Indigenous Australia

Australia’s Indigenous children are incarcerated at the world’s highest rate

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Australians protest about Aboriginal children in detention (Image via

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are sentenced and incarcerated at the world's highest rate ahead of the mother of all gaolers – the USA – and in WA at 56 times the rate of non-Aboriginal children, writes Gerry Georgatos.

AUSTRALIA INCARCERATES Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in juvenile detention at the world’s highest rate; ranked second is the mother of all gaolers, the United States of America.

More than half of Australia’s juvenile detention is comprised of the poorest and most marginalised children in the nation, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. Where the Australian juvenile gaoling rate is just behind the American rate, standalone, the juvenile gaoling rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children is so high that the American juvenile gaoling rate has no chance of catching up and overtaking.

Australia’s criminal justice system, its sentencing laws, its punitive bent are carriages of broken lives to ruined lives, dooming young lives to the dark and lonely edges of society.

In the United States, the Annie Casey Foundation report ‘No Place for Kids: The Case for Reducing Juvenile Incarceration', only a few years ago assembled juvenile crime statistics that evidence why locking up children does not work but only serves to displace youth into a constancy of aberrant behaviours and into the culminations of criminality.

The United States criminal justice system and penal estate is the nightmare that every nation needs to avoid. One in four of the world’s prisoners are in an American gaol. Nearly 1% of the American population is in prison. The United States has thrown at inmates every imaginable punishment, degradation, humiliation, brutality, cruelty only to see prison after prison built and a despicably burgeoning industry of punishment around this penal estate.

Some American prisons, such as the chain gang and hell hole tent prisons of Arizona are in effect a mirror of Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and Bucca prisons. In fact, the architect of Arizona’s most gut-wrenching prisons, one of them one of the world’s most abominable and punishing prisons, was called upon by the George Bush Jr administration to help design Abu Ghraib and Bucca.

It is not just that we know that cruel punishment does not work, but we also have the evidence before us that kindness works, with the Scandinavian countries leading the way with prisons of a communal narrative driven by restorative and rehabilitative justice and practices, where lives are rebuilt and lives redeemed.

The Scandinavian countries have Europe’s lowest re-offending rates. In many Polynesian and Micronesian cultures there are no juvenile detention centres and children are, instead, mentored.

Why has Australia the highest incarceration rate of juveniles? It is an incarceration built on the back of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. Of children who should be supported and whose families need a helping hand.

Deprived communities are isolated by both the Australian silence and its coterie of prejudices that deliver the power imbalance of White privilege, White terms of reference. Equality long overdue is still denied and as long as White terms of reference are the hand that rules, then the divides will widen.

Protesters rally against placing Aboriginal children in detention

Only a few years ago, the Australian juvenile detention rate was a distant second to that of the United States, but today it is creeping up on the American rate. Juvenile detention incarceration fates the young to reoffending and as adults they finish up in and out of prison.

The incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults increases every year. Forget the deplorable rates of incarceration and instead understand the crude totals, so you understand the impact of incarceration. Set aside the fact 28% of the national prison population is comprised of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons. Understand, please, that one in nine of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders on this continent have been to prison. Therefore more than 80,000 (and up to 100,000) Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have been to prison. Consider this in terms of social reach and psychosocial impacts, in terms of families. Seventy per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families have a family member who has been or who is incarcerated.

The more west we journey across the continent, the higher the incarceration rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, the worse it gets.

In the Northern Territory and Western Australia, one in six of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders has been to prison. In Western Australia, one in 13 of Aboriginal adult males is in prison.

Last year, Amnesty International Australia reported that Western Australia gaols its Aboriginal youth at 53 times the rate of non-Aboriginal youth. A year later the rate is 56 times.

We saw recently the degrading and abominable behaviours of personnel at Don Dale juvenile detention centre, and of the appalling conditions children are detained and punished within. The situational trauma of incarceration, punishment enough, is compounded by a constancy of traumas. In general, the children come out of juvenile detention in a worse state than when they went in.

So what was the point of their incarceration?

To pile them with self-loathing, anger, hate so that they go off the rails?

Where is the mentoring?

Where is the counselling, the rebuilding of their identity and the restoring of their self-worth, of the improving of their lot?

On average, a child is imprisoned in juvenile detention for six months. To describe their incarceration as "detention", like it’s some after class school thing, is insulting.

What the nation was told by ABC’s Four Corners happened at Don Dale indeed happens across the nation at other juvenile detention centres. Riots do not happen for the "hell of it" but for good reason.

Only a few years ago, Banksia juvenile detention child inmates, up to half of the children imprisoned in Banksia, protested riotously. Protests and riots are a scream for help.

Corrective Services and their public relations mob can publicly define lockdowns, isolation units and "separations" in whatever way sells their bullshit, but in the end lockdowns, isolation units and separations are pits of cruelties, disgusting punitive crap that whip in layers of trauma, that damage the human psyche, that compel the human mind into disordered thinking and psychoses.

There are nearly 1,000 children incarcerated in juvenile detention, with more than half comprising Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. But there are also nearly 5,000 children sentenced to punitive community supervision orders.

More than a quarter of the Australian juvenile detention population have been removed from their families. Standalone for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children incarcerated it’s nearly one in two who at some point have been removed from their family. Instead of trauma informed recovery mentoring, the punishing and damaging continues to be piled on, as if the deal is to pulverise the spirit, to do in all and any chance of hope.

The nation’s most elevated risk group to serious depression and to suicide are individuals who as children were removed from their biological families.

The children who finish up in the dungeons of juvenile detention are among the nation’s most vulnerable children, damaged and hurting. They need our help, for us to validate them, not for us to take them from the broken to the ruined, to the irreparable, to toss them to the winds, to fate them to even worse. We who sit by and allow this to idle by are less than nothing.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation report is important because it notes despite the United States high rates of juvenile detention that indeed, unlike Australia, in some states the juvenile detention population has been decreasing. Many jurisdictions have moved towards various reformative practices, including restorative justice and to problem solving courts where victims, perpetrators and community elders are brought together.

The report was released in October 2011 and noted an emerging trend in which 18 States had closed more than 50 juvenile corrections facilities during the preceding four years.

The report found that within three years of release, 72% of the youth were convicted for re-offending.

More importantly, the report found that from 1997 to 2007, in the states which had engaged reformative practices and worked much more closely with their troubled youth, rather than locking them up, that they not only reduced juvenile detention numbers but also

'... saw a greater decline in juvenile violent crime arrests than States which increased incarceration rates or reduced them more slowly.'

Now that it has emerged that the United States cannot continue to afford to keep gaoling children the alternative is to try to ensure they do not offend or re-offend and work with them in humane ways rather than the brutalising force of locking them up and calling it detention.

Will Australia likewise wait till juvenile detention becomes as unaffordable as it has in the United States or will it act now as is it is weakly indicating?

Juvenile detention is not easy pickings or a hotel like stay for our youth. It is a prelude to adult prison. The Annie E. Casey Foundation report found that from 2000 to 2010, one in eight confined youth reported being sexually abused by either staff or other youth.

In 2010, the United States incarcerated 60,500 of its young. “Young people of colour” were disproportionately represented. Australia’s Aboriginal youth tragically outstrips the American culturally demographical incarceration rates.

Bart Lubow, director of the Juvenile Justice Strategy Group at the Annie E. Casey Foundation and a former director of Alternatives to Incarceration for New York State, said in October, 2011:

“This report highlights the crucial challenges facing the youth corrections field. Our hope is that the research will serve as a catalyst for developing more effective and efficient juvenile justice strategies.”

In the states with more large scale investment on prevention and reformative problem solving practices the reduction of juveniles being locked up and of serious re-offending has been profound. In Arizona, the reduction in the ten year period has been 47.9%, in Alaska 51.8%, in Arkansas 49%, in Connecticut 44.2%, in Indiana 57.4%, in Kentucky 54.4%, in Maine 52%, in Mississippi 51.2%, in Ohio 59.1%, in South Dakota 58.1%, in Utah 58.9% and in West Virginia 46.8%.

In Rhode Island, the reduction is 79% and in New Hampshire 86%.

The total number of juveniles in committed custody in the United States in 1997 was 75,406, but in 2007 this had been reduced to 60,426. Louisiana reduced its juvenile detention population from 2,190 in 1997 to 849 in 2007. Maine reduced its juvenile detention population from 225 in 1997 to 108 in 1997.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation report argued that even the reducing of the detention population, without extensive reformative measures in place, coincided with a reduction in arrest rates. This indicts the harshness of detaining children and adults, and that indeed a state of imprisonment brutalises people to such an extent that the situational trauma damages an individual’s operations and functions, degenerating them to continuing stress disorders post release and making them vulnerable to re-offending and not forgetting suicide.

In the first year post release, suicide rates are at least five fold the annual suicide rates in prisons and detention centres in Australia — this is an endemic finding throughout the world’s Western nations.

In 11 states that reduced juvenile incarceration by more than 42.5% and up to 60%, and hence with a median average reduction of 50.5%, this led to a 43.1% median average reduction from 1997 to 2007 in violent offence arrest rates. This is indicative that the prison experience is not only brutalising and damaging prisoners, but that it sends people back into society worse than they went in and therefore vulnerable to being dangerous to others.

Across the 50 states, the median change reduction in juvenile confinement from 1997 to 2007 was 20.1% and this led to a 36.5% reduction in juvenile violent offence arrest rates.

European countries have been working to lower juvenile detention rates. The Scandinavian countries are recording the greatest successes.

Norway has enjoyed profound success in reducing its prison population and in markedly reducing re-offending rates, with reformative practices and with more communal open-type prisons such as Bastoy. Norway has the lowest re-offending rates in Europe. But England and Wales with harsh penal estates have high juvenile detention rates.

According to the Howard League for Penal Reform, most of Europe deliberates juvenile offences as welfare issues and works to resolve the issues of troubled youth.

Honest Government Advert - We Tortured Some Kids

Once again, Australia’s Aboriginal youth are incarcerated at rates that make England’s and Wales’ rates of juvenile detention meek.

The 'No Place for Kids' report came up with several recommendations.

  • Change the laws to limit incarceration to those youths who have committed serious offences.
  • Invest in family focused treatment interventions while they are in detention.
  • There should be an investment into community based services.
  • Time on remand or as unsentenced must be reduced and access to problem solving courts and Children’s Court sped up.
  • Alternatives to detention centres should be facilitated.

In Western Australia, there is only one monolithic detention centre for all ages between 10 to 17 years. Alternatives can include treatment based group homes and supervised community group programs.

The report also suggested holding juvenile correction facilities to account by maintaining a database of what happens to youths in their care. This will determine what institutions and programs are working positively and hence which institutions and programs deserve tax payer investment.

To add my bit, I’d close juvenile detention centres.

A few years ago, I spoke with restorative justice expert Dr Brian Steels.

He said Australia had to look at its Aboriginal youth and stop blaming them and then punishing them.

Look at the disadvantaged youth of Spain, 50 per cent are unemployed but the crime rate has not spiked.

Indonesia has ten times the population of Australia and more Indonesians are in abject poverty than the whole of the Australian population, but few of their children are removed from the family into either the care of the state or into detention.

Poverty is not a crime, but our gaols are filling with the poor.

Dr Steels said that it is time families were assisted in ways that they in turn can provide the type of role modelling and nurture that children need.

He said that India has social problems that pale beside Australia’s social ills, but the Indians are not filling their juvenile facilities with their children.

“Everyone knows that children need their parents and that the key is parenting, and if we want to address the problems then we have to work with the families and communities.”

We should not forget that our prisons are filled with the victims and the children of the victims of the Stolen Generations.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are sentenced and incarcerated at three times the rate of non-Aboriginal children arrested. This is another reason why many of us are calling for the national rollout of the Custody Notification Service, on which I have written extensively.

Gerry Georgatos is a suicide prevention researcher, a prison reform expert and advocate who believes that children and adults should not be incarcerated for non-violent offences. He has visited prisons on a number of occasions to inspire the incarcerated to hope and various opportunities pre-release and post-release.

You can listen to Gerry Georgatos speak on incarceration, juvenile detention and the Custody Notification Service here and here. Independent Australia subscribers can listen to him speak to managing editor David Donovan on one of IA's exclusive podcasts hereYou can also follow Gerry on Twitter @GerryGeorgatos.

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