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Prisoners bond and rediscover pride through playing in local AFL league

Officer in charge of the Datjala Work Camp Mandy Crow at the local football oval in Nhulunbuy.

As a boy growing up on the streets of Broome, in northern WA, Todd Carter found himself roped into a life of petty crime — a cycle from which he couldn’t escape.

Key points:

  • A team of prisoners has been welcomed into a local AFL league in Arnhem Land
  • The Datjala Tigers have just finished their inaugural season
  • NT Corrections staff say the Tigers help the men find pride and assists in rehabilitation

It was a choice that landed him behind bars in his mid-20s in Darwin’s daunting Holtze Prison, a place he describes as “hell on earth”.

“That’s hell. That’s hell on earth. It’s evil in there. You don’t want to go there,” Carter said.

“You miss out on life, you know?”

Now, the father of four has reached what he describes as his own personal path to “redemption” — on a footy field in the remote Northern Territory.

Carter is among a group of prisoners from the Datjala Work Camp on northeast Arnhem Land’s Gove Peninsula who have been allowed to join the local AFL league for the first time.

‘They’ve been super competitive’

The Datjala Tigers entered the Gove AFL (GAFL) competition in 2020, and despite their backgrounds and prisoner status, were welcomed wholeheartedly by the community.

Mandy Crow, the officer in charge at Datjala Work Camp, said the team felt instantly accepted.

Officer in charge of the Datjala Work Camp Mandy Crow at the local football oval in Nhulunbuy.
Officer in charge of the Datjala Work Camp, Mandy Crow, at the football oval in Nhulunbuy.(ABC News: Michael Franchi)

“We went to the local GAFL and asked all the teams if they’d be willing to accept us into the season and into the local league,” Ms Crow said.

“Luckily they said ‘yes’ and here we are.”

GAFL president Tavis Perry said the Tigers brought a new spirit to the league.

“They’ve just got so much enthusiasm,” he said.

“It’s brought an enormous amount to the league, a bit more interest, and they’ve been super competitive as well.

Dermott Wunungmurra during training with the Datjala Tigers.Dermott Wunungmurra during training with the Datjala Tigers.
Dermott Wunungmurra during training with the Datjala Tigers, who compete in the Gove AFL League.(ABC News: Michael Franchi)

Tigers co-captain Frank Ingram said the squad was made up of men from across northern Australia, with an ever-rotating line-up thanks to parole and release of prisoners.

“It’s incredible, actually,” Ingram said.

“We’ve got fellas from all different communities and they’re actually starting to communicate with each other.

“We’re starting to become one as a team.”

Tigers breaking traditional prison model

The Northern Territory continues to have the worst rate of Indigenous incarceration in Australia, recent ABS statistics show, more than tripling the second highest state of WA.

At the Datjala Work Camp, about 95 per cent of the inmates are Indigenous.

Ms Crow said playing for the Tigers offered those prisoners a new model to help them rehabilitate.

The Datjala camp started out with a stumble in 2015, after a prisoner who escaped into the community was identified as convicted murderer Edward Horrell.

But since then, Ms Crow said her staff had worked hard to iron out the kinks, handpicking the prisoners deemed suitable to be out there, and giving them the chance to reintegrate in close contact with the community.

The Datjala Tigers in a team shot on the oval.The Datjala Tigers in a team shot on the oval.
The Datjala Tigers, a team of prisoners from the local work camp, completed its first season in the GAFL this year.(ABC News: Michael Franchi)

Ms Crow said some of the men from the work camp had recently finished serving their time, been released and were now working paid jobs around the Gove community.

But they still wanted to play for the Datjala Tigers.

“It’s great to see they still support us and I think it’s a bit of a reflection of the time they had with us, too,” Ms Crow said.

Although the Gove AFL season finished yesterday without a trophy for the Tigers — they ended in the middle of the league ladder — they will be back for another crack next year.

Source: AFL NEWS ABC