Government policy and Indigenous incarceration rates

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One in six Aboriginal persons is gaoled in WA — such compelling evidence is a damning indictment of the brutality of our penal system and failed government policies, says Gerry Georgatos

GOVERNMENTS lay claim to delivering policies on the basis of evidence and compelling data. 

How then do Australian governments explain the failed penal estate?

The doubling of the prison population in less than two decades, the overcrowded prisons, the high reoffending lives, the outrageous incarceration rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, the horrific death toll in the first year post-release.

The burgeoning penal estate is fracturing society, casting together underclasses of abject despair and degenerating many inmates to aggressive complex traumas with the impacts to be dished to generations unborn.

Ministerial bureaucrats and policy makers have often argued to me that they are evidence driven, that it is the data that defines policies, that compels the ways forward. If only.

We can argue the litany of evidence based programs around the nation and in our world that succeed but are not rolled out further by governments. Let us look at the persistence of governments to continue with failed policies.

The policy of ruthlessly punishing people has not only failed to deter the levels of various offending but worse, breaks people to the disordered, burdening them in a constancy of traumas. How, then, can any government and its bureaucrats who claim that data and evidence as be all, end all, justify their persistence with policies that not only fail but make things worse?

The monoculture of punishment is a monstrous electric storm without respite. In general, people come out of juvenile detention and prisons worse than they went in. Many do not survive the prison experience for too long on the outside, with the sickening statistical narrative that a former inmate is up to ten times more likely to suicide or die an unnatural death in the first year post-release than while in prison.

It grates that governments dish out the mantra that policy making is driven by compelling data and evidence. As someone driven by statistical narratives, I relentlessly call them out on their claim of evidence based policy making as untrue. Unless we step it up to bring them to account on this then little will change. The media also should leverage itself as a facilitator coupled with deep examinations and research. When little changes lives are lost.

Australia's statistics 

Western Australia’s culture of punishment as a deterrent to "crime" is the harshest in the nation. The Northern Territory ranks a close second. The harsher the punishment, the worse the outcomes for the people of Western Australia, with the state now home to 14 adult prisons and among the highest gaoling rates in the world when it comes to gaoling Aboriginal males. Western Australia has the world’s highest juvenile detention rate. Western Australia also has one of the world’s highest median incomes and is one of the world’s wealthiest societies.

Western Australia has legislated the nation’s harshest tough on crime policies only to fill prisons with the poorest, with the homeless, with the mentally unwell — with the outcome of more broken lives than ever before ruined further, with many beyond repair and even higher re-offending rates.

So, once again, if governments and their institutions thrive on evidence and data why are they not paying attention to the never before seen incarceration and re-offending rates? In Western Australia, one in six Aboriginal persons has been to gaol.

The impacts are not felt just by the individual but by families and communities, psychosocially, psychologically and psychiatrically and inter-generationally, by generations unborn. They are reflected in racism towards the majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

Western Australia is the mother of gaolers of Aboriginal peoples

Western Australia gaols its non-Indigenous residents at less than 200 per 100,000 adults while it is a diabolically radical story for Aboriginal residents, with an incarceration rate of 3,686 gaoled per 100,000 Aboriginal adults.

What does this mean? It means one of the world’s highest incarceration rates — actually it is at times, the world’s highest gaoling rate but for the last two decades, it has been either the highest or second highest. Only the Black American adult incarceration beats Western Australia’s Aboriginal adult male incarceration rate. The Australian rate of imprisonment is 191 per 100,000 adults.

The Northern Territory’s rate of imprisonment is also among the highest in the world – at last count 882 incarcerated per 100,000 adults for non-Indigenous compared with 2,954 per 100,000 Indigenous adults.

In punishing people instead of helping them, validating them, redeeming them, supporting them to hope and opportunity, we pollute their minds with disordered thinking, with anger, hate and self-loathing — we cripple them. We scatter into society as broken and ruined lives a subculture wilderness of grief.

The Northern Territory and Western Australian Indigenous gaoling rates should have the policy makers rushing around to urgently correct their disgracefully erroneous policy premises. If they had any semblance of dignity and honour they would be calling for an amnesty and immediate releasefor at least one third of the national prison population.

The Scandinavian nations have Europe’s lowest re-offending rates because of pro-human policies, restorative justice and transformational ways forward. The United States of America gaols one in four of the world’s prisoners, nearly one per cent of its own population. The United States is the punisher of all punishers. The whole world can look at America’s bent for ruthless punishment, its more than two million people incarcerated and the fractured society and should run scared from any contemplation that punishment is any way forward.

One in thirteen of Western Australia’s Aboriginal adult males are in prison. People degraded in dungeons of despair; wasting bodies, shattered minds. The degeneration by many into complex aggressive traumas is the mind’s eye seeking relief, a blacking out of the cruelness of humankind. The eyes no longer see, the ears no longer hear. The manacle of fears and the savaging of the human spirit are relieved by a breakdown of the mind, by disordered thinking.

Many bureaucrats and politicians see and understand the grim reality but idle quiet. They need to speak out and champion the ways forward.

The brutality of the obscene monoculture of punishment as a deterrent is played out in the violent silences of parliaments. The result of their silences is that more prisons will be built. As the prisons become overcrowded, conditions degenerate further into the hellish. Human lives battered into re-offending, the numbers swell, more prisons again are built, cells are smaller, more isolation units. 

Riots in prisons do not happen for the sake of it, the rioters have cause, they are screaming for help, for some humanity. They do not suicide without good reason. Prison suicides are often an act of resistance, to end the relentless oppression, to escape the oppressor.

I have seen the inside of prisons and I have seen the sprawling wilderness of hopelessness, the unmet needs.

If governments and policy makers want compelling data that they are failing people, that their polices are damning human worth and that they are failing the presumption of civil society then let us look at some of the nation’s most disturbing data.

In less than two decades, the national prison population has doubled and will double again according to trends in less than in a decade and a half, and then again in around a decade.

In the next decade, the post-prison release walking dead will increase from ten times the rate of suicidal ideation than while in prison, to more than twenty times.

Let's understand the data and the way forward

The national prison population stands at 35,000. Nearly nine in ten inmates have not completed Year 12. Two in three inmates did not complete Year 10.

More compelling data includes that more than half the nation’s inmates were unemployed prior to incarceration. This is deeply saddening if we reflect that Australia is one of the world’s wealthiest societies. One in four inmates was homeless prior to incarceration. Prisons are a dumping ground for the homeless — from the streets to prison back to the streets and so it goes. Or should it?

One in four inmates was diagnosed with mental health related issues and was medicated prior to incarceration. Prisons are also dumping grounds for the mentally unwell and not necessarily the criminally minded.

Two in three inmates were using illicit drugs prior their incarceration. All the evidence, national and global, argues that criminalising people for illicit substance use only increases the prison population, destroys lives and makes for the black market and the illicit drug trade.

If we are serious about compelling data then we’d reform the criminal justice systems and their penal estate. We would focus on healing, identity building, wellbeing and subsequent navigation to hope, training, education, work — this is what empowerment is really about it. This is what a civil society does. We would decriminalise substance "abuse" and consequently, radically reduce the black market illicit drug trade. We should be helping our most at-risk and our most troubled instead of punishing them.

The focus needs to be on the ways forward that validate people and improve and change lives. Where transformational narratives are invested in, all the evidence smiles broadly with what we all should want: to improve, change and save the lives of others.   

It predominately remains that compelling data and evidence do not drive policy but simple – and muddled – mindedness and prejudices drive policy making.

Gerry Georgatos is an adviser for Humanitarian Projects, Institute for Social Justice and Human Rights (ISJHR), Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Suicide Prevention Evaluation Project (ATSISPEP) and Wheelchairs for Kids charity. He is also co-editor of The Stringer.

You can follow Gerry on Twitter @GerryGeorgatos.

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