Data can be anything one can want it to be. We are told there are nearly 800,000 people who identify as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders. Despite an increasing population of people who identify as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders, nationally one in 8 have been to prison. From a racialised lens that’s the world’s highest jailing rate, just outstripping the American jailing rate of Black Americans, outstripping the jailing rate of Brown (predominately Latino) Americans. The USA is the mother of jailers but Australia is the mother of jailers of its First Peoples – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. From a racialised lens (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders) Australia boasts the world’s highest jailing rate.
However nearly all those jailed live below the poverty line – 40 percent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders live below the poverty line. One in four of those living below the poverty line have been to prison. Poverty, and much of it is extreme poverty, particularly in the remote and regions, is the cesspool of deprivations that underlie the abominable jailing rates.
Where does fault lay with 40 per cent of peoples living in poverty – in 2018?
Nearly one hundred per cent of the suicides of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders are of people living below the poverty line. The suicides of Aboriginal people living above the poverty line are few and are less than the suicides of non-Aboriginal Australians living above the poverty line.
According to data drawn from the Australian Bureau of Statistics during the last five years one in 17 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths has been a suicide. However if we disaggregate to the 40 per cent who live below the poverty line I estimate suicide accounts for one in eight deaths.
One in four of the nation’s Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander males have been to prison and this will continue to be the case – in fact it will increase by 2025 to one in three.
It’s worst in Western Australia and the Northern Territory, where one in five Aboriginal people have been to prison. Nearly 100 per cent of those who have been gaoled live below the poverty line.
Imagine the devastating psychosocial impacts on families.
The further west we journey across this continent, the worse the statistical narrative, the worse the hits on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples – the higher the homeless rates, the more acute the poverty, the worse the destructive behaviours, the sense of hopelessness, the depressions and clinical disorders, the higher the premature and unnatural death and suicide rates.
Nearly 25 per cent of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders live remote. They are stitched big time by our governments and by government funded institutions. They are denied the equivalency of infrastructure, services and opportunity that the rest of Australia enjoys, including remote non-Aboriginal towns.
The closing the gap target on education – on Year 12 completions – needs to be disaggregated to states and territories and to regional and remote Australia and you will find a different story than the collectivised national closing the gap target on Year 12 completions.
Eight of ten children in remote communities do not complete Year 12.
There is an agenda of attrition by a thousand cuts to kill off these communities, it is obvious, or how else the neglect and ongoing degradation of the majority of these communities?
Nearly 100 percent of the near 18,000 Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander children removed from their biological families lived below the poverty line.
There are 300,000 Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders living below the poverty line. Nearly 150,000 are children, with 18,000 having been taken away. The rate of removal is a choice – but one that is a moral and political abomination, reprehensible beyond words. The choice has been made to remove children at these devastating rates rather than to invest everything possible into lifting people out of poverty.
There are nearly 11,000 Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders presently in jail.
That’s 18,000 children removed, and 11,000 adults in jail – all who live below the poverty line.
There is no greater legacy than to improve the lot of others. Australia will tell you that it is working to this legacy but I tell you that it is not.
Nationally, by 2025, we are heading from today’s nearly one in three prisoners comprised of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders, to more than one in two.
Society should gear our governments to do as much as they can to reduce poverty, but when people finish up in jail, it should be a reformative, redemptive and transformational experience. There’s all this chatter of reintegration, reformation but it’s piecemeal stuff, pat on the shoulder stuff, helping with documents (Centrelink, drivers licences, and the like) instead of training to employment, instead of education pathways, instead of intense and relentless psychosocial support, instead of outreach to the critically vulnerable.
All the conversations should lead with the social determinants – quality housing, quality community institutions, equality in the standard of infrastructure, education, recreation, services and in the ensuring of workforce parity and with the advancement of local residents. All the rest is damaging chatter and inequality.
When it comes to deaths in custody, we know the tragic toll, but in the first year following release, all the research shows that former inmates are up to 10 times more likely to suicide, or die an unnatural death, engage in risk-taking behaviour and substance abuse – than at any time while in prison.
We strand people post-release with little or no hope on the horizon.
Eighty-six per cent of the national prison population did not complete high school and nearly 40 per cent did not get past Year 9. The levels of illiteracy among prisoners break the heart. There is a poor investment in educative and wellbeing programs in our prisons, and the unmet needs outstrip supply. In the very least prisons should be restorative and places of hope; heavily invested in healing and wellbeing programs and from there onward with education opportunities. If we corral people to the situational trauma of prison and punishment then we embed a constancy of traumas – multiple, composite traumas and the degeneration for many people into complex and aggressive traumas.
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 prison is the outcome, then everything must be done to help the people within them.
The majority of people incarcerated are indeed inside for relative low level offending and poverty related crimes. But we are told otherwise, and that’s disgraceful.
Academic/criminologist Don Weatherburn reported, “Between 2002 and 2016 saw substantial reductions in a number of major categories of crime in Australia, including murder, robbery, break and enter, motor vehicle theft and other theft”
Dr Weatherburn continued, “One might expect the Australian imprisonment rate to have fallen too, but it did not. Over the same period, the Australian imprisonment rate grew by 36 percent.” Dr Weatherburn argues that an increase in illicit drug use underlies the aberrant behaviour leading to the increasing incarceration toll. He suggested, “…if much of the increase in imprisonment rates is due to drug use, healing centres” would be a more positive way forward.
Professor Chris Cunneen, criminologist, wrote, “Too many Indigenous Australians will remain second-class citizens in their own country – remaining the object of law when it comes to criminalisation and incarceration.”
The prison population has doubled in the last quarter century – and the filling of our prisons is comprised of the poorest and the illiterate, and of the further marginalisation of these people. The grim reality is the suicides will increase, more children taken. There will continue the transgenerational ruinous impacts on families and generations unborn.
The focus must be relentless on redress – lifting people out of poverty, the social determinants, equality.