Indigenous imprisonment in Australia: a crisis of mass incarceration

April 2, 2015

(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)


Indigenous imprisonment in Australia

March 12, 2015

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander imprisonment rates have been steadily rising and are worse than any time in recent memory.  This is a national problem that demands a national solution.

I have just published an opinion piece on this topic in Open Forum, entitled “Indigenous imprisonment in Australia: a crisis of mass incarceration”.

I have also re-posted the full article on this blog, along with a short addition.

I encourage you to read it.


In Selma the film, Martin Luther King is a man who listens

March 1, 2015

I am too young to remember Dr Martin Luther King, but I am not that young that I have not been deeply influenced by his legacy as the leading American civil rights campaigner.

“Selma”, the biopic of a slice of Martin Luther King’s life, can be a deeply affecting experience, at least for those of us for whom the American civil rights movement remains an important cultural, political and social touchstone.

Director Ava DuVernay, an African-American woman who seems to have held many roles in film from publicist to writer and director, has arrived without fanfare to show us that she is one of the strongest directors in contemporary film. Her re-creation of historical events – a number of key activities taking place primarily in Alabama in the southern US – and her ability to portray recent historical figures on screen is astonishing, especially African-Americans: King himself (an amazing performance by David Oyelowo), Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo), Andrew Young (Andre Holland), Bayard Rustin, Mahalia Jackson, Ralph Abernathy, Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) and even a brief appearance by Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch). The white historical figures are equally as good: Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), Governor George Wallace of Alabama (Roth), J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) and a host of others. But the film’s ability to get “inside” the African-American characters gives them three-dimensionality, substance and coherent identity – that is this film’s greatest achievement.

I am not quite certain why “Selma” is not more popular in the USA, hovering just over US$50 million in the theatrical box office as I write this. While not a flop, this is by no means a success. Part of it may be the mini-controversy over the portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson: the film shows a number of discussions between King and Johnson, and paints Johnson as deliberate, strategic (fair enough) but wanting to hold King back at every turn. “You have one cause to worry about,” Johnson says to King at one point, “I have 101 causes.”

Those who live outside of the USA, unless they have read widely in American history, have no true concept of the enduring stain and trail of social dysfunction and blight that the history of slavery and racism has left on that country. Even today, African-Americans are heavily over-represented in American jails and prisons: six times the rate of whites, and nine times the rate for young black men.rs in jail.

As the film “Selma” points out, institutionalised disenfranchisement of African-Americans did not end with the abolition of slavery by Abraham Lincoln in 1863. As late as the mid-1960s, African-American voting rights were widely ignored, particularly – and especially – in the south. Just to be clear, this meant that in large areas of the south at that time, African-Americans simply were unable to vote, enforced through a wide range of tricks, regulations and petty bureaucracies. In turn this meant that they could not serve of trial juries, with deeply negative implications for African-American interactions with the justice and court systems. The master strategist King understood all of that. In an early scene in “Selma”, an older African-American woman attempts to enrol to vote and is asked a wide range of questions, including reciting the preamble to the American Constitution (she can, can you?), and finally rejected. It’s a heartbreaking moment; the woman is Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey).

It’s a shame that “Selma” will not be more widely seen in the USA or even here in Australia, where it has barely registered with the audience, other than with film critics, who wholeheartedly endorsed it. The American civil rights movement had a direct effect on the cause of Indigenous justice here in Australia, inspiring a wide range of campaigners. But aside from Barack Obama, whose personal story captured the attention of many Australians, African-American stories are not popular here.

And finally, a comment as to why “Selma” is able to transcend the biographical film genre in new and unexpected ways. According to American film critic Max O’Connell, there are six ways to make a biopic live and breathe. I quote them directly from his review on letterboxd, rather than attempting to summarise:

*****

1. Focus on one small part of the character’s life.
2. Focus on the backroom deals, the horse-trading, the deal-making and the compromises needed to make progress.
3. Cast an actor who’s as good a listener as David Oyelowo, who’s commanding without ever feeling pre-bronzed because he’s constantly leaning in to what everyone’s saying and weighing information.
4. On top of that, get someone like Ava DuVernay to direct, as she’ll get the least-showy performances out of both actors that tend to show off (Cuba Gooding, Jr., Giovanni Ribisi) or characters that beg actors to give show-stopping performances (George Wallace, LBJ). Everything is perfectly measured, and with the exception of Martin Sheen as the world’s most dignified judge, none of the stars are particularly distracting (also: props to Oprah for never making scenes about her even in movies that seem to encourage it, a la “The Butler”).
5. Show the violence honestly without ever lingering too much on the brutality, instead showcasing how it affects the people and how they’ll have to adapt (or not).
6. When dealing with questions of whether or not the film’s noble center was a flawed man, don’t dodge the issue (here, it’s MLK’s philandering). Show how it hurt the people around them. At the same time, show how it’s just one facet, not an all-consuming problem, and that it’s insignificant compared to the work he did.

*****
I particularly love O’Connell’s point number 3: David Oyelowo’s King actively LISTENS to the people around him. This is something that a large number of leaders and those in power are unable or unwilling to do. King apparently did this, and in “Selma” Oyelowo illustrates it beautifully, in scene after scene. In his short film career – Oyelowo has also starred in “The Butler” – for me, this actor with the sonorous voice has already earned his place in the pantheon of great screen performances, Oscar nominations or not.

David Oyelowo in Selma


Film review of The Butler

November 13, 2013

Directed by Lee Daniels; written by Danny Strong; starring Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Elijah Kelly, Vanessa Redgrave, Cuba Gooding Jr, Robin Williams, James Marsden, Live Schrieber, John Cusack, Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda

Despite its many charms, the film “The Butler” struggles to capture American political, social and cultural history from the 1950s to the present day.  It’s a well-meaning and frequently enjoyable film with an all star cast, loving period detail (down the uniforms worn by 1960s US postal workers) and a genuine affection for both its topic and characters.

At 132 minutes, “The Butler” is both too long and too short, defeated by the task it has set itself – a virtual history of the American Civil Rights movement through the eyes of one man.  That man is Cecil Gaines, played by Forest Whitaker, whose dignified performance is surely ripe for an Academy Award nomination – and the film is worth seeing for Whitaker’s acting alone.  He’s a black man who becomes a butler in the White House in the 1950s, and witnesses Presidential history first-hand through numerous administrations over more than thirty years.  The film is based on a true story of Eugene Allen, the subject of a feature article in the Washington Post on the eve of Barack Obama’s election in November 2008.

Growing up in the rural south prior to World War II, Cecil (spoiler alert!) witnesses both the rape of his mother and murder of his father by a white southern landowner.  Taken in by a kindly old southern matriarch (Vanessa Redgrave), he learns how to be a “house nigger” (the movie’s term, not mine), carefully and quietly serving the white plantation owners.

To survive as a black man in 1950s and 1960s America, Gaines needs to keep his emotions in check.  He finds his way into bar tending, then a fancy Washington DC hotel.  From there he is recruited to serve as a butler in the Eisenhower White House.

All of Gaines’ fellow butlers are black men.  He works there for the next thirty-plus years from Eisenhower (played by an unusually low-key and badly cast Robin Williams) to Kennedy (James Marsden, who sounds the part does not look it) to Johnson (Liev Schrieber, who tries hard, but never reaches the “larger than life” sense of his character) to Nixon (an incongruously cast John Cusack, who appears to have lengthened his nose for the part, and does a valiant but unsuccessful job at capturing this most complex of presidents) to Reagan.  Ford is barely mentioned and I do not recall Carter appearing.  You see what I mean?  The enormity of this topic conspires to defeat the film-makers’ best intentions.

The Butler  2013(photo: Jane Fonda and Alan Rickman)

Ronald Reagan is played by British actor Alan Rickman, the most successful presidential portrayal.  How is it that Americans can play Brits and Brits play Americans so well – think Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher and Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln?  Worth pondering.  Jane Fonda plays Nancy Reagan, in one of the “The Butler’s” best in-jokes.  Fonda was once one of the most radical actors, including a notable visit to North Vietnam during the Vietnam War.  So when Fonda plays a iconic conservative First Lady, the result is, well, slyly funny.  She’s also devilishly good in the cameo role.

Along the way, Cecil marries Gloria, who is played by Oprah Winfrey.  Younger viewers may not recall that Winfrey has had an illustrious acting career, gaining an Oscar nomination for her role in Steven Spielberg’s “The Color Purple”, as well as starring in “Beloved”.

Cecil and Gloria have two kids:  Charlie, the younger (Elijah Kelly), goes to Vietnam.   Louis, the older one (David Oyelowo), lives through a breath-taking sequence of historical events (Forest Gump-like):  He is a “freedom rider” for civil rights in the south in places like Birmingham, Alabama, is arrested sixteen times, joins up with the Reverend Martin Luther King, and even sits with King prior to King’s assassination in Tennessee.  He later becomes a radical black activist, helps to found the Black Panther Party and has a girlfriend who looks exactly like Angela Davis.

Martin Luther King (played by Nelsan Ellis) supplies a useful dramatic addition to the story.  When Louis embarrassingly says to King that his father is just a butler, King gives an articulate defense of African-American butlers and maids.  As the Salon review summarises:

Black domestic workers, King tells Louis, have played an important role in the struggle for civil rights….  Maids, butlers, nannies and other domestics have defied racist stereotypes by being trustworthy, hardworking and loyal….  In maintaining other people’s households and raising other people’s children, they have gradually broken down hardened and hateful attitudes. Their apparent subservience is also quietly subversive.

Did King ever say this?  I have not been able to find it, at least not yet.  But the point of the film is that King COULD have said it, even if he did not.  It’s at this point that “The Butler” starts to gain some of its power that it has given away through too much narrative and incident.  If, like me, you lived in the United States during the development of the Civil Rights movement, “The Butler” may have special meaning.  It dramatises many of the events, including some we can only guess at (how various Presidents dealt with the race issue), and ultimately is both moving and memorable.

Gaines lives long enough in the film (as did his inspiration Eugene Allen) to see Obama elected to the Presidency in 2008.  Thankfully, we are spared an Obama appearance – although Orlando Eric Street was originally cast to play the current President, but does not appear.  (Apparently Barack Obama turned down the invitation to play himself.)  Plenty of time left for that.

The Butler poster

*****

Footnote:  Will Whitaker win an Oscar for his role?  His character – ageing about sixty years throughout the course of the film – is just the sort of role that the “Academy” loves.  But here’s a prediction: he is nominated but does not win, losing out to someone in a “flashier” film such as Tom Hanks in “Captain Phillips”, Robert Redford in “All is Lost” or – most likely – Chiwetel Ejiofer in “12 Years a Slave”.

Trivia corner:  A few years ago, Whitaker turned down the chance to play Obama in the film “My Name is Khan”.


The uses and mis-uses of history

October 29, 2013

I have long held a strong interest in the uses of history.  Historians have made a whole field of it, called historiography, or the study of history.

One of the latest examples of an insightful historical perspective comes from Jelani Cobb, a University of Connecticut history professor, who has written passionately about gun rights and African-Americans in the July 29, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.

Cobb uses a new – and quite evocative term – “historical malpractice” – to describe how some American (National Rifle Association – NRA) gun rights advocates are attempting to co-opt African American support, by appealing to their sense of disenfranchisement.  Cobb goes on to write:

As with the recent anti-abortion billboards that targeted African-Americans by alluding to racist roots in the birth-control movement, the error lies in importing the past wholesale into the present. The point of history is to learn from it, not to proceed as if we were still living in it.

Great lessons here for the uses and mis-uses of history.  “Importing the past” without context is wrong, as is the assumption that we are living in a different historical era.  Wise words.


Teaching Feature Writing – Ahladeff’s Martin Luther King Article

August 27, 2013

Feature writing is not like news writing. The structures and styles are both different, with rules of their own.

What writing students often don’t realise is that in the feature article the most important parts are the opener and the closer – unlike the classic news article with its inverted triangle structure.  You need a strong hook at beginning and a “pot of gold” ending.  And short sentences help. A lot.

Yesterday’s The Sydney Morning Herald (26 August 2013, p. 19 of the paper edition) included a good example of classic feature writing by Vic Ahladeff, the CEO of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies.  In an article entitled “Kings dream just a sleeper but for Mahalia Jackson”, he writes about the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.  Others have noted this:  it’s on the cover of this week’s Time magazine.

But Ahladeff’s article takes one angle:  that of African-American gospel singer Mahalia Jackson’s role in encouraging King to use the “dream” theme.

So after teaching feature writing to university public relations and journalism students twice in the last 18 months (University of NSW and APM College, North Sydney), I find this article to be an excellent example for students.  Here’s why.

Ahladeff’s opener:

If anyone warrants a footnote in history, it’s Mahalia Jackson. (10 WORDS, CATCHY) If anyone deserves a modicum of recognition for what transpired before 250,000 people crammed at the foot of Washington’s Lincoln Memorial on a sweltering afternoon 50 years ago, it’s surely Mahalia Jackson.

Comment:  First sentence, catchy.  Ten words.  Second sentence 31 words, really too long, however he gets away with it because the sentence is evocative and he uses the repetition technique – mirroring the first sentence – at both the beginning (“If anyone deserves …”) and the end of the sentence – “it’s surely Mahalia Jackson”.

His second paragraph:

Yet her story remains unsung, her involvement in one of the greatest speeches of all time unheralded.

Comment:  One sentence, which runs 17 words, and it is the “real catch”, placed just where the article most needs it.  He throws the reader’s attention to the rest of the article.  Wow, the reader thinks.  Really?  Tell me more.  What was her involvement, they ask?

There’s lots of good stuff in the middle.  His quotations are nicely chosen.  I particularly the following part, because it develops its own pace, leading towards the final payoff of the “dream”:

Mahalia Jackson, one of the supporters clustered near him, spontaneously shouted: ”Tell them about the dream, Martin!”

King droned on. ”Go back to the slums and ghettoes of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.”

Jackson again, more urgently: ”Tell them about the dream!”

He paused …”

And then the closer, the “pay-off”:

King was assassinated in 1968. Jackson sang Take My Hand, Precious Lord at the funeral. She died four years later, 50,000 people filing past her coffin to honour the queen of gospel whose unforeseen outburst paved the way for an oratorical masterpiece whose eloquence reverberates 50 years later.

Comment:   First sentence of the paragraph is only five words long.  Shocking.  Assassinated.  Yes, we knew.  But still.  This is the first mention of King’s untimely death.  Second sentence – nine words, the connection is made again – she actually sang at the funeral.  Third sentence – she died four years later – oh goodness, she died too.  “The queen of gospel” is a nice phrase.  The final sentence is a little long but it reads very well.  It contains only two real adjectives – “unforeseen” and “oratorical” – both of which work well and do not duplicate their nouns, as so many adjectives and adverbs tend to do.  The “50,000” and “50” numbers also create a parallelism.  The words “eloquence reverberates 50 years later” give us a sense of history.  Overall, the sentence makes us feel good about ourselves in that we are, somehow, a part of that “reverberation” and a part of that “history”.

Convinced?  Read the full article, especially since it is available online free in its entirety (at least as of Tuesday 27 August, morning in Sydney).  It may not be freely accessible for long, given the recent massive changes in newspaper business models.

Here is a copy of the “South Pacific edition of this week’s Time magazine, Volume 128, number 9:

Time magazine cover MLKing 26Aug2013

Want to read the full speech:  go to the US National Archives (note PDF document):

*****

(Declaration:  I know Vic Ahladeff, and he was the editor of The Australian Jewish News for many years while I wrote film reviews for that paper.)


African American disadvantage in 2013

July 28, 2013

The recent Trayvon Martin verdict (George Zimmerman found not guilty) has stimulated new discussion about African-American (black) disadvantage in the USA.

Here’s what President Barack Obama said:

In the African-American community, at least, there’s a lot of pain around what happened here. I think it’s important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.  The African-American community is also knowledgeable that there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws — everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws. And that ends up having an impact in terms of how people interpret the case.

Time Magazine – which specialises in summarising complex phenomena in coherent and reasonably objective ways – included a set of statistics in their most recent issue:

Issue Blacks Whites
Median household income $33,000/year $55,000/year
Male unemployment 15% 7%
Religion important to their lives 79% 56%
Believes discrimination exists in USA today 56% 16%
Percentage 18-24 enrolled in college 36% 45%
Percentage in US population 13%  
Percentage  in US prison population 37% (three times pop rate)  

(The Time statistics were sourced from the National Urban League, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Census Bureau, Social Problems journal and Sentencing Project.)

And here are some more statistics from Time:

–          Blacks make up 13% of the US population, but 37% of those in prison – thus incarcerated at three times their rate of population.

–          Blacks constitute 13% of the regular drug users (exactly their rate of the population), but are 38% of those arrested for drug offenses (again, almost three times the rate of others – surely a connection).

–          Wages grow at a 21% “slower rate for black former inmates, compared with white former inmates”.

–          “Eleven US states deny the right to vote to more than 10% of their black populations because of felony convictions”.  And yet, blacks voted in the 2012 Presidential election at a GREATER rate than whites did, for the first time in history, continuing a trend that has been apparent since 2000 – see the US Census Report from May 2013 and the Pew Social Trends report.