The Northern Territory and Western Australia are Australia’s backwaters, at least in terms of negative impacts for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people – children, youth and adults. The NT’s and WA’s statistics – prison, juvenile detention, homelessness, extreme poverty, suicide – are the highest in the nation. From a racialised vantage, some of the statistics for these two Australian jurisdictions are the highest in the world.
In the Northern Territory, 98 per cent of juvenile detention is comprised by Aboriginal youth. Disparity could not be indicted much more – this in the world’s 12th largest economy, and according to the United Nations Development Program Human Development Index, Australia is ranked 2nd in the world for social wealth and public health, behind only Norway. Yet, Australia is yet to set aside the trickle from their huge revenues, the unnoticeable slice from for instance their resources mining revenues to end for tens of thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people these alarming third-world-akin statistics.
Last week, the Prime Minister’s Indigenous Advisory Chairperson, Warren Mundine called for a national summit on Aboriginal justice issues in order to reverse juvenile detention numbers and the soaring incarceration levels. In Western Australia, Aboriginal youth comprise 70 per cent of the juvenile detention population.
Nationally, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people now comprise 30 per cent of the prison population, heading to nearly one in three of all prisoners. Twenty years ago, they were one in seven, last year one in four, by 2020 my research has estimated that they will be one in two. My research estimates that by 2030, nationally, they will comprise two out of every three prisoners. But in the Northern Territory they are already eight out of every ten, and in Western Australia they are approaching one in every two. In the Northern Territory, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are 84 per cent of the adult prison population, in Western Australia they are 43 per cent of the adult prison population. But in Western Australia, where Aboriginal comprise less than 3 per cent of the State’s total population, Aboriginal adult males are jailed at the world’s highest rate – nine times the rate of what South Africa’s Blacks were jailed in the final years of apartheid.
Mr Mundine said it is time that something is done, and fast, but something that actually makes a positive difference. He is worried that going to prison has become an acceptable rite of passage for dispossessed Aboriginal youth. He points to the statistics as born from Government neglect and in culminating in a prison industry that does not spare Aboriginal blood.
“There is not an Aboriginal (family) in this country that I know that does not have a family member that has actually been in (jail),” said Mr Mundine.
Mr Mundine points to the entrenchment of an underclass of people in one of the world’s wealthiest nations.
“It is a ticking time bomb for the Indigenous community as well as (for) the wider Australian community.”
“As far as I can see this time bomb is blowing up in our face because we know (from global evidence) that if you put a child in a juvenile detention centre you’ve virtually got them for life.”
Mr Mundine was critical of “all governments over the years” and critical of previous “Aboriginal leadership” in not nipping the now soaring incarceration rates.
“We are looking at the wrong end. We are looking at the jail end of it. We are trying to make culturally appropriate prisons.” He said this is not the way.
Early last year, Western Australia’s 14th adult prison was opened, the Derby Prison – “a culturally appropriate” all-Aboriginal prison.
“We’ve got these silly ideas of black prisons and culturally appropriate prisons. We have created a structure that now depends on Indigenous kids going to jail.”
“What we should be doing is the complete opposite. We need to be putting diversionary programs in that focus on keeping kids in the classroom and getting into jobs.”
Mr Mundine said the answers are education and jobs and the development of commercial activity in Aboriginal communities.
“This is how you divert crime.”
He wants a national summit to develop and launch the strategies for these ways forward.
Northern Territory Police Commissioner John McRoberts said, “The over exposure of Aboriginal young people to over policing practices, and the alienating nature of the current youth justice system, represent risk factors in a young person’s trajectory towards suicide.”
“Current NT Police practices, and the youth justice system predominately operate in an anti-therapeutic fashion.”
A report by the Northern Territory’s Aboriginal Peak Organisations found, “In the period January to March 2011, Aboriginal young people accounted for 98 per cent of young people in juvenile detention in the Northern Territory. Correspondingly, across Australia, Aboriginal young people aged 12 to 24 years had suicide rates up to four times higher than non-Aboriginal Australians in the same age group.”
“(Aboriginal youth are) more rigorously monitored by police and subject to greater prosecutions than non-Aboriginal young people. Relationships between Northern Territory Police and young people are a crucial intersection of the youth justice system. Where these relationships are fractious, antagonistic, distrustful or hostile, there are serious implications for escalating situations of confrontation.”
The report characterised the failures of the system as deteriorating to the menace of the politics of division. “(Aboriginal youth have raised) allegations of inappropriate police behaviour. These include the use of excessive force, sexual impropriety, threats, intimidation and unlawful arrests and detention. Some young people fear reprisals, whereas others think there is no point because they will never be believed when opposed to police.”
“Over-policing can result in Aboriginal young people being charged where non-Aboriginal young people would be warned, formally cautioned, or offered diversion.” But in the Northern Territory, diversion exists only in theory, with it not being available in most regional and remote areas.
The continual psychosocial beating down of children and youth into lives disenfranchised from the social benefits the rest of Australia enjoy, has led to either juvenile detention and jail as rites of passage, to confrontations with others, to displaced anger, and this displaced anger from within their situational trauma is increasingly culminating in one of the worst forms of self-destruction, suicide. 75 per cent of all child suicides in the Northern Territory are of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. Since the Federal Government’s “Intervention” suicide among Aboriginal people in the Territory has tragically skyrocketed by more than 200 per cent. Children as young as eight years old are taking their lives.
Mr Mundine is right that all-Aboriginal prisons are not the answer, they are a racist insult – racialised imprisonment. Mr Mundine is right that our children and youth need to be assisted and not imprisoned. The National Summit is a good idea but will it degenerate to “a talkfest” and who will be part of it? Those who have got it so wrong for so long? Or more of the same people who have ‘no idea’?
Education and jobs do matter, but as many critics point out education is a holistic experience, and communities need quality and well-resourced schools, the equivalent to what the rest of Australia enjoys, and jobs have to be for real, not just casualised and short-term, and the only jobs available cannot just be fly-in fly-out. The real solution is to build up communities to first world standards, just like the rest of Australia enjoys, and not the racist debacle of the shanty towns we have neglected people into. Economic and social development with employment opportunities must be grafted into community – the carpetbaggers have to be kept out – and people allowed to enjoy the best of what Australia has to offer while having every unfettered right and control to and over their identity, historical and contemporary. And the brutal regime of the Northern Territory Intervention must be terminated – one of the most significant contributors to rising homelessness, crime and suicides. I interviewed more than 100 Northern Territory Elders and all of them described the Intervention as traumatic and soul destroying.
Declaration of impartiality conflict of interest – Gerry Georgatos is a PhD researcher in Australian custodial systems, premature deaths, unnatural deaths and racism. He is a prison reform advocate and he has previously criticised the development of an all-Aboriginal Prison in Derby, Western Australia.