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Indigenous Australians in prison

Imagine if your cultural heritage meant that you were 13 times more likely than everyone else to go to prison. This is the scary statistic facing Aboriginal communities around Australia.

Submitted 5/1/2006 By rachelhiggi Views 61182 Comments 5 Updated 10/8/2008

Photographer : Ruud Welten

The facts

  • Indigenous people make up 24% of the prison population, but only 2.5% of the Australian population
  • In WA, an Indigenous person is 21 times more likely to be imprisoned than a non-Indigenous person
  • The highest proportion of Indigenous prisoners (22%) are aged between 20 and 24 years
  • Indigenous women are the fastest growing group of prisoners in Australia
  • Young indigenous people are 30 times more likely to be held in detention in NSW than non-Indigenous young people

[Australian Bureau of Statistics]

What’s the issue?

If you are shocked by the statistics above, you shouldn’t be. The disproportionate presence of Aborigines in the criminal justice system has been a huge issue throughout Australia’s history. The uncomfortable truth was first brought to light in 1991 with the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, which claimed that Indigenous Australians were 27 times more likely to go to prison than non-Indigenous Australians.

Seventeen years later and we are still facing the fact that Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders are vastly over-represented in prisons all around Australia.

Why are so many Indigenous Australians in prison?

There’s no simple answer as to why so many Indigenous Australians are imprisoned each year. It is a result of many intertwining social, economic and cultural conditions. Some factors which contribute to Indigenous over-representation include:

  • Alcohol and drug abuse
  • Unemployment
  • Low socio-economic status and poverty
  • Lack of social support and involvement
  • Residence in crime prone areas

Remember that these issues are more of a problem for Aboriginal communities than for any other group in Australia.

It is also important to consider how the breakdown of traditional laws and community norms has affected Indigenous communities. European settlement in Australia meant that many traditional practices for achieving justice were taken over by unfamiliar laws and punishments.

Are the police to blame?

There has been a historical tension between the Australian police force and the Aboriginal community. Many people claim that there is still a legacy of distrust which causes police to discriminate against Indigenous people. There continues to be reports of unnecessary physical and verbal abuse against Aboriginal suspects both within custody and in public. Indigenous rights advocates and researchers have suggested that police don’t know how to deal with Indigenous youth who are often psychologically damaged and mixed up.

Government reports have shown that Aboriginal people also receive fewer cautions, summonses and legal notices than non-indigenous people. This puts them at a disadvantage in the criminal justice system.

What are the impacts of imprisonment?

On the individual

It’s easy to think about how much it would suck to be in prison – but the impact of incarceration goes beyond the misery of being stuck in a cell with nothing to do. Indigenous prisoners experience psychological and mental health problems at a higher rate than non-Indigenous prisoners. And because Indigenous Australians are imprisoned more frequently than anyone else, it is harder for them to gain employment and re-integrate into the community. Indigenous offenders also have a higher mortality rate in the period following their release from prison.

On the offender’s family and community

It’s easy to forget that for every person put in prison, there is a whole family and community whose lives become altered. Indigenous communities have been found to suffer a huge flow-on impact when family members and friends go to prison.

Firstly, the family has to adjust to a reduced income. Then there’s the time and money needed to travel to visit the person in jail. The stress of the situation can fuel family breakdowns and lead to stress-relieving behaviour such as smoking, drinking and drug abuse. In essence, having friend or family member in prison intensifies all the problems that Aboriginal communities are facing anyway. Without proper support services available, family and friends of offenders are vulnerable to a renewed cycle of crime and disadvantage.

What’s being done?

A NSW Report on ‘Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage’ identified some alternatives to Indigenous imprisonment. These methods aim to provide a greater chance of rehabilitation and a way for Indigenous communities to control the cycle of crime. These options included:

  • Community based sentencing – offenders are sentenced to home detention, periodic detention or community service orders.
  • Circle sentencing – local Aboriginal community members sit in a circle with the offender and a sentence is decided as a group. This process has proved very effective because it allows the offender to take responsibility for what they have done in front of the community.
  • Alternative correctional centres – offenders are sent to alternative institutions where the focus is on learning new skills, establishing cultural awareness and taking behavioural courses. These centres are often in rural areas so there is no feeling of being ‘locked-up’. Sometimes families participate in case management.

Each state and territory is in charge of dealing with the issue as best they can. However, there so are many complicated historical, economic and cultural factors involved that it would be impossible to design a single policy that would solve everything at once. The good news is that heaps of research is being done and the government is fully aware of their own responsibility to address the problem.

This page was updated by kate elise

How do I know this?

Australian Bureau of Statistics, Prisoners in Australia 2007  

‘Indigenous Imprisonment’ Reconciliation Australia   

Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage in New South Wales Interim Report (Chapter 9), Standing Committee on Social Issues June 2008

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woods81 02-Feb-2010

I cant believe you would write, 'Imagine if your cultural heritage meant that you were 13 times more likely than everyone else to go to prison'
Im sick of people using being black as an excuse.
Just because you are aboriginal DOES NOT MEAN youre 13 times more likely. It is up to the individual person to control their future. No cop strolls down the road and picks 6 people out of group of 50 and says 'oh yeh this will do its about 13%'
It is up to the aboriginal population to control this figure.



mbitterman 27-Aug-2008

Although this article is very informative, I believe it omits some details that also explain the higher rate of incarceration in the indigenous community.

I am a former NSW police officer who has worked closely with indiginous people for some time. During this time, it was explained to me by police ACLOs (Aboriginal Community Liaison Officers, normally a prominent Aboriginal figurehead in the community that speaks with indigenous offenders) that indigenous people are far more likely to be imprisoned for a variety of reasons:
a) indigenous people have a stronger connection with the land and therefore spend a higher proportion of time in public places such as parks. This places them in higher profile and contact with police.
b) indigenous people do not "conform" to white "protocols" in prison and therefore are deemed to be a higher risk inmate. When a prisoner is incarcerated, they are always transferred to maximum security institutions. As indigenous people are typically not see to follow white procedures here, they remain in maximum security rather than being transferred to lower security prisons, even if they are not a legitimate threat. For this reason, the percentage of male Aboriginals in prison is proportionally higher than other races of inmates.
c) poor living conditions. It was explained to me that indigenous persons, despite recieving special allowances and benefits, typically received poorer healthcare and education, and managed lifestyles that were of substandard quality for a first world country. Alcoholism was quite a likely result, which led to higher rates of domestic violence, in an intoxicated state.
d) Aboriginals are more likely sustain injury or death in custody due to their inability to adapt to confinement. As a community that values personal freedom and flexibility, the claustrophobic sense of entrapment is disturbing to many inmates.

You mention police brutality however, with which I disagree to a certain extent. Although many police share biased views on minority groups, police brutality is, in itself, a minority.

I strongly believe however, Marlabungu and Hiluxgirl, that even though white Australians tout the benefits we provide to the Aboriginal community, and indigenous Australians seek to highlight the difficulties they have suffered in times past, no resolution can be made until parties realize that we are now an Australian entity as a whole. Although assimilation is clearly no longer the goal of the government, harmonisation is definately a good start.

And for the record, my land, food and water are not free.



Sidney Blitner-Watts 09-Jan-2008

Our job is to represent our Aboriginal issues. Yours is to attempt to assimilate us into your society. Have a look at white australians - I mean are you seriuosly trying to suggest that your issues come close to what has happened to Aboriginal people. If there are more financial benefits for Aboriginal people, why not provide a list and let's discuss them instead of your broad progranda based statements. And what are these paths and avenues that you so proudly speak of and are working so well for your society.

You live on free land, free water and free food and you paid absolutely nothing for it. And now you want a free toyota.



Hiluxgirl 03-Dec-2007

You could flip the coin over Xavier and have a look at white Australian people. there is white deaths in custody, stolen wealth, domestic violence, less financial benefits then aboriginals are entitled too. So you got to look at all aspects.

Yes lack of education is a major contributing factor, so is alcoholism. There is plenty of avenues aboriginals can take to get on the right path, we just got to help them see it.



Xavier Snee 31-Jul-2006

There's more to this story than just prison! Black deaths in custody people, Stolen wealth, Domestic Violence (including Rape) of women and children, Lack of Education, No Financial benefits for the aboriginal businessmen c'mon people what are we doing to the NATIVES of AUSTRALIA???????