- 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
- 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 www.abs.gov.au
‘Indigenous Imprisonment’ Reconciliation Australia www.reconcilationaustralia.org.au
Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage in New South Wales Interim Report (Chapter 9), Standing Committee on Social Issues June 2008 http://www.parliament.nsw.gov.au/prod/parlment/