Jul 2, 2009

We jail black men five times more than apartheid South Africa

In the Northern Territory, 83 per cent of the prison population is Indigenous, while Western Australia jails black males at more than eight times the rate of South Africa during Apartheid.

Chris Graham

Tracker managing editor

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:

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59 thoughts on “We jail black men five times more than apartheid South Africa

  1. Brett Gaskin

    There is no doubt the many issues impacting the Aboriginal community are a massive cause for concern, and something that any intelligent Australian should be determined to resolve.

    So what’s the answer. We seem to have tried many approaches – from throwing large amounts of cash at the problems, to acting like concerned parents with naughty kids.

    The incarceration statistics couldn’t be clearer in confirming the absolute tragedy that is life for the majority of indigenous Australians. There would be uproar if another section of the community was incarcerated at such a rate – Chinese, Lebanese, Italians.

    Most people would agree that aborigines face life hurdles that whites can’t even imagine. The extreme difficulties of employment, alcoholism, sexual and domestic abuse, and a general ostracism from “regular” Australia culture and life.

    So what is the answer? Should the law not apply to aborigines? Surely not. Are all incarcerated aborigines victims of false confessions and police brutality? Surely not. While the mindset and actions of many police towards aborigines are disgraceful (Hurley and subsequent trials, results, treatment etc the perfect example) , at what point do aborigines need to take some responsibility for themselves.

    The white man won’t give an aborigine a job as they consider them drunks, and the aborigine drinks because the white man won’t give him a a job and so has no future. It’s a vicious circle that will continue until one side or the other changes something. Based on history it’s unlikely to be the white man that changes.

    Unfortunately the reality is that our grandkids will be discussing the same issues and proposed solutions that we are. There is simply no political or public will in this country to resolve the various issues destroying aboriginal communities.

  2. Nadia David

    Why is there this constant lamenting of the rate of Indigenous incarceration but no useful suggestions as to how that rate can be reduced? Is it ok to simply not gaol someone even if they fit the criteria for a term of imprisonment only because they are black? No. The same way it isn’t ok to spare a white person of a gaol term for the same reason.

    With the exception of the NT, which has the most racist of mandatory sentencing laws – hence the appalling incarceration rate of Indigenous people – there is little to suggest that Aboriginal people are gaoled because of skin colour. In fact, where black on black violence occurs, the sentence is likely to be more lenient than any other racial mix of defendant and victim (check out the Aus Institute of Criminology figures on this).

    Where are the suggestions about diverting Aboriginal people away from criminal actions in the first place? Where are the hand-wringers when talk turns to banning alcohol, to putting some responsibility on Aboriginal parents for their children, to policies aimed at turning around the welfare-dependancy so many Indigenous people grow up with and adopt readily? When people have hope for the future and a sense of self-worth they’re less likely to screw up their lives and go to gaol.

    It’s all very well the write an article condemning us all for not jumping up and down about the huge over-representation of Aboriginal people in gaols, but I really don’t think it’s surprising enough to warrant the jumping. It’s awful, abhorrent and shameful. But the stats aren’t helping….people go to gaol for breaking the law. Let’s start with why they’re doing that instead of blaming the courts for doing what they’re supposed to.

  3. George Dudek

    It appears that black males in Australia are eight times more likely to engage in criminal behaviour than black males in South Africa under Apartheid. I have a solution, let’s decriminalize theft, malicious damage and assaults of any kind as long as the perpetrator is black and the statistics could be easily reversed.

  4. Pamela

    Hang on a bit Nadia. Which bit about Mr Ward’ death in the back of an unairconditioned van was deserved. When John Elliott was drunk and stroppy outside the Carlton Football club AND driving a car AND insulting a police officer- he was not put in a van and cooked to death while being carted off to prison. He went home that night. You see white men do things and go home – black men do things and get locked up or killed.
    It is time when really owned up to the dicrimination in this country instead of breast beating and blaming the victims. Indigenous Australians like asylum seekers get a lower tier of justice to the rest of us.

  5. Altakoi

    I would be interested in how many victims of the crimes for which aboriginal people were incarceratd were themselves aboriginal. In which case, would not incarcerating the person actually be doing aboriginal people in general a favour. I don’t think incarceration rates mean anything unless the sentencing is discriminatory, which it would be if aboriginal people were being locked up for things other sections of the community were let free for. Is there any widespread evidence for this?

  6. Chris Graham

    Surprise surprise – a story based entirely on government data, refuted by two rednecks who provide absolutely no evidence to back up any of their right-wing, mean-hearted drivel.

    For the record George, and I’ll write slowly so you can follow it, it’s not the case that black males in Australia are eight times more likely to engage in crime. Only an ignorant redneck and, as it turns out, you, would try and argue that. As numerous studies have shown, black males are far more likely to come to the attention of police, and be jailed, regardless of the actual crime rate.

    To believe otherwise means you believe that Aboriginal people are genetically predisposed to crime. While I don’t doubt for a second George does actually believes, but which any Australian who is not the product of a union between brother and sister wouldn’t. It’s clearly a stupid belief.

    So something else must be at play… ie horrendous health, housing, education, equality.

    As for Nadia’s comments… why don’t you try reading the 339 recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody that we paid $40 million for… or would you like me to go over them again? The story was not about preventing it, it was about reporting it.

  7. Nadia David

    There’s not too much proof of that, Pamela. Non-indigenous Victorians still make up 94% of the prison population, and I don’t think the NSW figure is much lower. The treatment of people in custody is a totally different issue and one that really does bear some looking into, especially in WA and NT who’ve never had a ‘Black Deaths in Custody’ Royal Commission. Mr Ward’s death is one of the most shocking displays of inhumanity I’ve heard of and I’m sure changes will be made as a result.

    You’re still not asking WHY black people are locked up more than whites. If anything, my experience of the criminal justice system shows an inherent desire NOT to lock up Aboriginal defendants if it can be helped, but then again, that is just my experience in NSW.

    As for Chris, ouch. I have actually read the Royal Commission and a lot of changes were made as a result. Just because someone doesn’t agree with everything you say doesn’t make them racist. It just makes us discerning. Your article didn’t have much to say other than regurgitating stats so don’t blow your top when we question the stats. Stats have to have context to have meaning….otherwise they can be used by anyone to support anything.

  8. stephen martin

    It may be much worse than these figures show.Are aboriginals lumped together with “indigenous persons”? Many indigenous persons in say Darwin, live a “normal” Australian lifestyle, have good jobs, and they and their families are respected members of society.There are university students and graduates among them.
    For example how many of the indigenous university students come from aboriginal communities – not many I would suggest?
    Another factor maybe that magistrates feel that a fine is not feasible for those who have no income other than the dole and a prison term is the only option. Of course I may be totally wrong in this suggestion.
    More importantly the cause of the offending should be addressed rather than the symptom. People who see no hope for their future can hardly be expected to take kindly to the society that regards them as a bloody nuisance. Put in their position I dare say I wouldn’t have much respect for the law.
    How would you feel at the bottom of the social scale with people driving around in flash cars, with stores bulging with goodies that you could only dream of, but never obtain – particularly as only a very few generations ago it was your country.

  9. stephen martin

    Incidentally Nadia David the following is incorrect –
    “With the exception of the NT, which has the most racist of mandatory sentencing laws”
    Mandatory sentencing was abolished in the NT when Labor came to power eight years ago.It was not racist anyway, it applied to all and sun dry, although as the article might suggest it may have affected indigenous people more than others. People, “white”, were affected and were facing jail time for ridiculous offences. One was facing jail because a neighbor complained about minor damage to a fence.
    Mandatory life imprisonment for murder is the only provision still applyig, and even then you can apply for parole after 20 years. Suddenly it appears mueder is rare in the NT, but manslaughter is common.

  10. Ungulate

    “Stats have to have context to have meaning….otherwise they can be used by anyone to support anything.”

    Thankyou, Nadia.

    This sort of irresponsible comparison of Australia to apartheid South Africa only serves to further prevent ordinary people from feeling outraged about the terrible disadvantages Aboriginal people face, by branding them as racists and the law as discriminatory. If there are any similarities between Australian legislation and South African legislation regarding people with black skin, Chris, then please publish it. Otherwise, understand that your hysterical headline is doing nothing for your cause.

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