Open the Prison Gates on Indigenous Incarceration #FODI
Scanning across the streams of ideas and thoughts that came out of the festival of dangerous ideas I was given much to think about, values of my own to reassess and talented speakers with books I will seek to find time to read. But Dangerous? Not really, a lot of it seemed like common sense coming from Intelligent people who just so happen to be ahead of the social curve. Similarly on the issue of the serious over representation of Indigenous people in the prison system much is written by exceptional people, who clearly identify the magnitude of the problem and offer some good long term solutions that are sadly ignored by a large section of the public and government. But what of today, right now, not just in the years to come?
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples make up 2.5% of the population, yet account for 26% of the prison population. For Juveniles the figures are worse, 40% of those under the age of 18 in the criminal justice system are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth or children. Those children were, according the Governments own figures, 11 times more likely to be found guilt than their non-Indigenous counter parts and 18 times more likely to be in detention. Since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody things have only gotten worse and another generation is being lost to the walls and bars (http://www.aihw.gov.au/WorkArea/DownloadAsset.aspx?id=60129542188). Based on these simple figures alone it is quite clear that Indigenous people are targeted more frequently by law enforcement, are more often found guilty and much more likely to serve a custodial sentence, both children and adults, for the same crimes also committed by non-Indigenous Australians. Yet the public debate still centres on placing the large portion of the responsibility on Indigenous people while mutual responsibility, let alone state culpability, are scoffed at.
On a real world level take Wilcannia NSW, population 604 of which 77% are Aboriginal people, sees arrests per year exceed the total population. That means some in the community are being arrested more than twice a year, in 1993 that figure was 25 times a year per person in town, some 20,000 arrests in one year for the small country town. While that figure has reduced it remains frighteningly high and most of those arrests are for public drunkenness. Imagine if you can every person in Kings Cross on a Saturday night being arrested for being on the street after consuming too much alcohol. It would be a grave over reaction (although an easy way to fill the cells) if ever there was one, but no different to any night of the week around the country in areas where a considerable number of the population is Indigenous. Feeling targeted is not an illusion of the mind but an everyday reality for those who so often treat undiagnosed health conditions, mental and physical, with the cheapest medicine in town.
The social harm the constant imprisonment of individuals for the most minor of crimes is difficult to measure with any accuracy but take this one figure to give you an idea of just how bad things are. An Aboriginal man in Wilcannia has a life expectancy of just 37 years of age (http://tinyurl.com/mxd4dtj). Let me say that again, a life expectancy of 37 years of age. By 25 you are middle aged, by 30 your health is deteriorating and by 37 you are dead. If Wilcannia was a country it would have the lowest life expectancy in the world. Worse than any African country you can name, worse that any nation stricken by civil war or health epidemic. Yet this occurs in Australia, whom the WHO says Australians can expect a life expectancy of 81 years of age, the 4th highest in the world. The divide between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians could not be higher, it is an inequality unmatched around the world.
So while I fully endorse long term solutions, I endorse rational and reasonable policy making based on community consultation that work with community assets and not only their negatives and I fully endorse the much needed building of health, education and employment infrastructure to benefit Indigenous people, I also cannot accept that such a problem can be left only to long term solutions. Just as when a major natural disaster or health epidemic hits another nation we do not simply accept long term solutions but rapid action to ease the burden on those suffering right this very minute.
And we can ease that burden right now, we can reduce the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in prison at this very moment and we can ensure that another generation is not lost to the cells. It will also save billions of dollars that could be better redirected to health, education, legal & community organisations and employment.
My dangerous idea is this: – All Indigenous prisoners (Male, female, adult & juvenile) currently serving a custodial sentence for a victim-less non-violent crime should be released immediately. Their records wiped clean and allowed to return home.
I’m often told that Aboriginal people benefit from imprisonment as they can better access health services or recover from addiction. So ask yourself this, you’ve had a night out for drinks with friends, you have tonsillitis and you are being told the best way to be cured is not attend your local GP where you will recoup a part of the cost with Government backed Medicare, but to go to your local prison, spend a few months there and hey presto your sore throat is cured and so is your coffee habit. Would you accept that scenario? Let alone if both the addiction and the health issue were far more serious! The vast bulk of those inside prisons suffer mental health issues and have at some point in their life suffered abuse, more of which is likely to follow inside.
So why, for victim-less, non-violent crime would you keep these people imprisoned unless it was simply to warehouse a national disgrace you and the nation do not wish to face. How many young Prof. Larissa Behrendts, Cyril Riolis, Jessica Mauboys or Dr Kelvin Kongs are there sitting in prison cells? And are we willing to do what it takes to ensure another generation is not needlessly lost to our obsession with incarcerating a problem our nation created.
Like those presented at the FODI I do not believe this is dangerous, but common sense, perhaps ahead of what is comfortable for most. But it needs to happen now!