Indigenous imprisonment in Australia is getting worse

Indigenous imprisonment in Australia

New Australian prison statistics show the crisis of Indigenous imprisonment in Australia is getting worse. The Human Rights Law Centre Senior Lawyer, Ruth Barson, said the figures, released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, should be a wake-up call for governments across Australia to abandon costly, punitive policies. “The Indigenous imprisonment rate is a national crisis. We must take smarter action to address this inequality by addressing the causes of crime – not just the symptoms,” said Ms Barson.

Ms Barson urged governments to embrace proven approaches that prevent crime and lower prison rates.


“Programs like justice reinvestment have shown to reduce Indigenous imprisonment rates, keep the community safer and save taxpayer funds,” said Ms Barson.


The statistics confirm that overall, Indigenous people are locked up at 13 times the rate of non-Indigenous people. Indigenous people account for 28% of the total prisoner population, yet only 2% of the general population.


The statistics show that in the year to June 2015:


  • Indigenous men’s imprisonment rose 5%;
  • Indigenous women’s imprisonment rose 9%;
  • Remand rates (people in prison waiting trial or sentence) increased 11%; and
  • Total imprisonment (Indigenous and non-Indigenous) rose 6%.


“Indigenous women are the fastest growing prisoner demographic in Australia. These women are falling through the gaps. We need targeted, gender and culturally specific action to improve safety and to prevent the cycle of disadvantage,” said Ms Barson.


Executive Officer of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services, Eddie Cubillo, called on the Federal Government to commit to ‘justice targets’ which set benchmarks for reducing Indigenous imprisonment rates.


“The over-imprisonment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is an ongoing blight on Australia and the problem is getting worse. We need programs that are appropriate and responsive to the needs of Aboriginal people. Justice targets will ensure that Governments are accountable for addressing this issue. We must close this gap,” said Mr Cubillo.


NATSILS is also urging governments to focus on tackling the underlying social and economic reasons that generate crime.


“Too often we ignore proven, effective policies which improve community safety in favour of populist, blunt and often ineffective responses that see more and more Aboriginal people locked up,” said Mr Cubillo.


Justice reinvestment involves channeling some of the billions of dollars spent on prisons, into targeted community programs in high-need areas to address the underlying causes of offending.


“Justice reinvestment is an evidence-based approach that focuses resources on preventing crime instead of just responding after the damage is done,” said Ms Barson.


Justice reinvestment emerged out of traditionally punitive American states like Texas in response to ballooning prison populations and the associated costs. It has proven transformative in those places. It is now being trialed in NSW, Western Australia and South Australia.


Related: Aboriginal health in the news, Aboriginal male/men's health, Aboriginal youth, Alcohol and other drugs, Ice drug, Overcoming Indigenous disadvantage, Social determinants

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As linksunten reported on 10 September 15 tribal leaders have been meeting for three days in Alice Springs to hammer out a treaty with White Australia. Here are some videos of what major participants said there.


Ngarla Kunoth-Monks reading the template "Treaties of Unity".




Rosalie Kunoth-Monks, who called for the gathering: “We are more than willing for our white brothers and sisters of good will and humanity to join us, to say to those tyrants who keep sending down policies to a starving people, that this is the way to go: sorry, we have a long-standing, all-inclusive culture, which is still alive in this country. We will not lie down and die."


Tauto Sansbury, South Australia: “This is just the beginning of something that’s going to be great for all of us.”



Bella Bropho, arrested nine times for camping on her own land - Matagarup (Heirisson Island) Perth, WA, putting the "Treaties of Unity" template into context.


Les Coe, Wiradjuri, putting Treaties of Unity in context with relation to the coercive Recognition for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the colonial Commonwealth constitution, which is seen as a trap.


Jenny Munro, Wiradjuri: “The gathering has been about a treaty of unity for our people. We’ve worked over three days on a template. We’re asking all our people to take this template back, discuss it in the families, discuss it in your clans, discuss it in your tribes. And also, please, for the world to see, put it down in you language. We want the world to know there are many, many clans still living, just surviving, many tribes. And we as a people need to come together. If it’s only for this one time and place in history it will be enough to change this country and hence change the world.”

Sam Cook: “….for younger generations to be able to participate (and) to be led with such a solid base of wisdom of a lot of leaders’ minds and thinkers who’ve come through generations of families that have been leading and pushing for our formation as sovereign nations. To see all that kind of come together is the hope that I think we all share. I think we all are not just passive participants, we’re driving forward because we know that this is our right as Aboriginal nations and that we have a lot of work to do. I absolutely appreciate that everyone came with a sense of openness and unity and that we’ll move forward on those good values and intent.”

Eleanor Gilbert videos.





A Call for Treaties of Unity  


A gathering at the Old Bungalow, Mparntwe (Alice Springs) over three days, September 11th to 13th 2015, drafted this simple template to assist all First Nations communities to discuss the language and substance of Treaties.


On the path to unity it is the right of each family, clan and First Nation to light the fires and renew the serious conversation about how we see our place in the life of our Country.  


We the people seek to unite the First Nations of Australia, bound to our Altjira, our Law/Lore, ancient bloodlines and timeless ancestry assert our inalienable rights on our land.  


We seek unity among First Nations as the foundation of a new relationship with the rest of Australia, set down in treaties that honour these clear principles.  


This land is defined by lines as clear to us as the Southern Cross and the dreaming trails, the songlines and ceremonies handed to us from the beginning of time.   


Our Altjira, our Law/Lore, is the essence of what it is to be here in this land. 


Our women, too, are sacred, the givers of life, and along with our men make the law.


The sanctity of our families must be honoured and our children will not be taken away.


We have the right to practice our own religion, to obey our Turnintjamia (commandments), the right to speak and educate our children in our languages and the right to live our culture.


The land is our mother. We have the right to our lands, skies,  waters, plants and seas with the resources that nurture us all.


In unity we will stand with our brothers and sisters to assert and defend their rights like our own.




Stan Grant an Aboriginal journalist at Sky News Australia television, commented on theguardian online that the just toppled conservative Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, “

the prime minister for Indigenous affairs, never fully appreciated our culture”.



- - - - - - - - - -


Another prime minister has gone, this one the self-proclaimed champion for Indigenous people whose personal mission was to redress our country’s “national failure”.

Tony Abbott lauded Indigenous leader Noel Pearson as a visionary, a prophet. Pearson returned the compliment: Abbott was the “Nixon to China” conservative who would lead a nation to reconcile its history and write the missing words in our constitution: that we acknowledge and respect the original people of this land, its history and customs.

Abbott appointed Warren Mundine to head his hand picked advisory council on Indigenous affairs. He made a pledge to spend a week each year in an Indigenous community. He vowed to “sweat blood” for the cause. But words are easy.

We have grown used to the lofty pronouncements of our political leaders, sometimes augmented with tears. If words were solutions, my people would have already broken the chains of our history and been delivered from the margins to the mainstream of this country’s social and political history; our traditions and identity not just intact but enhanced.

But let’s take Abbott at his word – words like “lifestyle choices”. As prime minister he saw little future in small, remote communities. He backed a plan in Western Australia to shut them down. The government, he said, can no longer “endlessly subsidise lifestyle choices”.

It’s necessary to debate how we provide services and healthcare in remote communities, let alone the employment and education that are vital for all Australians, and more so for impoverished and isolated Indigenous people.

Yet, the prime minister spoke neither of consultation nor cooperation, sensitivity to connection to land, history nor kinship.

Tony Abbott’s “prophet”, Noel Pearson, was less complimentary after those words. Abbott was leading a “deranged debate”, he was “disrespectful”, a man “casting fear” into people.

Warren Mundine – Abbott’s “friend”, who took him on a personal journey of understanding – now reminded him that this was not about choice, like a coastal tree-change. This was about a people’s very essence, their very culture.

Abbott has never fully appreciated the essence of Aboriginal culture, not if we take him at his word. This is the man who in 2014 said white settlement was Australia’s “defining moment”, the moment “this continent became part of the modern world”.

Mundine again had to remind his “friend” that this defining moment was also a disastrous defining moment for Indigenous people.

Tony Abbott is a man bound by his ideals. I don’t doubt for one moment they’re sincerely held. But his ideals were formed by the myths, lies and distortions of an Australian history still founded on the concept of Terra Nullius – empty land.

Again, let’s take the former prime minister at his word. Just last year he was moved to reflect that before the coming of the British this land was “nothing but bush” and the pre-colonisation civilisation was “extraordinarily basic and raw’.

In Abbott’s words of 2014 I hear an echo of the mid 19th-century clergyman John Dunmore Lang, who justified settlement in 1856:

God in making the earth never intended it should be occupied by men so incapable of appreciating its resources as the Aborigines of Australia.

Abbott, in so many ways, seemed forged of earlier times, a man from the past delivered here and destined to grapple with very modern challenges. From attitudes to women, homosexuality, refugees, climate change or Indigenous people, he could appear out of step.

It has produced a man of contradictions. A man derided for misogyny, yet the father of three women. A man who admitted to being threatened by homosexuality, which challenges “the right order of things”; yet who greatly loves his lesbian sister. A man of great personal loyalty who could not command the loyalty of his own party.

And here was a man bound by his history who just last month could stand at the grave of Eddie Mabo – the man whose legal challenge to uphold his native title overturned Terra Nullius – and declare it a “sacred place’.

This is the nub of the failure of Abbott’s prime Ministership. Here was a man confined by his view of his country, confronted by an Australian people who looked to transform their view of this country.

The self-proclaimed “prime minister for Indigenous people” leaves a legacy unfulfilled. He spoke of closing the gap and redressing Indigenous disadvantage yet stripped half a billion dollars from spending on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

He spoke of his desire to lead a referendum to recognise indigenous people in the constitution yet leaves leaders like Noel Pearson stranded somewhere between disillusion and hope.

Abbott is far from alone in this. In December 1992 I stood on a stage in Redfern to introduce an earlier prime minister as he challenged our country to reconcile its history. Paul Keating took responsibility for dispossession, murder, stolen children, discrimination and exclusion.

“We cannot sweep injustice aside”, he said. Yet Paul Keating exited politics with his vision unrealised.

Earlier this year I spoke at length to another former prime minister; a leader who made the great apology. Kevin Rudd said sorry and he told me of his pride and great humility in a moment when our parliament spoke to what can unite us.

Yet, Kevin Rudd too exited politics, and his hopes for the plight of my people remain elusive.

We remain today as Indigenous people, at the bottom of every socio-economic indicator. We have the worst health, housing, education, employment; we die younger and we die still of diseases that no longer kill our fellow Australians.

In a country as successful, as rich and tolerant and accepting as ours I can only ask why? All of the words, the ideals, the leadership, still we fall short. I know it is complicated, that the web of our past entangles us still. Yet I also know, deep down I know, that if we wanted to cure it, we would cure it, just like we cured polio.

The great Scottish poet Robbie Burns said: “if I could write all the songs, I would not care who wrote the laws”. Politicians write the laws and the laws are inadequate. The song: that is ours and only we a people – beyond prime ministers – can complete it.