Inmates playing a scratch match of football on Thursday at Alice Springs Correctional Centre, where Liam Jurrah is serving a 12-week stint.

Inmates playing a scratch match of football on Thursday at Alice Springs Correctional Centre, where Liam Jurrah is serving a 12-week stint. Photo: Getty Images

On the morning of the day when Richmond and Essendon celebrate indigenous football in their "Dreamtime at the G", and Melbourne and Port Adelaide meet in a ground-breaking game at Alice Springs, Liam Jurrah will be cleaning dishes in prison, just 25 kilometres from his former Demon teammates.

The once-spectacular Jurrah obviously cannot see the Demons, and none of them will see him in their brief, all-business visit. But he is far from isolated or alone in the large Alice Springs Correctional Centre, on the Stuart Highway. His father Leo shares a dormitory with him and a dozen or so others, while his mother Corrina is incarcerated in the same prison, though the women and men are kept apart in the facility that houses 500-plus prisoners. He can only see her –  as he did once recently – in the visiting area.

Jurrah is about halfway through his second 12-week stint for assaulting his partner – having served a three-month stretch for an assault against a woman outside a 24-hour store in 2013. He has been watching the Dees on free-to-air television. "No Foxtel," he said of his prison, where he also has the company of cousins and in-laws. "I’m fine," he said, in response to the well-being question. 

He wants to play footy again, planning to start with "a couple of games with South Alice (Springs)" and hopefully finals upon his July 20 release. He then hopes to resume in the Darwin summer competition with the Tiwi Bombers, alongside his ex-Demon mate Austin Wonaeamirri, where he played last summer.

"It would be awesome to play under Paul Roos," he said. Jurrah has noted the improvement in Melbourne this year, speaking affectionately of Nathan Jones, Mark Jamar, Jeremy Howe, Jack Watts, of his immense sadness at Dean Bailey’s death, and of the effort Bailey and the late Jimmy Stynes had made to learn about his Warlpiri ways. Bailey, he said, had stayed in touch when the coach was in Adelaide. He discerned that his old team had a "different" way of moving the ball under Roos. "They hold on to the ball." 

To the question – which Jurrah says he is often asked – of whether he still thinks a return to AFL possible, he first acknowledged "it will be tough" but subsequently said he still held some hope for "a second or third chance" and expressed some determination to give it a go. He is, as he points out, still just 25. "I’ve still got my speed." 

At this stage, though, cleaning up the dishes has replaced footy training in his daily regimen. The guards have called him from the kitchen when we meet in the outdoor visiting area courtyard on an afternoon when the overcast sky matches the grey concrete brick of the correctional centre. The centre, erected in 1996, is encircled by the mandatory barbed wire, with a restrained, discrete version of the Shawshank-style look-out tower. To enter a room, the door behind has to click before the next door can be opened, in the manner of Get Smart.

On an oval outside, next to the visitors’ car park, two teams of inmates – one wearing Essendon jumpers, another Sydney Swans gear – will shortly play a footy scratch match. As the game beckons, Jurrah stands on the bench and cranes his neck to see if the players – all of whom are indigenous – have arrived. Not yet. He will not play this time.

A clean-shaven Jurrah is wearing a yellow windcheater and a wide-brimmed dark khaki hat that is tagged with his name and a formal serial number. The security desk, as per correctional centre policy, have politely removed my digital tape recorder, Nokia, notepad and – most significantly – ballpoint pen. Whatever Jurrah says will have to be remembered, and then swiftly regurgitated. Some questions are repeated, for certainty’s sake.

Jurrah is composed, forthright and articulate – English is his "second language" after Warlpiri, he explained, not his third tongue, as often reported. He seemed fit enough, reckoning he weighs 88 kilograms, his old playing weight. He had a worrisome health scare earlier this year, before incarceration, when he was flown to Adelaide to have an "an abscess taken out of my lung".

He suggested that drinking alcohol had worsened his lung condition. One silver lining of prison has been the absence of alcohol. "I’m better away from the grog," he says, or words to that effect. In sentencing, the magistrate ordered that he not drink alcohol  within the 12-month good behaviour period and that he can only return to Alice Springs –  where he wishes to resume footy with Darren Talbot, the coach of "South" and a mentor – with permission of the probation officer.

Talbot remains in his corner, but the tyranny of distance – and removal of his freedom – has seen Jurrah disengage from his Melbourne-based friends, such as the still-devoted Bruce Hearn Mackinnon, who was instrumental in bringing him from Yuendemu, 300 kilometres north-west of Alice Springs, to Melbourne.

The Demons also have disengaged from him somewhat. When the NAB Cup was on in Alice in February, he came to the game and greeted teammates. This time, there will be no person-to-person contact. Jurrah said he would watch the game on TV.

At the instigation of a local sporting figure, Charlie King, the Demons and Port players will link arms before the game in a stand against family violence and violence against women.

Jurrah has been playing basketball, usually in the afternoons with a cousin, plus some acoustic guitar, and "a little" footy. "I like to have fun." He has had visitors on the weekends, including the eight-year-old son who lives with his former partner, and his grandmother Cecily, who is in Alice and was most responsible for raising Liam.

The specifics of what happened between Jurrah and his partner isn’t delved into. He only refers to "family issues" and says that his partner, who lived with him in Melbourne, has visited him on most weekends. He’s more open about what undid him at Melbourne – the sequence of events that saw him charged and acquitted of attacking his cousin Basil with a machete in 2012 at Alice Springs, then leave the Dees.

"It was all Yuendemu," he said, to the question of how his AFL career was undone during 2012. He confirmed that he had been pulled in different directions by two factions, his father being on one side, his mother and grandmother on the other, in an intra-Yuendemu conflict   which exploded in Alice Springs. Jurrah said his father had been in his prison since last year. 

While it’s possible to view Jurrah as a victim of the Melbourne Football Club’s own "civil war" between those close to Bailey and others aligned with then chief executive Cameron Schwab and football chief Chris Connolly, Jurrah fingers the tribal dispute that has since ceased. 

"I was caught between," he said. He said it was difficult to explain the complexities of Yuendemu to outsiders. Jurrah’s story – with its improbable triumph followed by a fall – became a window for mainstream Australia to glimpse this wilfully ignored world. He said that even the media, after bursts of interest in his story, moved on. Coincidentally or not, Jurrah’s exit from the Demons signalled a tougher environment for the indigenous footballer in the AFL, whose numbers abruptly dropped from a peak of 11 per cent in 2011 to around nine per cent, with concern expressed about the trajectory last year. Clubs, increasingly, became risk-averse with players who were seen as higher maintenance, even if talented, as the AFL escalated to Olympian levels of preparation and training.

While the industry’s symbolic reluctance to draft the talented indigenous West Australian Dayle Garlett was ultimately vindicated, as Garlett left the Hawks before he started, Jurrah was a vastly different story, because he came from the desert, a fully initiated Warlpiri man, from a tribe with elderly people who had experienced first contact with white people. And Jurrah did make it, and made it big – he was among the fastest to 50 goals in AFL history. He just couldn’t stick.

"It’s harder for us remote guys (indigenous players)," he remarked, listing others from remote indigenous communities who had lately left their AFL clubs – his cousin Liam Patrick (Gold Coast), Amos Frank (Hawthorn) and Zeph Skinner (Bulldogs). Jurrah said he never experienced major injury until hurting the scaphoid – pointing to his wrist – in late 2011.

Jurrah found some similarity between the prison routines and the "seven days a week" rigours of AFL. This was not a complaint. At no stage, indeed, did he complain about his lot. "It’s easier (this time)," he said of his second three-month stint in prison.

In mid-afternoon, a prison announcement on loud speaker told the inmates to return to "the block" for "the muster". Jurrah had to remain in the visiting area, with myself and an affable female prison official, while every person was accounted for.

At this moment in Liam Jurrah’s life, he was just being counted, not counted on.