Indigenous Australia

Australia needs a civil rights movement to end mass Indigenous incarceration

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Australia's Indigenous incarceration rate is unjustifiable and an abomination, says Gerry Georgatos.

THE MASS INCARCERATION of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders should be a civil rights issue, one of the pressing issues of our generation.

The descendants of the First Peoples of this continent number a little over 700,000, but at least 80,000 have been to prison and more than likely more than 100,000. Nationally, one in eight has been to prison, while in Western Australia and the Northern Territory it is at least one in six.

Little is changing to reduce the diabolical incarceration rates. We’d be better off hitting the streets in the tens of thousands in protest to shine the light on the issues — to demand change. The changes that are needed will not come from the small steps promised with justice reinvestment or other piecemeal measures. If we continue to soak up the hogwash from the piecemeal, of the tinkering with this and that instead of radical social reforms and affirmative action, then by 2025 one in two of the descendants of the First Peoples of this continent will comprise the prison population — from broken lives to ruined ones.

Justice reinvestment is a small step in the right direction but that is all it is. We need to transform lives and this can be done but the public discourse remains reductionist, minimalist. There should be schools in prisons and juvenile detention, trauma recovery and restorative therapies, and leaving prison can be with educational qualifications, secured employment and a positive self. More needs to be done, authentically, in communities and towns too long neglected – and degraded – by one government after another. It is outrageous that some communities have never had a secondary school graduate. What hope for them?

Every state and territory government during the last quarter century has failed to reduce incarceration levels, failed to reduce offending, failed to transform the lives of the most vulnerable. Unless governments respond then nothing will have been learned from the Don Dale Royal Commission. During this quarter century stretch, every state and territory has increased its prison population — increased its sentencing rates. During the last quarter century, the national prison population has increased by 150%. Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders today comprise nearly 30% of the national prison population and, by 2025, will comprise one in two prisoners.

In 2002, the incarceration rate of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders was a horrifically high 1,262 per 100,000 Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander adults. Today, it is nearing 2,400 per 100,000. Non-Indigenous Australians are incarcerated at 156 per 100,000. It’s beyond any justification — it’s an abomination.

However, the narrative of human misery and suffering is worse in Western Australia, where Aboriginal adults are incarcerated at close to the world’s highest incarceration rate — second highest at 3,997 per 100,000. Western Australia enjoys the nation’s highest median wage — one of the world’s highest but not so its Aboriginal peoples. If you are born Black in Western Australia you have a two in three chance of living poor your whole life. The Western Australian incarceration increases annually — without fail. The 3,997 per 100,000 rate is recorded at mid-2016 whereas two years prior, it was at 3,745 per 100,000. The Northern Territory also owns an outrageous incarceration rate, 2,914 per 100,000.

Governments – one after another – screw people by steadfastly failing to translate this pressing issue as a national priority. The making of this nightmare has been made by our parliamentarians. It is racism. It is classism. It is an abomination. This statistical narrative competes with the mother of gaolers, the United States, with its own abominable, racialised incarceration narrative of African-Americans and Hispanic people. The incarceration rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is an abomination — moral, political and otherwise, bespeaking of diabolical racism unfettered. In Western Australia – the mother of gaolers – one in 13 of Aboriginal adult males is in prison today. One in six of Western Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have been to gaol — and the parliamentarians remain tight-lipped.

Up to one in four of the State’s Aboriginal adult males have been to prison. The impacts are not only burdened on these individuals but deeply felt by their families, by their children; the functions and objectives of the family significantly damaged. The majority of these families dwell in acute disadvantage intersected by chronic poverty, lack of education and their core identity culturally disconnected — isolating them from psychosocial supports and determinants. From a transgenerational vantage, generations unborn will feel the impacts, as do the disadvantaged and marginalised generations of today — whether in remote towns and communities or in the urban masses.

The most at-risk age group are the 20 to 30-year-old males who suicide at the nation’s highest rate. If you are an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander aged 15 to 35 years, nearly one in three deaths in that age group will be a suicide. If you are an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander male aged 20 to 30 years, nearly one in two deaths in this age group is a suicide.

What sort of nation is this?

  • One in four of WA’s Indigenous males at some point in their lives gaoled.
  • One in six of WA’s Indigenous peoples at some point in their lives gaoled.
  • One in 13 of WA’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adult males are in prison today.
  • One in four of the nation’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicides occur in Western Australia.
  • One in four males are gaoled.
  • One in six are gaoled.
  • One in 13 adult males are in prison today.
  • Around 15% of the nation’s Indigenous suicides occur in the Kimberley.
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Kimberley, NT and far north Queensland have among the world’s highest suicide rates.
  • Nationally, if you are an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander aged 15 to 35 years, nearly one in three deaths is a suicide.
  • If you are an Indigenous male aged 20 to 30 years of age, nearly one in two deaths is a suicide.
  • 30% of the nation’s youth suicides (to age 17) are Aboriginal.
  • 80% of the nation’s suicides of children aged 12 years and less are of Aboriginal children.

Western Australia often wins hands down the diabolical title of "mother of all gaolers" — gaoling its Indigenous peoples at often the world’s highest rate. It competes with and regularly surpasses the African-American gaoling rates. 

Western Australia is closely followed by the Northern Territory and then by South Australia in abominable gaoling rates of First Peoples. In other nations, this would not just fire up as a human rights issue but explode on a civil rights platform, tens of thousands onto the streets in a relentless campaign crying out for the common good — that black lives matter. But all up, Australia sits quiet, huddled in the stricture of its two-century-old racism. Those in desperate defence of the Australian "silence" victim-blame, scapegoat, drown out the ways forward with the cheap mantras of "self-responsibility".

One in every 15 African-Americans is in gaol. One in 13 of Western Australia’s Aboriginal adult males is in gaol. One in 36 of America’s Hispanics is in gaol. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, one in every three African American males can expect to go to gaol sometime during their lifetime. In Western Australia, it’s a similar discriminatory tale, with one in three to four Aboriginal adult males going to gaol sometime during their lifetime. Ironically, Western Australia is one of the world’s wealthiest regions.

It is my experience, in working with prisoners pre and post-release and in guiding former inmates into education, that, in general, people come out of prison worse than they went in — situational trauma becomes multiple, composite and for many, aggressively complex.

The Australian gaoling rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders is higher than the world’s highest sovereign gaol rates. The Seychelles has the world’s highest sovereign gaoling at 799 per 100,000 and the United States of America is second with 698 per 100,000.

In Australia:

  • NSW gaols its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples at around 2,000 per 100,000, while non-Aboriginal Australians are gaoled at 142 per 100,000 — 14 times higher.
  • South Australia gaols its Indigenous people at around 2,300 per 100,000 and gaols non-Aboriginal Australians at 151 per 100,000 — 15 times higher.
  • The Northern Territory gaols its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples at around 3,000 per 100,000 and gaols non-Aboriginal Australians at 144 per 100,000 — 20 times higher.
  • Western Australia gaols its Indigenous people at 4,000 per 100,000 and gaols non-Aboriginal Australians at 159 per 100,000 — 25 times higher.

The average age of male Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander inmates is 30 years and of females, 31 years and the most populous age group in prison are the 25 to 29-year-olds (21%). Males make up 91% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in prison. Female incarceration rates are increasing and the female Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prison population sadly will soon pass 1,000. The criminal justice system and the statistical narratives prove that we have a long way to go before we achieve racial equality. The mass incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders is the civil rights issue of the 21st century. In the United States, the Black Lives Matter movement is gripping the nation, but in Australia, our parliamentarians barely mention the incarceration rates.

Prisons are not restorative and rehabilitative experiences, they are punitive penal estates that guarantee high levels of reoffending rates and therefore the criminal justice system is a broken one. But so too the minds of our legislators manacled with their punitive mantras. We are filling our prisons with low-level offenders, with the acutely disadvantaged, the marginalised, the mentally unwell, with people in possession of illicit substances they used to escape their tumults and disadvantage. We are not helping people improve their lives.

It will take significant political reforms to repair or rebuild the inequities of the criminal justice system for Indigenous Australians. Justice reinvestment is a positive step, but only a step in the right direction. It is not political reform, it is not a reformation of the criminal justice system, it is more postvention than prevention. We need more than just kick starts, we need to put equality first. Or we can continue lying to each other and to ourselves. The discourses need to be broad if we are to get on the road to panacea, to equality and to prove that we believe that black lives matter.

If we do not, then by 2025, one in two Australian prisoners, three in four of WA’s prisoners and one in five Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders will have spent time in gaol.

We need to get on the journey to political reform, criminal justice system reform, addressing racialised inequalities, transforming prisons into restorative experiences and putting the onus on improving the lot of others. The bullshit has to be set aside. We have to stare into the depths of the abyss and bring everyone out.

Gerry Georgatos is a suicide prevention researcher and restorative justice and prison reform expert with the Institute of Social Justice and Human Rights. He is a member of several national projects working on suicide prevention, particularly with elevated risk groups and in developing wellbeing to education to work programs for inmates and former inmates. You can also follow Gerry on Twitter @GerryGeorgatos.

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