A few years ago Australian Corrective Services were claiming that the national prison population had finally begun to decrease. I disputed this. A few years later the prison population has increased by nearly 15 per cent. In the next ten years Australia will near double its prison population whereas it took twenty years from 1992 to 2012 to double the national prison population. The majority of the prospective doubling of the prison population will be borne by Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders who will comprise around three quarters of the increase in future prisoners.
In 2025, more than half the Australian prison population will be comprised of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders. Today, Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders comprise 28 per cent of the national prison population.
The $3 billion dollar a year Australian penal estate reported a record 35,500 prisoners at the last count – first quarter of this year.
Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander prisoners now account for 10,000 of the 35,500 prisoners. There are only less than 700,000 Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders on the continent. From a racialised lens this is an incredible rate of jailing. One in 24 of every Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander youth has been in juvenile detention. In Western Australia one in 13 of Aboriginal adult males are in prison today – nearly 8 per cent of all Western Australia’s Aboriginal adult males. From a racialised lens this is the world’s highest jailing rate.
I have been writing about Australian and global jailing rates, racialisation and racism for two decades however outside calendar reports and ‘events’ there has only been a limited attention span by mainstream media and by major human rights organisations.
This should have been the issue of the times whether fifteen, ten and five years ago.
Today, there is more attention by the mainstream media than in a long time, probably not since the Royal Commission into Deaths Custody (1987-1992). This is because it has been packaged in a report by Amnesty International. Why does something have to reach horrific levels before substantive and critical attention is paid? More importantly what real hope do we have for real change in dealing with the onerous narrative of human misery and suffering when the cause is being driven by a neatly packaged brand of bandwagon support – packaged sexy – by a human rights organisation? It is love that drives change. Love for your fellow human being, love of human rights, love of social justice. Love is reflected in the lived experience. Without the love the media blitz at this time and the interim maelstrom of campaigning may fizzle in the months ahead for the next sexy issue, that is if it is without the imperative of love.
I hope there is love here, because I need to be wrong. If I am wrong then there is real hope. If I am wrong and there has been an all of a sudden coming of age, a bedrock of love to open up hearts to the plight of others then we may have the burgeoning of a cultural shift, we may have cracked the hard wall of the nation’s consciousness and we may therefore count on pivotal sustained coverage and a prevailing chase for the narrative of reform, hope, collective justice.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics in year from the first quarter 2014 to the first quarter 2015 there was an overall increase in prisoner numbers by more than 2,200 – by seven per cent in the one year.
This is disturbing because it is trending to the catastrophic.
During the last two decades and particularly in the last seven years there has been the implementation of more diversionary programs than ever before. There has been the implementing of Problem and Special Courts, of rehabilitative programs. But despite however many individuals have been helped by these programs the jailing rates – youth and adult – have been record breaking year after year. It is concerning because all we are being offered at this time are more diversionary programs. In fairness to everything that has been implemented they are all probably working and it is the competing factors that overwhelm them; draconian laws, mandatory sentencing laws, overall tough on crime approaches, the increasing poverty in the nation, the increasing extreme poverty of marginalised Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Justice Reinvestment is touted as a panacea. It will help many individuals as have diversionary programs but overall Justice Reinvestment will be drowned out by the competing factors which will smash in record arrest and jailing rates each year.
The problem is the whole system.
Poverty is on the increase. Not only is the poverty widening its pernicious reach but the poverty itself is becoming harsher, more extreme and vicious. Social health needs to be understood causally. Unless we address the poor social health of many regions, communities and urban masses then whatever else we do will be defeated. Unless we address inequalities then for every individual we help we will be hit by a scores more we cannot reach piecemeal.
The Productivity Commission reports that each prisoner costs the nation $292 per day. The average daily wage is $160. This comparison demonstrates how Government decisions lead to misspending.
I am not one to abrogate from people responsibility for their poor or ugly behaviour, for their actions, misdeeds. But crime must be understood predominately as a product of poverty. In understanding this we will understand the only solution to the skyrocketing Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander jailing rates. Australia is the world’s 12th largest economy but of the world’s highest income nations with relatively recent colonial oppressor histories Australia has the widest divide in just about every measurable indicator between its First Peoples and the rest of the population. The indictment of Australia is heavy because Australia’s First Peoples comprise less than 3 per cent of its total population – Australia has no excuses and its bent for assimilation by impost is on show for the world.
Australia has always intended to cheat and where possible decimate First Peoples. Australia may be the only nation to produce a Constitution that is racialised. At the same time Australia penned the Constitution it also produced the White Australia Policy. For much of the last century Australia used the Constitution and a litany of other quickly assembled legislature to fulfill the White Australia Policy, to separate people, to keep certain peoples out, to prohibit diversity – to racialize people, to legitimise racism, to enforce the oppression of Black people by White people, to ensure White Supremacy. The Stolen Generations removed children from their families and indentured them in missions and institutions.
Today we have juvenile detention with Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait youth detained at the world’s highest rate.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics the rate of juvenile imprisonment of Aboriginal youth aged 10 to 17 years is 348 per 100,000 population compared to 14 per 100,000 for non-Aboriginal youth.
This is a nation still racialised, where White Supremacy dictates at all hours of the day. If this was not a racist nation, bent by two centuries of the cruellest racialisations – eugenics, apartheid, punishments – then all of us would see it shine brilliant; but none of us see this. We do not see the nation holding Government to account for the horrific rates of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander suicide – one in every 20 Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander deaths are by suicide. Or for the horrific rates of child removals – in the last few years alone more children have been removed from their families than in all the years of the Stolen Generations – one in ten of NSW’s Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander children have been removed from their families. Or the horrific disadvantage that tens of thousands of First Peoples are born into this otherwise wealthy nation – third-world akin poverty.
People are responsible for their actions however we cannot deny the circumstance that people are born into. It is dangerous to argue that the impoverished circumstances that many First Peoples will be born into are not responsible for or do not culminate in the filling of jails. The prisons are being filled with people because we as a nation are failing to address pernicious and discriminatory disadvantage.
If Aboriginal youth are 25 times more likely to be detained than their non-Aboriginal counterparts then it may well be that Aboriginal families are 25 times more likely to live impoverished than their non-Aboriginal counterparts.
Aboriginal and/Torres Strait Islander youth are one third more likely to be denied referral to diversionary programs than their non-Aboriginal counterparts. This is because the criminal justice system works alongside a racialised view of the nation’s people – differentiating people. Because of the disadvantage many Aboriginal youth are born into that they are viewed as likely to reoffend. There are fewer police cautions by police of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander youth and adults for the same assumptions. These assumptions are the culmination of origins-of-thinking generations old, that led to the worst racial stereotypes.
There are many programs that do work – from night patrols to mentoring and on-Country programs. But the tsunami of arrests borne of extreme poverty will not be radically reduced even with a roll-out of these programs around the nation. Please understand I support all these programs, as they help many of the people they reach but they are incapable of reaching everyone. As soon as we have helped one individual, extreme poverty will have bred ten more troubled souls who have offended.
If we do not change the discourse to focus on social health, on improving the conditions of communities all over this continent to a level playing field – that is equality – then we are going nowhere fast. We have been going nowhere fast for a long time.
The tough on crime approach only exists because there is nothing being done about extreme poverty.