We jail black men five times more than apartheid South Africa

Last week, 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 calls for new efforts to improve Indigenous health, and thereby reduce Indigenous incarceration.

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 — a respected young Aboriginal leader who was cooked in the back of a prison van during a four hour trip through the Central Desert — I had expected media to get at least half as ‘excited’ about the issue as they do when reports emerge of Aboriginal children being sexually abused.

How naïve. Perhaps it’s because ‘black on black violence’ is more palatable to the Australian public. Or maybe it’s just because our media (and by inference the Australian public) gets its rocks off on child s-xual abuse. Whatever the reason, black men and women being jailed at astronomical rates apparently doesn’t pique our 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 like: “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 per cent of the prison population is Indigenous.” That’s 83 per cent in a jurisdiction where Aboriginal people constitute less than 30 per cent of the total population.

In Western Australia, the figure is 41 per cent . Victoria has the lowest proportion of Aboriginal prisoners — 6 per cent of that state’s inmates are black.”

All pretty alarming stuff, but not enough to really capture our attention. So I thought I should try and ‘s-x’ it all up a little bit. All I can do is put the figures in some sort of context that might resonate a little better…. Which of course required me to read more than the government press release hand out.

In the first half of 2008, there were 8,411 Indigenous people enrolled in tertiary education . At the same time, there were 6,605 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 — ie. the number of people in jail is only about 22 percent lower than the number at university — our total 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 in 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 males at a national rate of 4,364 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 1,169 per 100,000 population.

So Australia’s ‘best performer’ is still almost 30 percent worse than the regime considered 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.

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59 Responses

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  1. Dear Jimbo,

    thank you for providing our Anthropology 101 class with this excellent satirical article. Despite its excellent send-up of the archetypal frightened, self-hating Anglo-Australian, we do think that you go too far - surely no-one could believe in such a gross caricature?

    It’s almost rascist to portray Anglo-Australians as so wilfully ignorant and reflexively un-selfreflective. Regardless of some unfortunate past actions by a small minority in generations long since gone, the great majority of Anglo-Australians are open-minded, intelligent and compassionate people who are able to not only tolerate, but accept, diversity, both of opinion and worldview. They are also able to think and discuss rationally and politely without being befogged by their own personal opinions or national-ethnic myths.

    We think you are most unfair to suggest that Anglo-Australians are mired in the same old mean attitudes of days long gone and that any mention of Indigenous - non-Indigenous issues will result in a tidal wave of bilious hate and stereotyping.

    Thank you again for this article, which has greatly assisted us in our studies of Anglo-Australian society and culture, but could we suggest that in future you create a character with a little more realism and subtlety,


    Anthro 101, class of 1972

    by Bob the builder on Jul 5, 2009 at 5:48 pm

  2. Bob the builder - James Bennett - Just look at the history! It tells the story! Ango-Australians and Angl people in general are wilfully ignorant? Why are we having the current problems if they always acted justly, prudently and didn’t think they had a divine right to rape and pillage?

    by Liz45 on Jul 5, 2009 at 6:28 pm

  3. Hi James,

    I would be interested in your opinion about their culture being primitive.

    I’m really not sure that this is true. You see, the Murray is now stuffed. Global warming might be happening. We will run out of oil in 10, 20, 100, 200, 300 or 100 years depending on how much denial people seem to have. This must happen mustn’t it? Or are there unlimited supplies?

    I guess we will in fact run out of everything we dig out of the ground sooner or later, unless we can come up with a renewable substitute.

    Our civilisation depends on these things. So what will our civilisation be like in 30 to 60,000 years?

    Compare this to the simple, primitive black persons existence in Australia for 30-60,000 years where they seemed to have lived sustainably as far as we know. At least they seemed to have lived the same way for that long.

    Does that mean they are smarter than us, because they realised it’s dumb to piss in your rainwater tank (an interesting metaphor isn’t it?) and we haven’t? Does this mean we will be living a primitive hunter gatherer existence in 100, 200, 300 or 1000 years because it is the only sustainable way of living?

    What do you think?

    by Jon Hunt on Jul 5, 2009 at 6:31 pm

  4. James,
    Just thinking some more, does not having invented (or is that needed?) napalm, Hydrogen bombs, ICBMs, cluster bombs, land mines (got a spare leg for any of those kids?) or any of these things we more advanced people seem to find so crucial to our existence make them more stupid than us? If think it must, seeing as we are so superior technologically.

    I’m wondering what you think?

    by Jon Hunt on Jul 5, 2009 at 6:42 pm

  5. Thanks Bob,

    But i’m not really full of self-hate nor frightened. I couldn’t really understand the rest of your post so i’ll reply in the traditional indigenous manner by averting my eyes and remaining mute.

    Jon , so your view is - civilisation as we know it is inferior to the alternative original aboriginal model of do nothing sustainability.

    You’re probably right, i’ll send my next post by message stick.

    I don’t really know how people lived back then but i’d be suprised if there was much sustainability planning going on. I think it may have been more of the ‘find food, keep warm ,don’t get killed’ protocol.

    Don’t forget , indigenous culture isn’t unique to Australia. Lots of countries peoples lived like that 2000 years ago but most of them have since foolishly moved on.
    It’s mostly only hero’s like your good selves who can still see the benefit of promoting that caveman like lifestyle .

    by James Bennett on Jul 5, 2009 at 8:07 pm

  6. James,

    You keep missing the point entirely. Moving cultures is not an option. It seems that why this is so goes well over your head.

    by Jon Hunt on Jul 5, 2009 at 8:43 pm

  7. Poor James (or should I say Bloke Rundle, ‘cause I know it’s you, who else could be so brilliant?),

    you don’t understand: -

    * simple (low-grade) satire

    * how people lived back then

    * that keeping warm wasn’t/isn’t a huge priority for many Indigenous people (where I am in northern Australia at 8:30 at night in July it’s 24 degrees, so I’m not quite shivering yet)

    * simple punctuation (it’s heroes, not hero’s, Jimbo)

    * that it’s outcomes (i.e. major river systems completely fucked, huge areas salinated, mass-scale deforestation, almost universal water pollution) rather than pretty planning that matters - two centuries of ‘superior’ management vs. many millenia of ‘primitive’ living that had far less toxic and chronic effects

    … and yet - despite all this - you feel qualified to air your opinions, Dutch oven-style. Give us a break, learn to think, perchance read, then come back and talk to normal people.

    Once you’ve done that, come to the NT and sit at the feet of far superior intellects (and hearts) and learn something. After a few years you might consider passing on some of your own wisdom, such as it is, but first just have some sense and observe and learn.

    by Bob the builder on Jul 5, 2009 at 9:13 pm

  8. Wow Bob - all that wisdom ( and good weather ) in the NT.

    The black fellas up there must be living the dream.

    btw What’s a dutch oven style opinion ? It sounds good.

    by James Bennett on Jul 5, 2009 at 10:22 pm

  9. Yeah Jimbo, it’s great for Indigenous people here - don’t you read about it every day?

    As the only statistical non-outlier I’ve ever met (blond, blue eyed, urban-born, middle-class) I sit in utter envy of how good they’ve got it.

    Well, Jimmy, a Dutch oven is when you fart under a blanket. It benefits no-one, even the do-er eventually regrets it. Or, it’s when you smoke a bong in the back of a panel van - more fun, but resultant reasoning fairly suspect.

    by Bob the builder on Jul 5, 2009 at 10:34 pm

  10. Actually it’s kind of 6 degrees here, so staying warm might be an issue.

    I don’t think that James gets the point that although we are better off, it’s only at the expense of most of the world. And even then this is only going to be for blink of an eye in the overall scheme of things, after which the world will be completely stuffed and we will be back were we started. But I guess he must think it is worth it.

    by Jon Hunt on Jul 5, 2009 at 11:56 pm

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