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.

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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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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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