Generations of children are growing up without any parenting, set adrift by the impoverishment that led their parents to low level offending, by a shallow system bent on retribution. Many Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander children are growing up with at least one parent in jail. These children are hit by the trauma, but their trauma is multiple, composite and often escalates to complex trauma. They are intersected by disadvantage, dysfunction and this translates toxically as racism.
American researchers lament the plight of African American children with a parent in jail. Nearly one per cent of the American population is incarcerated, with the poor filling the prisons. America is a nation with a ruthless bent to lock away its poorest. It is estimated that one in fifteen African American children have a parent lost in the penal estate. However Australia per capita is wealthier than America. Australia in general is nowhere near as punishing of its poorest with the exception of the descendants of its First Peoples, the cultures of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders. From a racialised lens, Western Australia jails its Aboriginal adult males at the world’s highest rate. One in 13 of the State’s Aboriginal adult males are in prison. Western Australia, the Northern Territory and South Australia have abominable jail rates when stood alone to Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples.
What does this mean to the children? It means they are without a parent while at the same time dealing with the drudgery of poverty. It means many of them will finish up without an education, finish up in prison. Many will die young – substance abusing, suicide. It is obvious that there is an elevated risk of high levels of psychological distresses, acute depression, suicidal ideation if someone’s mum or dad, or both, are in prison.
The most recent Australian Bureau of Statistic’s Census reported that only 14 per cent of prison entrants had completed a Year 12 education. Only 40 per cent had got past Year 9. This speaks volumes. What are our governments doing about this? Next-to-nothing… The Arnhem community of Gunbalanya scored its first two female high school graduates in December 2013. The Northern Territory competes with the Americans on the jail rates – both have incarcerated nearly one per cent of their populations. But with the Northern Territory, 86 per cent of the prison population is comprised by Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples. The Juvenile Detention population is 98 per cent Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander youth. The generational poverty can be significantly reduced if prisons are transformed – to bastions of education, opportunity, hope.
For now prisons are dungeons.
Between one in six to one in ten Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people living today have been to jail. This horrific statistical narrative has decimated Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander society. Continually, they’ve got to dip into ‘resilience’ to carry on but the narratives of premature deaths, suicides are telling a different tale. Families are devastated, psychosocially, psychologically, psychiatrically. It does not pay to be Aboriginal in this nation, one that does not understand its common humanity. It is estimated that one in 15 African American children have a parent in prison. I estimate that at least one in 8 to one in 10 Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander children have a parent in prison. As the incarceration rates of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples increase – without fail every year for the last two decades – so too have the child removals, so too have the rates of shattered families and the collective culmination of high levels of psychological distresses in communities, particularly in the remote (homelands). Concomitantly, tragically, so too have the child and youth suicides. In the last ten weeks I have responded to a dozen young suicides – in the approach to the Christmas stretch there are elevated risks for struggling families, for families who have lost a loved one recently, for families with a loved one in jail. It breaks my heart; young people taking their lives in the lead up to Christmas or in the lead up to a birthday. In one community three young souls were buried next to each other, in a row; three funerals in five days. I attended. The youth suicides continue.
Generations of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander youth will continue to be lost unless we address racialised inequalities. Generations of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander youth will continue to be lost unless we transform prisons. Firstly, the majority of poverty related crimes, the low level offenders, should not be in jail. But if jails must be persisted with then we need to transform them to bastions of healing, psychosocial rebuilding, to mentoring people through to positive pathways, to education, to opportunities. It is not hard at all. It is only the will to do this that need be sought. I know first-hand that you can turn around lives, change lives, improve the lot of others. I have visited prisons, talked to prisoners, brought many of them into university education and other opportunities. None of those whom graduated from university went back to jail. We need to ensure a fair society, not this degradingly unequal, classist and racist society.
Generations yet to be born face being lost to everyone unless we do in the now what should long ago have been done. Prisons should not continue as dungeons of despair, as chambers of torture. Communities cannot be allowed to continue in racialised poverties. Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander communities must be provided with the full suite of services and opportunities equivalent to non-Aboriginal communities. True multiculturalism means that everyone should be allowed opportunity and the inalienable natural right to navigate their cultural settings without impost.
I reported in this article that one in every 13 of Western Australia’s Aboriginal adults are in jail. Well, I have been to communities in Western Australia and the Northern Territory where the sorry narrative is even worse. I have been to communities where one in six, one in seven, one in eight of all the males aged 20 to 40 are in jail. In small remote homeland communities of say 300, 400, 500 residents the impacts are visibly pronounced. The communities mourn, grieve the loss of fathers to the prison system. The spouses, the children grieve. Many fathers never return, some die in jail or soon after their release. Others come back in a worse state than when they were carted off to prison. Families and communities are further traumatised. The children are tormented. The next generation destined to more suffering. The unborn generations will feel the loss. It is not just that those left behind become economically poorer, worse is that they become emotionally poorer.
Being without a father in a toxically racist society intersected by disadvantage is often an overwhelming problem but to cripplingly compound problems more mothers too are finishing in prison. The grandmothers and grandfathers do what they can but the burden is growing. Then there is the rise of families with two, three and four family members in prison or who have done prison time. This is doing in all hope. The grief is too much and far too many turn to demons, alcohol and drugs.
Children need their father and mother. The system has to be reset to assist their parents. And everything possible needs to be done to score the children an education, a quality one. Education has proven again and again to radically reduce offending.
Declaration of impartiality conflict – Gerry Georgatos is a suicide prevention researcher and participatory in several national suicide prevention projects.
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Related articles by Gerry Georgatos
Australia’s overall prison rate of 151 prisoners per 100,000 population ranks 98th of the world’s 222 ranked nations. Australia is an affluent nation, the world’s 12th largest economy. However standalone Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders and compare their prison rate against the world’s national prison rates and they would have the world’s highest, just higher than the Seychelles which incarcerates at 799 per 100,000. The United States of America is second ranked at 698 per 100,000. However in Western Australia, First Nations peoples are incarcerated at more than 3,700 per 100,000. In Western Australia, one in 13 of all Aboriginal adult males is in prison.
No less than one in 10 and up to one in 6 Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders living has been to jail.
Forgiveness is not an act of mercy but of empathy, compassion, of virtue. According to vast bodies of research forgiveness has many benefits, outstripping negatives and risks. Forgiveness strengthens families, communities, societies. The most significant finding is the obvious, that forgiveness makes us happier. Forgiveness improves the health of people and communities. Forgiveness sustains relationships. Forgiveness builds and rebuilds lives. Forgiveness connects people, and what better medium for this than through kindness.
We should be abominated by a society that incarcerates the poorest of the poor, the sickest of the unwell, that effectively punishes minorities because assimilation wants them to give up their cultural being. We should be abominated by this nation where at least one in 10 and up to one in 6 of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders living have been to jail. This horrific statistical narrative should have long ago galvanised the nation to redress the intolerable racialised inequalities, the economic inequalities, the discrimination.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 86 per cent of prisoners did not complete Year 12. More than 30 per cent did not get past Year 9.
The total number of suicides among Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander children, for all children in fact, appears low. The registered suicides are probably two to four times higher depending on the State and Territory jurisdiction. In some States and Territories the coroner is unlikely to provide a determination of ‘suicide’ to a child aged 13 years and less because of the presumption that children below that age are not capable of ‘forming’ an adequate understanding of ‘suicide’. Therefore some coroners provide an ‘undetermined intent’ finding or an ‘external cause’ finding.