It’s half a century of words on Australia’s world record high rates of jailing of its First Nations descendants. One in four of this continent’s First Nations adult males have been to prison. More than 100,000 First Nations persons have been to prison – an abomination. Not just a national shame or national disgrace but much worse. The nation’s complacency is sinister.

But what of words when no one acts on them? How many more words, statistics, how many more portrayals of the grim realities?

I’ve written millions of words over the decades on suicide and incarceration and their intersection with poverty. Hundreds of millions of words have been written.

Rapper Briggs tells it best in the Spinifex Gum song Locked Up;

“They put our kids in the system – Findings, reports and royal commissions, numbers, statistics when they’re making decisions… Assess the risks and build another prison.”

Prisons are horrid places. In general people come out of prison worse than when they went in.

Briggs, “When they get told they’re no good, stand them in line and you make them go last.”

When you tell people they’re no good they are more likely to act this out. If you believe in people they’ll begin to believe in themselves.

Briggs warns us all, “Remember that they’re kids (and) not a campaign policy.”

As a society we should be demanding that compassion rules and where prisons are to be had that they are places of compassion, of opportunities, of the restorative, of a dawn of new meanings and contexts.

As Briggs sings, “Treat them like (shit) you just make them better criminals.”

Choruses sung by Marliya highlight, “Take this silence and blow it up.”

“Not going to disappear – We still here – scream in your other ear, you will hear.”

“Just ‘cos they’ve been locked up… this cut’s a cut on us… this justice isn’t just.”

“This count’s not adding up.”

At least 100,000 First Nations persons still living have been to prison – and likely 120,000. That’s one in 7, likely one in 6, having been to prison. From a racialised lens this is the world’s highest jailing rate. Australia’s First Nations people are jailed at a higher rate the Black American jailing rate.



There is a lot of talk once again about reducing incarceration rates, about reducing disparities, about targets and generational change.

The national average daily Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander imprisonment rate is 2,440 persons per 100,000 adult Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population. According to the US Justice Bureau, the African-American jailing rate stands at 2,208 per 100,000. Australia’s Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples are jailed at a higher rate than the African-American jailing rate.

The highest Aboriginal and/Torres Strait Islander imprisonment rate was recorded in Western Australia, 4,066 persons per 100,000 adult Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander population – the world’s highest racialised jailing rate.

If we are to understand the enormity of what I believe is a humanitarian crisis with far reaching generational implications we need to understand the following. Nearly 100 per cent of incarcerated First Nations descendants are people who live below the poverty line. It is almost negligible the number of Aboriginal and/or Torres Islanders who are incarcerated who were living above the poverty line.

300,000 First Nations descendants live below the poverty line, with a significant proportion living in extreme poverty. The intersection of poverty and incarceration is where we must focus. Overall, the authentic pathway to significantly reduce offending and the prison population are to lift people out of poverty, to improve life circumstances.

More than one in three of First Nations peoples living below the poverty line have been to prison.

If the ways forward are not dedicated to tackling poverty whether extreme or relative poverty then they are not the ways forward. More people than ever before will continue to be left behind.

I have estimated that by 2025 we are headed from today’s nearly one in three prisoners comprised of First Nations descendants to more than on in two.

Briggs, “The vicious cycle remains the same.”


Vice International’s Life as a young Indigenous person incarcerated in Australia