ONE in four prisoners in Australia is indigenous and their over-representation in the jail system is only getting worse, a new report states.
Aborigines are 13 times more likely to be locked up than other Australians, while the proportion of indigenous women being incarcerated has tripled in the past 20-odd years.
Half of the 10- to 17-year-olds in corrective institutions are indigenous. “The fact is, every year it gets worse,” Australian National Council on Drugs (ANCD) executive director Gino Vumbaca said. “The investment in prison cells is clearly flawed. It’s not working.
“If you build more prison cells, invariably you’ll fill them with more indigenous people.”
In the decade to 2007, the number of indigenous Australians in prison rose by 6.7 per cent a year, on average. Aboriginal people went from comprising 18 per cent of the prison population to 24 per cent.
The situation is worst in the Northern Territory , where 83 per cent of the prison population is indigenous. In Western Australia , it’s 41 per cent. Victoria has the lowest proportion of Aboriginal prisoners – 6 per cent of that state’s inmates are black. (In South Australia 20% of inmates are Aboriginal)
Mr Vumbaca says the report proves tinkering around the edges of the problem hasn’t worked and it makes economic sense to invest more in rehabilitation. “What we need is greater investment in things like residential treatment services so judges, magistrates and the police have options other than incarceration.”
The report estimates it costs governments $269 per day to lock up a prisoner. That’s compared to just $98 per day for someone in residential rehabilitation. NIDAC chair Ted Wilkes says treatment provides people with a chance of recovery – which leads to less re-offending.
“Indigenous Australians increasingly fill our country’s prisons and juvenile detention centres at alarmingly disproportionate rates,” he said.
“Treatment is simply far more effective in terms of outcomes and costs than imprisoning people.”
The report recommends making diversion programs more accessible for indigenous Australians, while simultaneously establishing a network of indigenous-only residential rehabilitation centres as alternatives to jail. It also suggests every young Aboriginal person be given an individual education fund “to assist and promote their participation and retention within the education system”.