The mass incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders should be a civil rights issue, one of the pressing issues of our generation but our Governments – one after another – continue to fail to translate this pressing issue as a national priority. The incarceration rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is an abomination – moral, political and otherwise and bespeaks of diabolical racism unfettered. In Western Australia, the mother of jailers, one in 13 of Aboriginal adult males is in prison today. A disturbing statistic is that one in 6 of the State’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders living have been to jail.

Up to one in four of the State’s Aboriginal adult males have been to prison. The impacts are not only burdened on these individuals but deeply felt by their families, by their children, the functions and objectives of the family significantly damaged. The majority of these families dwell in acute disadvantage intersected by chronic poverty, lack of education and their core identity culturally disconnected, isolating them from psychosocial supports and determinants. From a transgenerational vantage generations unborn will feel the impacts as do the disadvantaged and marginalised generations of today – whether in remote towns and communities or in the urban masses.

The most at-risk age group are the 20 to 30 year old males who suicide at the nation’s highest rate. If you are an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander aged 15 to 35 years nearly one in three deaths in that age group will be a suicide. This is an indictment of the racism of the Australian nation. If you are an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander male aged 20 to 30 years nearly one in two deaths in this age group is a suicide. What sort of nation is this?

  • 1 in 4 of Western Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander males living at some point in their lives are jailed.
  • 1 in 6 of Western Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders peoples living at some point in their lives are jailed.
  • 1 in 13 of Western Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adult males are in prison today.
  • 1 in 4 of the nation’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicides occur in Western Australia.
  • Around 15 per cent of the nation’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander suicides occur in the Kimberley.
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Kimberley, the Northern Territory and far north Queensland have among the world’s highest suicide rates.
  • Nationally – if you are an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander aged 15 to 35 years, nearly one in 3 deaths in that age group is a suicide.
  • If you are an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander male aged 20 to 30 years of age nearly one in two deaths is a suicide.

Western Australia often wins hands down the diabolical title of ‘mother of all jailers’ – jailing its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples at often the world’s highest rate. Western Australia is closely followed by the Northern Territory and then by South Australia in abominable jailing rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. In other nations this would not just fire up as a human rights issue but explode as a civil rights platform, tens of thousands onto the streets again and again crying out for the common good that Black Lives Matter. But all up Australia sits quiet, huddled in the stricture of its two century old racism, in origins-of-thinking one and two centuries old. Those in desperate defence of the Australian ‘silence’ victim-blame, scapegoat, drown out the ways forward with the cheap mantras of ‘self-responsibility.’

One in every 15 African-Americans is in jail. One in 13 of Western Australia’s Aboriginal adult males are in jail. One in 36 of America’s Hispanics are in jail. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics one in every three African American males can expect to go to jail sometime during their lifetime. In Western Australia it’s a similar discriminatory tale, with one in three to four Aboriginal adult males going to jail sometime during their lifetime.

Out of the total Australian population of 23 million nearly half a million Australians living have been to jail. However, around 100,000 of the half million Australians living who have been are Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders. Therefore no less than one in 10 and up to one in 7 nationally have been to jail. But in Western Australia the story is worse. Western Australia is home to around 80,000 Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders with more than 2,000 adults in prison and more than 2,000 children removed from their families into the care of the State. Thousands are homeless. 12,000 to 15,000 of the 80,000 have been to jail, that’s around one in 6 jailed. For males, one in 3 to 4 living jailed. The incarceration rates are increasing and therefore if you are born an Aboriginal male in Western Australia, one in three can expect to go to jail. Western Australia is one of the world’s wealthiest regions.

It is my experience in working with prisoners pre- and post-release, in guiding former inmates into education, that in general people come out of prison worse than they went in – situational trauma becomes multiple, composite and for many aggressively complex trauma.

Less than 3 per cent of the Australian population is comprised of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders but according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 7 per cent of Victoria’s prison population is comprised of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders. It’s 15 per cent of the Tasmanian prison population, 18 per cent in the ACT, 22 per cent with South Australia, 23 per cent in NSW, 31 per cent in Queensland, 40 per cent with Western Australia and 86 per cent with the Northern Territory prison population.

The national prison population has around 35,000 inmates. The national non-Aboriginal incarceration rate is 131 per 100,000 population but the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander incarceration rate is a staggering 1,959 per 100,000 population – a staggering 15 times the jailing rate of non-Aboriginal people. The Australian jailing rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders is higher than the world’s highest sovereign jail rates. The Seychelles has the world’s highest sovereign jailing at 799 per 100,000 population and the United States of America is 2nd with 698 per 100,000.

  • NSW jails its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples at 1,916 per 100,000 population and jails non-Aboriginal Australians at 142 per 100,000 – 14 times higher.
  • South Australia jails its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples at 2,226 per 100,000 population and jails non-Aboriginal Australians at 151 per 100,000 – 15 times higher.
  • The Northern Territory jails its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples at 2,348 per 100,000 population and jails non-Aboriginal Australians at 144 per 100,000 – 16 times higher
  • Western Australia jails its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples at 3,315 per 100,000 population and jails non-Aboriginal Australians at 159 per 100,000 – 21 times higher.

The average age of male Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander inmates is 30 years, and of females 31 years and the most populous age group in prison are the 25 to 29 year olds (21 per cent). Males make up 91 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in prison. Female incarceration rates are increasing and the female Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prison population sadly will soon pass 1,000. The criminal justice system and the statistical narratives prove that we have a long way to go before we achieve racial equality. The mass incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders is the civil rights issue of the 21st century. In the United States, the Black Lives Matter movement is gripping the nation but in Australia our parliamentarians barely mention the incarceration rates.

Prisons are not restorative and rehabilitative experiences, they are punitive penal estates that guarantee high levels of reoffending rates and therefore the criminal justice system is a broken one. We are filling our prisons with low level offenders, with the acutely disadvantaged, the marginalised, the mentally unwell, with people in possession of illicit substances they used to escape their tumults and disadvantage. We are not helping people improve their lives. It will take significant political reforms to repair or rebuild the inequities of the criminal justice system towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Justice Reinvestment is a positive step, but only a step in the right direction. It is not political reform, it is not a reformation of the criminal justice system, it is more postvention than prevention. We need more than just kick starts, we need to put equality first; we need to put first people, humanity and do the difference. Or we can continue lying to each other and to ourselves. The discourses need to be broad if we are to get on the road to panacea, to equality and to prove that we believe that Black Lives Matter.

If we do not, then by 2025, one in two of Australia’s prisoners will be an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander. If we do not, then by 2025, three in four of Western Australia’s prisoners will be Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. If we do not, then nationally by 2025 one in 5 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders living will have spent time in jail and in Western Australia, one in 2 or 3 Aboriginal adult males can expect to go to jail.

We need to get on that journey to political reform, to reforming policing and the criminal justice system, to addressing racialised inequalities, to transforming prisons into restorative experiences, to putting the onus on improving the lot of others.