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 8 has been to prison, while in Western Australia and the Northern Territory it is at least one in 6.
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 a 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 per cent. Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders today comprise nearly 30 per cent of the national prison population and by 2025 will comprise one in two of prisoners. In 2002, the incarceration rate of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders was a horrifically high 1,262 Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander adults 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 adults but Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander adults are incarcerated at 2,346 per 100,000 Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander adults. It’s beyond any justification – it’s an abomination. However the narrative of human misery and suffering is worst in Western Australia where Aboriginal adults are incarcerated at close to the world’s highest incarceration rate – 2nd 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 jailers, the United States, with its own abominable racialised incarceration narrative of African-Americans and Latinos. 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 jailers, one in 13 of Aboriginal adult males is in prison today. One in 6 of Western Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders living have been to jail – 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 and 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 and 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?
- 1 in 4 of Western Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander males at some point in their lives jailed.
- 1 in 6 of Western Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders peoples at some point in their lives jailed.
- 1 in 13 of Western Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adult males are in prison today.
- 1 in 4 of the nation’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicides occur in Western Australia.
- Around 15 per cent of the nation’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicides occur in the Kimberley.
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Kimberley, the Northern Territory 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 3 deaths in that age group is a suicide.
- If you are an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander male aged 20 to 30 years of age nearly one in two deaths is a suicide.
- 30 per cent of the nation’s youth suicides (to age 17) are Aboriginal.
- 80 per cent 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 jailers’ – jailing its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples at often the world’s highest rate. It competes with and regularly surpasses the African-American jailing rates. Western Australia’s Black adult males are jailed at an incarceration rate of more than 5,000 per 100,000.
Western Australia is closely followed by the Northern Territory and then by South Australia in abominable jailing rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. In other nations this would not just fire up as a human rights issue but explode as 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, in origins-of-thinking one and two centuries old. 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 jail. One in 13 of Western Australia’s Aboriginal adult males are in jail. One in 36 of America’s Hispanics are in jail. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics one in every three African American males can expect to go to jail sometime during their lifetime. In Western Australia it’s a similar discriminatory tale, with one in three to four Aboriginal adult males going to jail sometime during their lifetime.
Out of the total Australian population of 23 million nearly half a million Australians living have been to jail. However, around 100,000 of the half million Australians living who have been are Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders. Therefore no less than one in 8 and up to one in 6 nationally have been to jail. But in Western Australia the story is worse. Western Australia is home to around 80,000 Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders with more than 2,000 adults in prison and more than 2,000 children removed from their families into the care of the State. Thousands are homeless. 12,000 to 15,000 of the 80,000 have been to jail, that’s around one in 6 jailed but it is likely higher. For males, one in 3 to 4 has been to prison. The incarceration rates are increasing and therefore if you are born an Aboriginal male in Western Australia, one in three can expect to go to jail. Ironically, Western Australia is one of the world’s wealthiest regions.
It is my experience in working with prisoners pre- and post-release, 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 trauma.
The Australian jailing rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders is higher than the world’s highest sovereign jail rates. The Seychelles has the world’s highest sovereign jailing at 799 per 100,000 and the United States of America is 2nd with 698 per 100,000.
- NSW jails its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples at around 2,000 per 100,000 while non-Aboriginal Australians are jailed at142 per 100,000 – 14 times higher.
- South Australia jails its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples at around 2,300 per 100,000 population and jails non-Aboriginal Australians at 151 per 100,000 – 15 times higher.
- The Northern Territory jails its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples at around 3,000 per 100,000 population and jails non-Aboriginal Australians at 144 per 100,000 – 20 times higher.
- Western Australia jails its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples at 4,000 per 100,000 population and jails 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 per cent). Males make up 91 per cent 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 towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. 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; we need to put first people, humanity and do the difference. 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 of Australia’s prisoners will be an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander. If we do not, then by 2025, three in four of Western Australia’s prisoners will be Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. If we do not, then nationally by 2025 one in 5 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders living will have spent time in jail and in Western Australia, one in 2 or 3 Aboriginal adult males can expect to go to jail.
We need to get on the journey to political reform, to reforming policing and the criminal justice system, to addressing racialised inequalities, to transforming prisons into restorative experiences, to 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.