On March 11, West Australians will vote in the state government elections. Western Australia enjoys the nation’s highest median wage, one of the world’s highest but the poorest, the most vulnerable, the incarcerated have it harder than anywhere else in the nation. One in 13 of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander adult males are in prison – the world’s second highest disaggregated jailing rate. Nearly two and a half years ago, the state’s Premier, Colin Barnett, fronted more than a thousand protestors at the steps of parliament. They were calling for urgent changes following the abominable death of 22-year-old Miss Dhu in a Western Australian police cell. Premier Barnett promised that he would personally follow through with changes, and reduce the sentencing rates of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal prisoners, that he would set in place ways forward to transform lives.
None of this has come to pass. Non-Indigenous Australians are incarcerated at around 200 per 100,000 adults but Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander adults are incarcerated at 2,330 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 3,745 per 100,000.
Yes, Western Australia enjoys the nation’s highest median wage 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.
In Western Australia, the rate of imprisonment of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander children is 50 per cent higher than the imprisonment rate of Black children in the US.
Western Australia’s prisons are full – in fact they are overcrowded. Broken lives to ruined lives. Western Australia has the nation’s highest incarceration rate of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander females – with 22.3 per cent of the Aboriginal prison population comprised of females. Western Australian governments steadfastly refuse to move away from the harshest punitive policies in the nation and to redemptive policies of transformation.
The Western Australian government has refused to establish a Custody Notification Service. The State Labor Party has at least committed to the Custody Notification Service, promising to implement its first 100 days in the event they form government. I have written widely about this service – and if implemented in Western Australia it will save lives – and reduce the sentencing rate. It mandatorily provides a stout advocate who is also a lawyer, highly trained, to every Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander detainee immediately after their arrest. Where this service has been applied in NSW and the ACT it has led to zero deaths in police custody. During the 2015/16 stretch Western Australia reported six unnatural deaths in custody; the nation’s highest in number and in rate. But a Custody Notification Service in Western Australia would provide support for an individual from soon after their arrest. It would provide vital health, welfare, legal support and psychosocial validation. The CNS has also led to lower sentencing rates in NSW and the ACT.
With deaths in custody we need to disaggregate to understand them better. If you are non-Indigenous and over 50 years of age and incarcerated you are more likely than an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander inmate to die – more than likely a death from natural causes. But if you are in your early twenties then the death in custody is more than likely to be of an Aboriginal person and obviously because of the young age nearly always a death from unnatural causes. Deaths in police watch houses are nearly always Aboriginal and/Torres Strait Islander detainees – therefore the failure by the Western Australian government to implement the CNS along the lines of NSW is outrageous.
The Federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Senator Nigel Scullion has offered every state and territory to fund for the first three years a Custody Notification Service. It will be accepted by every state and territory, beginning with South Australia but with the single exception of Western Australia – unless there is a change of government on March 11. The Western Australian Coalition government has betrayed its promises to that crowd of more than 1,000, the majority who were First Nations people. The memory of Miss Dhu has been betrayed.
More than a year ago the government established a Working Party to consider ways forward in how to reduce incarceration rates, in how to transform lives. They returned very little. Fine-defaulters are still jailed. The incumbent government who promised to focus on transforming the lives of the impoverished and vulnerable who comprise the majority of the state’s prison population remains fixated on punishing people – taking them from broken lives to ruined lives.
There is a sliver of hope that a new government will do away with criminalising fine defaulters and will bring on elements of Justice Reinvestment but more importantly will hopefully invest significantly in transforming the lives of inmates. In Western Australia, more than 90 per cent of inmates have not completed a Year 12 education – more than 60 per cent have not completed Year 10 and more than 40 per cent have not completed Year 9. One in six of the state’s Aboriginal people have been to prison.
Lives can be changed, hope can flourish and outcomes achieved but the helping hand is needed – pre-release and post-release. As a society we should be doing everything possible to keep people out of prison – and not everything we can to jail people, but where incarceration is the outcome, then everything must be done to help the people within them.
It can be done – in my time in the tertiary sector I assisted many former inmates and homeless individuals into gaining entry into an educational institution. However bridging them into university alone is not good enough. As a student cohort the bridged in have low student retention levels. I developed programs and services to psychosocially support from the point of entry to the point of exit students I assisted into tertiary education. We supported many of them into shared accommodation, stabilising their lives, and assisted or connected them to services where they could be further supported in health, welfare and legal issues. I developed tutoring programs to support them if needed in just about every unit of their degree programs – once again from the point of entry to the point of exit. As a result the majority of them graduated and none to my knowledge have re-offended or finished homeless again.
Kuku-Yalanji man, Jeremy Donovan last year oversaw the production of the Prison to Work Report for the Closing the Gap mob. On the first page of the report is an image by Jeremy titled, ‘Set Me Free.’ Jeremy writes, “’Set Me Free’ refers not just to prison walls but also the layers of trauma Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners often deal with.”
If we are to go forward in tangible ways to improving the lot of the most vulnerable and critically at-risk then we must not leave behind those who finish up in jail. In helping to transform their lives we also improve the lot of their families – there is a wider social return. We inspire hope into their children. There are few organisations and programs authentically transforming the lives of inmates and former inmates. There is an exception and that is Ngalla Maya – a prison to wellbeing to training and education to employment effort founded by a former inmate, Noongar man Mervyn Eades. In the last year, on the smell of an oily rag Ngalla Maya has inspired more than 140 inmates into training and education and who are now employed. No other program has achieved anywhere near their results. Despite support from the Federal Government, the Western Australian government has not funded it a single penny.
We also need to invest in education opportunities while people are incarcerated in Juvenile Detention and in adult prisons. School in Prison programs – not only will an inmate get an education, qualifications but will also be psychosocially validated, strengthened and the constancy of trauma that is incarceration will be reduced. But there is no chance of this with the incumbent government.
If governments fail to invest in going all out to transform the lives of prisoners and former inmates then rest assured more prisons will be built. With Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders, if little is done, then nationally by 2025 one in two of prisoners will be an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander. In Western Australia it’ll get to two in three and in the Northern Territory nearly 100 per cent of the prison population will be made up of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders.
By day’s end on March 11, the incumbent government of Western Australia will hopefully be voted out and the incoming government hopefully fulfil expectations in ‘legacy’ and memory of Miss Dhu and also deliver some relief to the state’s most vulnerable and poorest.
– Gerry Georgatos is a suicide prevention researcher and restorative justice and prison reform expert with the Institute of Social Justice and Human Rights. He is a member of several national projects working on suicide prevention, particularly with elevated risk groups and in developing wellbeing to education to work programs for inmates and former inmates. Gerry has been a relentless advocate for the national rollout of the Custody Notification Service and for the transformation of Juvenile Detention facilities into places of educational learning, positive development and opportunities.