Indigenous imprisonment in Australia: a crisis of mass incarceration

(The following post was originally published on 12 March 2015 on Open Forum.  I am taking the liberty of re-printing it here, and adding an addendum at the end of this post.)

In mid-February of this year, the Australian Prime Minister presented the annual “Closing the Gap” report to Parliament. Although some indicators saw improvement (health), in others – especially in education and employment – there was almost no improvement at all.

Of great concern is the statement on page 28 – of which little fanfare was made at the time – that, “the rate of imprisonment is higher than at any time during the decade”. The decade? In other words, Indigenous imprisonment has been steadily rising and is worse than any time in recent memory. That’s not just “no improvement”; it is a serious step backwards.

For anyone paying attention to the statistics on Indigenous disadvantage, this comes as no surprise. In December of last year, the Productivity Commission’s report, Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage: Key Indicators 2014, made this point clearly (pp. 4.102-4.104):

  • Nationally at 30 June 2013, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander imprisonment rate was 2039.5 per 100,000 adult population, an increase of around one‑third from the rate in 2000 (1433.5 per 100,000 adult population).
  • Although Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults make up only 2.3 percent of the Australian adult population, they accounted for 27.4 per cent of all prisoners. (Note: the Indigenous population is heavily skewed to younger ages, with the national percentage of population about 3 percent.)
  • After adjusting for differences in population age structures, the rate of imprisonment for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults was 13 times the rate for non‑Indigenous adults.

Let’s be clear about what these figures say: more than one-quarter of people in Australian prisons are Indigenous, a rate more than ten times (1000%) their population percentage. When age is adjusted (thus comparing “like with like”), the figures are even worse: thirteen times (1300%). But it gets worse.  The report also states that:

  • Between 2000 and 2013, the rate of imprisonment for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults increased by 57.4 per cent while the non-Indigenous rate remained fairly constant, leading to a widening of the gap (from 8.5 to 13.0 times the rate for non-Indigenous adults).

What this means is that Indigenous imprisonment rates have GONE UP by 50% in the last 13 years, while non-Indigenous rates have REMAINED THE SAME throughout the same period. In other words, the figures for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians have gotten worse and not just a little – A LOT worse. You can track the inexorable year by year growth of Indigenous imprisonment through the Australian Bureau of Statistics figures. Although there are some state variations (Tasmania is the best, Western Australia is the worst), this is a systemic national problem which demands a national solution.

Mick Gooda, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, calls these figures a “catastrophe in anyone’s language”, pointing out in December 2014 that “we do better at keeping Aboriginal people in prison than in school”. He also noted that almost half of Australians in juvenile detention are Indigenous – so the trend does not look like reversing any time soon.

The Creative Spirits website summarises a number of inter-related factors for these high rates: stolen generations, disconnection from land, police behaviour, offence criminalisation, poverty and unemployment, language difficulties, foetal alcohol syndrome and poor housing. A significant number of Indigenous Australians are incarcerated for trivial offenses that rarely impact non-Indigenous people, including unpaid fines, unlicensed driving, not receiving court mail, not attending court and “disorderly conduct”. One common theme in these offenses is poverty: the poorer you are, the less likely you are to avoid jail for small offences.

These results are terrible in themselves, but three factors arise that underline their significance:

First, this increase in Indigenous imprisonment could have been avoided through a careful analysis of why, where and how Indigenous people are put in prison or into the juvenile justice system (where they now represent up to one-half of participants), and crafting appropriate responses.

Secondly, as the Productivity Commission report drily states (page 4.102), “Imprisonment has a heavy social and economic impact. High rates of imprisonment remove adults from their important roles caring for the next generation and can lead to the ‘normalisation’ of incarceration among community members.”

Thirdly – and most insidious of all – the high rate of imprisonment affects how we non-Indigenous Australians view Indigenous people. Although the comparison is not complete, rates of imprisonment of African-Americans in the USA run six times those of whites in that country. The result there means that, as Professor Heather Thompson (Temple University) points out, there is a “disproportionate policing” of young black men and women, and that in turn “sends a signal to the broader society that there is something inherently criminalistic about black people”. She calls the American rates of imprisonment a “mass incarceration” with unknown outcomes; surely the same applies to Indigenous Australians.

We can do better and improve Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rates of imprisonment. For the sake of creating an equal and just Australia, we must.

*****

Addendum:  In order to change the situation of mass incarceration of racial minorities, “we must change the narrative”.  So says, lawyer and social activist Bryan Stevenson, who gives a stirring 53 minute talk about American racial justice and imprisonment, which you can listen to on ABC Radio National’s Big Ideas program podcast (originally broadcast on 19th March 2015).  Stevenson points out that great literature helps to change the narrative of issues so that we can see them in new ways.  We need to “understand how the world is being sustained by things (narratives) that make us indifferent to inequality” and mass incarceration.  He points out that in the USA, this is “the function of 40 years of the politics of fear and anger.  When people are afraid and angry, they will tolerate abuse and violations of rights.”  Deep and insightful words that have a strong resonance here in Australia.

Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (published 2014), is also available here in Australia.

Martin Luther King’s frequently quoted statement that, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” (from his “God is marching on” speech) may give us some hope.  But complacency has no place in the lack of progress on incarceration of Indigenous Australians.  For, as King also said, ““We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there ‘is’ such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”  (from his “Beyond Vietnam” speech)

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