There has been very little research on how many Australians and how many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have been to prison. There is very little information collected on what happens to people post-prison. It has been my long-held view that in general people come out of prison worse than when they went in. There is very little rehabilitative and restorative support for prisoners while in prison but even less post-release.

In my own research, I estimate that at least one in ten of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders have been to prison, a shocking statistic but even more disturbing that it may actually be higher – one in six or seven. This should be an unimaginable statistical narrative but it is nevertheless the case, and from a racialised lens probably indicts Australia as the mother of all jailers of any one people.

One in ten! This translates to about 70,000 Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders having been to jail. It may actually be that 100,000 Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders now living in the community have been to jail. It has been estimated that around 400,000 Australians now living in the community have been to prison and given that at least one quarter of the prison population is comprised of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders, it is reasonable to estimate that one quarter of the 400,000 are Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders. Nearly 680,000 of Australia’s total population of 23 million identify as Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders. But once again a disproportionate number of the 70,000 who have spent time in prison are Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders from the ‘remoter’ parts of the continents – from homeland communities – where despite the pressures of living in impoverished conditions they thrive on higher traditional cultural content quotients than their counterparts in the urban masses. Urban Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders are disproportionately represented in the arrest and jail rates when compared to non-Indigenous counterparts but regional Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders are manifold more times likely to be arrested and jailed. This is particularly the case in Western Australian, South Australian and Northern Territory regional areas.

One in ten, and possibly up to one in six, Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders having experienced jail is a moral abomination – it is racism.

Prison is a horrific experience – at the very least a missed opportunity to assist people. It is not by any stretch of the imagination an educative, rehabilitative or restorative experience, but in the least it should be. There are unmet needs, culturally, healing wise, educationally and vocationally. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics “prison entrants had a lower level of educational attainment than the general Australian population for those aged 25-34 years and 35-44 years. Almost two-thirds (63%) of the general population aged 25-34 years had completed Year 12, compared with just 14% of prison entrants in that age group. More than one-third of prison entrants (37%) had a highest completed level of schooling of Year 9 or less, compared with around one in twenty (4-8%) of the general population.”

The penal estate needs to evolve a restorative, rehabilitative experience and actually help people. Post-prison there should be support programs, mentoring and education and vocational opportunities – there needs to be long-term through-care. For the most part it is just poverty that drives people into offending and into jail and if we do not address their circumstances we leave them stranded, with far too many likely to reoffend.

It is estimated that 400,000 Australians have been to prison, this is nearly 2 per cent of the nation’s total population. It is estimated that one in 79 Australians have been to prison but when we disaggregate then one in ten, possibly one in six, Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders have been to prison. A number of research efforts have demonstrated that upon release from prison, ex-inmates are vulnerable to the sense of hopelessness, to depressions, to self-destructive behaviours, and in the first year post-release endure several times higher the risk of death than in any year while in prison. We have failed them.

Unless we address the underlying extreme poverty and economic inequalities of far too many Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander communities we will never reduce to parity between this continent’s two populations – that of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders and the rest of the population – the high jail rates, the horrific homelessness rates, the narrative of human suffering and misery, the deplorable suicide rates.

We can do all the resilience building in the world, and it will help some, but we will always be outpaced by the broken spirits of far too many that the tidal waves of extreme poverty churn. We need to address the economic inequalities, the extreme poverty passed down by one government after another on so many Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander communities. It is the key underlying issue – the marginalising acute poverty that so many have been pummelled into. It is a cruel, unaddressed impact of colonisation that so many today cannot rise out from, especially when this poverty is whole-of-community or whole-of-region. This wholesale extreme poverty is racialised as it is effectively limited to Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples. This is the world’s 12th largest economy but many Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples live in third-world akin shanty towns and from within this narrative arise the highest arrest, jailing, homelessness and suicide rates in the nation.

So why not redress the past wrongs, why not address the economic inequalities? For those affected, this perpetuation of economic inequalities translates loud and clear as racism. I am writing about redressing the extreme poverty that less than one per cent of this nation’s total population endure but from which this one per cent translates to the majority of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders who are imprisoned, homeless and suicide.

According to the ABS, the Kimberley has a homelessness rate of nearly six and a half per cent – 638 homeless per 10,000 population. Nearly all of this is comprised of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders. Nearly half of the Kimberley total population is comprised of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders and therefore thereabouts 12 per cent of the Kimberley’s Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders are in some form of homelessness. According to the ABS, the Northern Territory has a homeless rate of 731 per 10,000 population but once again the majority of the Northern Territory’s homeless are Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders. Nearly one-third of the Northern Territory’s total population is comprised of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders. The Northern Territory’s Aboriginal population numbers around 80,000 but the ABS reports 15,479 homeless Territorians of whom I estimate at least 12,000 are Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders – this translates to more than one in seven of the Northern Territory’s Aboriginal persons as homeless; abominable.

According to Australian Corrective Services and the Australian Bureau of Statistics in the last year the national prison population increased by more than 3,000 inmates (to 34,000) but once again the disproportionate burden in the increase was of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders. This shot the national imprisonment rate to 186 prisoners per 100,000 Australian population; an increase from 2013’s 172 per 100,000. But standalone Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders nationally have an incarceration rate of 2,300 per 100,000 Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders. As a result of this disparate jailing rate nearly 30 per cent of the national prison population is comprised of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders. Western Australia’s Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders are hit hardest with an incarceration rate of 3,700 prisoners per 100,000 Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander population. The Northern Territory is 2nd highest with just over 3,000 prisoners per 100,000 Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders. South Australia is not far behind as 3rd highest. The trends demonstrate it is just going to get worse.

In mid-2014 there were 5,048 Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders in prison. A little over a decade later there are now thereabouts 10,000 Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders in prison. Prison is no deterrent for low level poverty related crimes, with more than three quarters of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders prisoners having at least one prior conviction for which they have spent time in jail.

  • One in ten Aboriginal and/Torres Strait Islanders have been in prison.
  • One in three deaths of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders aged 15 to 35 years are reported as suicides.
  • One in thirteen Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander males in Western Australia is in prison today.
  • One in seven Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders in the Northern Territory is homeless.

If we want to save lives then governments, bureaucrats, policy makers, legislators, experts and leaders need to stop with reductionist strategies, need to stop penny-pinching, need to stop playing with people’s lives.

 

Declaration – Gerry Georgatos is a researcher in suicide prevention and racism and is involved with various national and community projects in suicide prevention.

 

Lifeline’s 24-hour hotline, 13 11 14

Crisis Support and Suicide Prevention Beyond Blue – 1300 22 4636

 

Other reading:

Richard Trudgen, “Yolngu youth should not be finishing up in prison”

Western Australia – one in 13 in jail

One in three deaths by suicide

Moral abomination