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The problem of Australia's Indigenous people behind bars needs to be addressed immediately (Image via twitter.com/Mediacoachasia)

Gerry Georgatos explores the reasons behind Australia's devastatingly high Indigenous imprisonment rate.

AS A PREDOMINATELY experiential researcher and journeyer to homeland communities, and having worked for more than two decades alongside the incarcerated, homeless and suicide affected, I have looked at the national prison population numbers during the last two decades, and disaggregated an estimated minimum 100,000 of First Nations people having been to prison. In comparing global data, it is the highest rate of racialised incarceration in the world.

More than 500,000 Australians still living have been to prison. Therefore one in 50 Australians have been to prison. However, of the 500,000, more than 100,000 are Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders — First Nations persons. Up to 120,000 have been to prison. With more than 700,000 Australians identifying as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander, more than one in seven have been to prison. From a racialised lens this is the world’s highest gaoling rate. Australia’s First Nations peoples are gaoled at a higher rate than the Black American gaoling rate.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics and Corrective Services, Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander prisoners represent 27% of the total adult prisoner population. Of the more than 500,000 living Australians who have been to prison, this indicates that thereabouts of 125,000 First Nations people have been to prison. In taking into account that the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander incarceration has been increasing each year for the last quarter century, I have accordingly estimated the minimum total of First Nations people likely to be still living who have been to gaol — 100,000.

There is a lot of talk once again about reducing incarceration rates, about reducing disparities, about targets and generational change.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics and Corrective Services, three states account for nearly three quarters of the total First Nations prisoner population — NSW with 28%, more than 3,200 First Nations prisoners, Queensland with 24%, more than 2,700 prisoners and Western Australia with 22%, more than 2,500 prisoners.

The national average daily Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander imprisonment rate is 2,440 persons per 100,000 adult Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population. According to the U.S. Justice Bureau, the African-American gaoling rate stands at 2,207 per 100,000. Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are gaoled at a higher rate than African-American gaolings.

The highest Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander imprisonment rate was recorded in Western Australia, 4,066 persons per 100,000 adult Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population — the world’s highest racialised gaoling rate.

If we are to understand the enormity of what I believe is a humanitarian crisis with far reaching generational implications, we need to understand the following.

Nearly 100% of incarcerated Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders are people who live below the poverty line. It is almost negligible the number of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders who are incarcerated who were living above the poverty line.

300,000 First Nations descendants live below the poverty, with a significant proportion living in extreme poverty. Nearly 100% of First Nations people who are incarcerated are from the 300,000. The intersection of poverty and incarceration is not rocket science and it is where we must focus all attention.

Overall, the authentic pathway to significantly reduce offending and the prison population are to lift people out of poverty, to improve life circumstances.

More than one in three of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders living below the poverty line have been to prison.

Nationally, one in seven Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders have been to prison, one in three of those who live below the poverty line. One in five Western Australian and Northern Territorian Aboriginal peoples have been to prison. One in six South Australian Aboriginal people have been to prison.

Presently, one in 12 of Western Australia’s Aboriginal adult males are in prison and, from a racialised lens, this is the world’s highest gaoling rate.

One in four Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander males has been to prison. The increase in impoverished Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander females is alarming.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, more than 80% of the national prison population has not completed secondary schooling, while nearly 100% of the national prison population comprising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders has not completed secondary schooling.

I have worked with hundreds of suicide affected families and, in my experience, nearly 100% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicides are of people who lived below the poverty line. Suicides of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons who lived above the poverty line are few and less than non-Indigenous suicides of people who lived above the poverty line.

Nearly 100% of the children removed by child protection authorities, Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander and of Australian children in general, lived below the poverty line.

If the ways forward do not concentrate on tackling poverty and extreme poverty, then they are not ways forward and more people than ever before will be left behind.

Imagine the devastating psychosocial impacts on families and communities not just presently but for generations unborn.

The further west we journey across this continent, the worse the statistical narratives, the worse the hits on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the higher the homeless rates, the more acute the poverty, the worse the destructive behaviours, the sense of hopelessness, the depressions and clinical disorders, the higher the premature and unnatural death and suicide rates.

There is an urgent need for more affirmative actions, for the lifting of people out of poverty, for pathways to quality education and employment, for the full suite of infrastructure in all communities.

Nearly 25% of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders live remotely. They are stitched-up big time by our governments and by government-funded institutions. They are denied the equivalency of infrastructure, services and opportunity the rest of Australia enjoys, including remote non-Aboriginal towns.

Eight of ten children in remote communities do not complete Year 12.

There is an agenda of attrition by a thousand cuts to kill off these communities — it is obvious, or how else the neglect and ongoing degradation of the majority of these communities?

Nearly 100% of the near 18,000 Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander children removed by child protection authorities from their biological families lived below the poverty line.

 

There are 300,000 Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders living below the poverty line. Nearly 150,000 are children, with 18,000 having been taken away. The rate of removal is a choice, but one that is a moral and political abomination, reprehensible beyond words. The choice has been made to remove children at devastating rates rather than to invest everything possible into lifting their families out of poverty.

Presently, there are nearly 11,000 Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders in gaol. That’s 18,000 children removed, and 11,000 adults in gaol — all who live below the poverty line.

Nationally, by 2025, we are heading from today’s nearly one in three prisoners comprised of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders, to more than one in two.

Society should gear our governments to do as much as they can to reduce poverty, but when people finish up in gaol it should be a reformative, redemptive and transformational experience. There’s all this chatter of reintegration and reformation, but it is piecemeal, minimal stuff, pat on the shoulder stuff, helping with documents (Centrelink, drivers licences and the like) instead of training to employment, instead of education pathways, instead of intense and relentless psychosocial support, instead of outreach to the critically vulnerable. Justice reinvestment is a step in a right direction, but it is not the way forward to radically reducing reoffending and the prison population.

All the conversations should lead with the social determinants such as quality housing, quality community institutions, equality in the standard of infrastructure, education, recreation, services and in the ensuring of workforce parity and with the advancement of local residents. All the rest is damaging chatter and inequality.

When it comes to deaths in custody, we know the tragic toll, but in the first year following release, all the research shows that former inmates are up to 10 times more likely to suicide, or die an unnatural death, engage in risk-taking behaviour and substance abuse than at any time while in prison.

We strand people post-release with little or no hope on the horizon.

The levels of illiteracy among prisoners break the heart. There is an overall poor investment in education and wellbeing programs in our prisons, and the unmet needs outstrip supply. In the very least, prisons should be restorative and places of hope, heavily invested in healing and wellbeing programs and, from there, onward with education opportunities. If we corral people to the situational trauma of prison and punishment then we embed a constancy of traumas — multiple, composite traumas, and the degeneration for many people into complex and aggressive traumas.

As a society, we should be doing everything possible to keep people out of prison and not everything we can to gaol people, but where prison is the outcome, then everything must be done to help the people within them.

Let us better understand how many First Nations people have been to gaol. The rates of incarceration tell of gruesome disparity: First Nations people being gaoled at 16 times the rate of the rest of the nation’s peoples. Let us tell of a human catastrophe: of 120,000 First Nations people having been to gaol and that, as soon as 2025, Australia is looking at one in two of its prison population comprised of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders.

The mantra that the Commonwealth Government annually spends thereabouts $30 billion on “Indigenous disadvantage” is a lie. Australia should start spending billions of dollars, long overdue, on ending disadvantage, particularly extreme poverty and on equality.

Gerry Georgatos is a suicide prevention researcher and restorative justice and prison reform expert with the Institute of Social Justice and Human Rights. You can follow Gerry on Twitter @GerryGeorgatos.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License

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