Aboriginal Incarceration and The Deafening Silence

Chris Graham, 19 July 2009

In late June, the federal government helped launch a paper entitled Bridges and Barriers: Addressing Indigenous Incarceration and Health.

It was prepared by the National Indigenous Drug and Alcohol Committee (NIDAC) and called for new efforts to improve Indigenous health, and thereby reduce Indigenous incarceration.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, Indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin, health minister Nicola Roxon and Attorney-General Robert McClelland all gave the event a wide berth. Which is not all that surprising when you consider it was the Rudd government that this year (and last) slashed Aboriginal legal aid funding despite promising prior to the election to “strengthen funding to Aboriginal Legal Aid agencies”.

And of course it has been predominantly state Labor governments locking up Aboriginal people at record rates since the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, a four-year, $40 million exercise that was supposed to reduce incarceration rates. But in the decade immediately after its release, the Aboriginal prison population rose by 107%.

So it’s perhaps logical Labor wheeled out Warren Snowdon, the new Indigenous health minister, and his colleague Brendan O’Connor (home affairs minister) to launch the report.

But Labor’s failings aren’t the only story here. The report had some startling findings, and in the context of the ongoing Mulrunji Doomadgee outrage, and the horrendous death in custody in Western Australia of Mr Ward, I had hoped the media might get at least half as “excited” about the issue as they do when reports emerge of Aboriginal children being sexually abused.

How naive. For whatever reason, black men and women being jailed at astronomical rates apparently doesn’t pique their interest.

The story got a sparing run across the nation, and was restricted in most cases to a breaking news story on websites, courtesy of an AAP yarn.

It included some startling statistics, such as: “One in four prisoners in Australia is Indigenous and their over-representation in the jail system is only getting worse”.

One in four is no mean feat given that in the general population, Indigenous Australians make up one in 40.

And there was this:
”The situation is worst in the Northern Territory , where 83 percent of the prison population is Indigenous.” That’s 83% in a jurisdiction where Aboriginal people constitute less than 30% of the total population.

And this:
”In Western Australia , the figure is 41 percent. Victoria has the lowest proportion of Aboriginal prisoners — 6 percent of that state’s inmates are black.” All pretty alarming stuff, but apparently not enough to really capture our attention.

So I thought I should try and “sex” it all up a bit and put the figures in some sort of context that might resonate a little more, which of course required me to read more than the government press release handout.

The following figures come from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

In the first half of 2008, there were 8411 Indigenous people enrolled in tertiary education. At the same time, there were 6605 Indigenous people in prison.

By comparison, for the same period there were about 696,279 non-Indigenous Australians enrolled in tertiary education, while there were 20,072 non-Indigenous Australians in prison. You can do the math … or I can do it for you.

If you applied the same principle to white Australia — that is, the number of people in jail is only about 22% lower than the number at university – our total national prison population would expand to over 546,000 people. That’s a population larger than Newcastle , Australia ‘s seventh-largest city.

Nowhere else on Earth would you see figures where the Indigenous population in jail almost matches the Indigenous population at university.

Indeed, Australia ‘s Indigenous jailing rate is the highest on Earth. But that’s not the most startling “figure in context”.

This one is. The jailing rate of black males in South Africa at the end of the Apartheid era (1993) was 851 per 100,000 population. In Australia today, we jail black (Aboriginal) males at a national rate of 4364 per 100,000. That’s over five times higher. In the Northern Territory , the rate is almost six times higher.

In fact, no state or territory of Australia — not even the ACT — jails black males at a rate less than South Africa under apartheid.

The closest is Tasmania , at 1169 per 100,000 population.

So Australia ‘s “best performer” is still almost 30% worse than the regime considered one of the most racist on Earth.

Our worst performer — Western Australia — jails black males at more than eight times the rate of South Africa during apartheid. With figures like that, maybe it’s not really all surprising Rudd, Macklin, Roxon, McClelland and the media found something else to report.

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