Extrapolating Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data it appears that the Australian adult prison population will double within a decade. The prison population doubled over the last two decades, from 15,000 to 31,000 and the rise looks like continuing but at an even faster rate.
Once again a disproportionate brunt of the incarceration numbers will be borne by Aboriginal peoples. Two decades ago Aboriginal persons were one in seven of all prisoners but today they are more than one in four. It appears that by early 2020 they will be one in three of all prisoners and in a prison population that will be double what it is today.
According to the ABS there has been a four per cent rise in the last year alone of the number of people in Australia’s prisons.
The Northern Territory and Western Australia are experiencing significant rises in their prison populations, with the WA’s prison population at record levels. 42 per cent of WA’s prison population are of Aboriginal people. 83 per cent of the NT’s prison population are of Aboriginal people. Both WA and the NT have the nation’s highest rates of Aboriginal homelessness and poverty. High rates of poverty go hand in hand with high rates of offending. It is not rocket science but surprisingly there are those, including academics, who push the line that poverty is not the problem and that it is the “lack of discipline in the family”. It is an absurd proposition to argue that abject poverty, homelessness and hunger are not the predominant stressors underwriting offending (of a criminal nature).
The Northern Territory has the highest rate of homelessness in the nation – 90 per cent of it is Aboriginal homelessness – and it is therefore no surprise that the NT has the highest imprisonment rate in the nation – 889 prisoners per 100,000 of the adult population.
The NT, Australia’s mother of all jailers, is a stark contrast to even WA which was described by one of its former Inspectors of Custodial Services, Professor Ross Harding, as “State of Imprisonment.” WA’s imprisonment rate, the second highest in the nation, is at 263 per 100,000 of the adult population. So what is it that makes it more than three times more likely that someone will be imprisoned in the NT than in WA? NSW’s imprisonment rate is 175 per 100,000 of the adult prison population.
Whereas the prison population rose in the last year by 4 per cent, according to the ABS the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adult male prisoner numbers increased by 7 per cent and for females by 12 per cent. The total Australian adult prison population is now 28 per cent Aboriginal.
But total prison numbers do not describe how many people are actually incarcerated and therefore criminalised. In terms of how many Aboriginal adults are in an Australian prison today, it is one in 80, one of the world’s most shocking rates. But it is likely that one in 20 have been criminalised and therefore just about every Aboriginal person has someone within their immediate or extended families that has been incarcerated. What is occurring is the criminalisation of a particular peoples, and according to the ABS data, it looks like it’s getting worse.
Moving away from the stagnant total data and instead to a review of daily averages, the WA imprisonment rate for the March quarter 2013 rises to 4059 Aboriginal peoples per 100,000 of its Aboriginal adults. The NT is at 2951 per 100,000 and South Australia at 2620.These are horrific rates and which outstrip the rest of the world’s imprisonment rates of a particular peoples.
Are Aboriginal peoples this bad? Or are they being persecuted because the effects of abject poverty and homelessness are not being addressed by lackadaisical Federal and State Governments? Prison is not a solution to addressing abject poverty and homelessness. Once the poor and homeless are released from prison they will continue to languish abjectly poor and homeless.
A civil and just society pursuant of an unfolding social justice language should not accept the disproportionate impoverishment and homelessness of a particular peoples. Though this is never an express clear intention of any rational Government it does appear that the State and Federal Governments are rubbing the faces of its poor in the dirt and then humiliating them by imprisoning them. This is certainly how many of the people I have interviewed feel.
- The writer of the article, Gerry Georgatos, declares an impartiality conflict of interest as a prison reform advocate. In his PhD research he argued that Australia incarcerates Aboriginal peoples at higher rates than the last years of Apartheid South Africa – at nearly six times the rate, and with WA at nearly nine times the rate. His research found that Australia incarcerates Aboriginal adult males marginally higher than the mother of all jailers does of its African-American adult males – the USA records the world’s overall highest imprisonment rates, with more than one million Americans in its prisons. His research argues that in reducing levels of poverty so too will imprisonment rates reduce.
- In March 2013, Professor Ross Harding described Western Australia as ‘The State of Imprisonment’. In 2011, Gerry Georgatos published a 6,000 word article, “The Northern Territory, a Prison built brick by brick by the Commonwealth.”