The Northern Territory prison system, challenged only by Western Australia’s, is in disarray, with a tragic record in deaths in custody according to the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC). Prison reform advocates have long described NT prisons as third-world, overcrowded and institutions that ensure high rates of re-offending.
The recent AIC report on the overall deaths in custody in Australia, the National Monitoring Report on Deaths in Custody (NMRDC) found that the NT has the highest rate of Indigenous deaths in custody in the nation.
Nationally, the number of deaths in custody, including police custodial, prison custodial and other forms of detention, was 80 in the 2008/09 financial year but in 2009/10 deaths rose to 86 and in 2010/11 there were 85 deaths.
Across Australia, the number of prison deaths rose from 43 in 2008/09 to 58 in 2009/10 and again 58 in 2010/11.
In 2010/11, six people died in custody in the NT – five of them Aboriginal. But the average age of those who died was 33 years. The AIC has been arguing that there has been a rise in “deaths” but others have been asking how is it possible for incidences of people dying in their twenties and thirties to be classified as natural deaths? Natural deaths classifications are now the majority of custodial deaths according to the AIC. The manner and classification of the custodial deaths is determined at the Coronial level.
The NT has the highest rate of Aboriginal deaths in custody. From 1979 to 2011 there have been 32 deaths in custody in the NT. 24 of these 32 deaths have been Aboriginal people – exactly 75 per cent.
83 per cent of the NT prison population is comprised of Aboriginal peoples – the world’s worst record of a specific people. Even worse, the NT’s juvenile detention population is 97 per cent Aboriginal.
NT Aboriginal Justice Association (NAAJA) director Jonathon Hunyor has described the plight of Aboriginal people in the NT as “a national disgrace.”
“If we are to reduce Aboriginal deaths in custody we need to reduce the number of Aboriginal people we are locking up.”
“In the NT we are going in the opposite direction,” said Mr Hunyor.
NT prisons are overcrowded. The occupancy rate is in excess of 120 per cent. Last year prisoners were found to be sleeping on cell floors in deplorable conditions according to the NT Prison Officer Association (NTPOA) and Aboriginal rights advocates. The oppressive conditions and maltreatment contribute to illness, anger and to the high rates of re-offending. The majority of those released are leaving prison worse than when they came in.
NTPOA spokesperson Phil Tilbrook said that the third-world conditions cannot continue. He described Darwin and Alice Springs prisons as the “worst” with dormitories approximately five by ten metres housing up to 14 prisoners and with only one toilet.
“You have got prisoners living in third-world conditions. We’ve got mattresses on the floor and prisoners sleeping within one metre of a toilet that 14 other prisoners have to use,” said Mr Tilbrook.
“The potential for prisoners to spill out frustrations on themselves or on officers is huge. We have seen incidents where hot water is regularly used as a weapon against other prisoners and against officers.”
One of the world’s leading restorative justice experts, Dr Brian Steels said the prison system as it stands has failed. “The answers are not in building more prisons, however in working with communities to find the origin of offending and re-offending and to reduce these.”
Otherwise the NT’s third-world prisons will get even worse.
Indigenous Social Justice Association president Ray Jackson has called for an inquiry into NT prisons and conditions. “An inquiry should be had, independent of the Territory Government as they do not seem to be responding to the crisis.”
“We are losing our people in these jails and the inquiries are not happening.”
“We had the death of one man, Mr Briscoe in an Alice Springs police cell but he was only 28 years old. That is not a natural death, how can it be?”
“We had the death of Mr Clarke while in prison custody just shy of his release, when he should have been released earlier and hospital treatment should have been provided adequately.”
Mr Tilbrook said the NT prison network cannot cope with a rising prison population. “Yet the Courts are still sending them to us.”
Last year Criminal Lawyers Association president, Russell Goldflam described the situation as dire. He said that Alice Springs prison was “full to the brim.”
Only one year ago he said “we had a situation where there were a number of people held on remand who could not be sent to jail because there was no room for them.”
The Government’s response was to build more cells and more beds – 189 more prison beds at one prison alone by 2014.