways, which if you look at the numbers around recidivism, isn’t true. But the key thing, like I said earlier, is that we don’t take prisons for granted. Prisons allow the fortunate majority of us to feel protected, but they’re also places where a lot of important social issues are shut away and not talked about. If we care about things like fairness, which most young Australians do, we should definitely talk about prisons more than we currently do.

Why do you think this kind of journalism is essential, and who else do you think is reporting like this in Australia and abroad?

It’s essential because this generation cares about the world more than most media gives them credit for. It’s easy to look at the ratings and say that young people aren’t watching the TV news and are therefore apathetic. And that’s fairly typical of how media deals with young people. They say, well when you’ve grown up, you’ll consume the news like your parents do. Or they try to find ways to jazz up the news, which generally means some kind of celebrity panel. What we’ve seen is that when you create content for young people that elevates the subject and doesn’t dumb it down, they respond.

From Briggs: Live at Juvie:

Royce Akers is editor of Vice AUSTRALIA, which just published the Incarceration Issue. On Twitter: @RoyceAkers @viceau.

Vice AUSTRALIA has partnered with The Walkley Foundation on Storyology, our annual festival of media and creativity, Nov. 11-14, 2015. Register and learn more.