Law & justice

Aboriginal prison rates

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are massively overrepresented in the criminal justice system of Australia.

Aboriginal people represent only 3% of the total population, yet more than 28% of Australia’s prison population are Aboriginal.

Selected statistic data

30%
Percentage of Aboriginal prisoners in Australia in 2014 [20].
30%
Percentage of all incarcerated women in Australia who were Aboriginal in 2010; of incarcerated men: 24% [24].
48%
Percentage of juveniles in custody who are Aboriginal [32].
58.6%
Percentage by which imprisonment rates increased for Aboriginal women between 2000 and 2010; for Aboriginal men: 35.2%, non-Aboriginal women: 22.4%, non-Aboriginal men: 3.6% [24].
14.8
Factor by which Aboriginal people across Australia are more likely to be imprisoned than non-Aboriginal people [34]. Same figure for WA: 20 times.
60%
Percentage by which the imprisonment rate for Aboriginal women increased between 2000 and 2010. Same figure for Aboriginal men: 35% [27].
6.7%
Incarceration rate of Aboriginal men in Western Australia in 2008. Same rate for Aboriginal women: 0.6%; for African-American women in the US: 0.5% [33].

Aboriginal prison statistics: “Every year it gets worse”

Australia is heading towards one in two of the prison population comprised by Aboriginal prisoners – by 2020. In 1992, the ratio was one in seven [38].

We are at a state of emergency, we can't afford any more experiment.—Shane Phillips, Tribal Warrior Association, about Aboriginal prison rates [17]

The Alice Springs Prison is so far beyond capacity that it's refusing to take prisoners.—Mark O'Reilly, principal legal officer, Central Australian Aboriginal Legal Aid Service, in 2011 [26]

Aboriginal prisoners in Australia in 2007. Aboriginal prisoners. The bar graphs show the percentage of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal prisoners (left vertical axis). The yellow line indicates the percentage of Aboriginal people in the state's population (right axis) [1].

As the chart above shows Aboriginal people represent on average 17% of the prison population except in Western Australia and the Northern Territory where they account for 43% and 84%.

Yet, as the yellow line shows, Aboriginal people make up less than 5% of each state’s population except for the Northern Territory where they account for 31.6%.

Since 1989, the imprisonment rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people has increased 12 times faster than the rate for non-Aboriginal people [19].

Aboriginal prison rates compared to white people: Adults 14 times, juveniles 21 times (in WA: 48 times). How likely are you to go to jail? As an Aboriginal adult you are 14 times more likely to be incarcerated. Juveniles in Western Australia are 48 times more likely to be imprisoned than their white peers [2].

Half of the 10- to 17-year-olds in jails are Aboriginal [3]. More than 30% of all Australian Aboriginal males come before Corrective Services [37]. No wonder that 91% of all Aboriginal prisoners are male [34].

In 1992 there were 15,000 Aboriginal prisoners, by 2012 that figure had doubled to 30,000. The imprisonment of Aboriginal peoples skyrocketed from 1 in 7 of all prisoners in 1992 to 1 in 4 in 2012, and to nearly 1 in 3 in 2014 [20].

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), between 2002 and 2012, imprisonment rates for Aboriginal Australians increased from 1,262 to 1,914 Aboriginal prisoners per 100,000 adult Aboriginal population. In comparison, the rate for non-Aboriginal prisoners increased from 123 to 129 per 100,000 adult non-Aboriginal population [35].

Jailing Aboriginal people in such large numbers has numerous effects on their communities. For example, it prevents elders passing down traditional knowledge to the next generation.

The fact is, every year it gets worse.—Gino Vumbaca, Executive Director, Australian National Council on Drugs, about Aboriginal prison rates [3]

Prison rates highest in Western Australia

Western Australia always had a higher incarceration rate of Aboriginal people compared to the rest of Australia, and rates have nearly doubled between 1990 and 2010 [15].

A parliamentary report in 2010 found the rate of Aboriginal people jailed per 100,000 people in Western Australia was 2,483, while the figure for African Americans in the United States is 2,290 [15]. In March 2009 Western Australia’s rate was 3,741 [23].

Western Australia incarcerates the Aboriginal peoples of its State at 9 times the rate of Apartheid South Africa.—Gerry Georgatos, Human Rights Alliance, Perth [18]

What you cannot get away from is that the rate of Indigenous imprisonment in Western Australia is far greater than anywhere else in the country and indeed it compares with the worst rates of imprisonment, of African Americans in the United States.—Bob Debus, chair of the federal inquiry into the over-representation of Indigenous young people in the criminal justice system [13]

Perth based academic, prison reform advocate and restorative justice specialist Dr Brian Steels suggests that Western Australia’s high prison rates could be related to the “frontier mentality” of police or racism [34].

Reoffending rates are high

With high levels of alcohol and substance abuse, lack of services of any kind, high unemployment rates, low levels of education and child abuse it is no surprise that there is a high rate of reoffending. In fact, repeat offending and re-incarceration is a large contributor to this high rate of imprisonment [38].

In Western Australia, 80% of jailed Aboriginal male juveniles, 64% of Aboriginal female juveniles and 70% of adult Aboriginal males reoffend [15].

“Research indicates that time in a juvenile justice centre is the most significant factor in increasing the odds of recidivism [reoffending],” says Father Chris Riley, founder of Youth off the Streets [21].

Australia-wide, about one in four prisoners will convicted again within 3 months of their release from prison, between 35 and 41% within 2 years [31].

ABS figures show that nearly three-quarters (74%) of Aboriginal prisoners had a prior adult imprisonment under sentence, compared with just under half (48%) of non-Aboriginal prisoners [34].

A study of incarcerated women revealed that 67% of all Aboriginal women in prison had been incarcerated previously, while almost half this number of non-Aboriginal women had a history of incarceration [24].

Looking after prisoner’s mental health is key to cutting recidivism. In 2012, up to 80% of all inmates in Australia suffered some form of mental illness. compared to just 50% in 2003 [31].

The Summertime Bathurst Blues

In the morning breeze, I hear the sounds,
of early spirit bird tunes
As the sun shines in, the walls cave in,
and light out glows the moon.

Guards stroll up, the wing gates bang,
the day has now begun
Half restless dreams, that should have been.
I live 'em -1 believe I can

I miss the waves, down near caves
And watch the news,
But I'm in here, all alone
With the summertime Bathurst Blues

Poem by Reuben Scott, Bathurst [28]. Aboriginal singer Vic Simms sung his way out of Bathurst Jail. Read more Aboriginal poetry.

Why are prison rates so high?

To understand these high rates, one must know Aboriginal history. Many factors work together and some of them include the following [4]:

  • Stolen Generations. Those taken away from their families as a child are twice as likely to be arrested than their peers.
  • Disconnection from land. When Aboriginal people are not able to live on their traditional lands they are more likely to come into conflict with the law.

    We cannot flee persecution to another country because we are spiritually connected to our own ancestral lands. So jails and mental institutions are full of our people.—Wadjularbinna Nullyarimma, Gungalidda Elder and member of Aboriginal Tent Embassy [30]

  • Police behaviour. Police might act racist, violently or inappropriately (see below for more on this).
  • Offence criminalisation. Aboriginal people are 15 times more likely to be charged for swearing or offensive behaviour than the rest of the community.
  • Social and economic situation. Poverty and unemployment, particularly for young Aboriginal people or in rural and remote areas (‘crimes of need’).
  • People’s attitude. Some police and community members have a “law and order” attitude.
  • Lack of language skills. Some Aboriginal people are sentenced to jail without them fully understanding the court process because English is not their first language [5].
  • Foetal alcohol syndrome. Many children enter the justice system because their mother drank too much alcohol during her pregnancy. Her children are often unable to appreciate the consequences of their actions [13].
  • Family breakdown due to various social factors.
  • Disintegration seems to manifest in deliberate attempts to strip away Aboriginal culture in some communities [17].
  • Lack of accommodation. The Children’s Court is often being told imprisonment was the only option [17].
  • Inflexible funding. Bureaucracy prohibits progress when programs cannot go ahead due to red tape [17].
  • Reoffending. Across Australia about 70% of prisoners (Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal) reoffend. 38% are back in prison 2 years after their release [29].
  • Lack of community services. According to The Medical Journal of Australia, “there is increasing evidence that many people in prison are there as a direct consequence of the shortfall in appropriate community-based health and social services, most notably in the areas of housing, mental health and well-being, substance use, disability and family violence.” [37]

There's no doubt that prison has a ripple effect on every family, especially if the member in prison was supporting the family.—Justice Valerie French, chairman Prisoners Review Board [6]

“He has never had an adult birthday”

William Bugmy, an Aboriginal man from Wilcannia NSW, first entered juvenile detention when he was 12 years old [36].

He has a history of domestic violence and separation from family and placements in foster care. He also has mental health and health issues and started using drugs and alcohol from age 12, self medicating for years to “block the voices out”.

Mr Bugmy never been to >residential rehabilitation , despite requesting it. He self-harms. He does not read or write. He has not had much education.

He spent most of his teenage years ‘inside’ before transitioning into the adult system often because of altercations with the police.

He has never had an adult birthday in the community. He is 31 years old and from a community where the average life expectancy for a man is 37. Many of his family members are already deceased.

“First jailed at 12 years of age for a six week stint, Mr Bugmy’s life thereafter shows the destructive effect of prison on people, families and communities,” says Solicitor Stephen Lawrence.

Non-Aboriginal indifference

The other side of why Aboriginal prison rates are high appears to be through the indifference of non-Aboriginal people.

Australian governments rely blindly on their departments to find a solution without guiding them. In the past, however, many departments have learnt to exploit this freedom to protect their own interests, rather than those of incarcerated Aboriginal people. They become self-protective and self-preserving.

Police remain hard-hearted and indifferent to prison rates and, in some cases, Aboriginal prisoners themselves. Recommendations of the Royal Commission Into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody were cherry-picked for those that could be accepted without too much change occurring [22].

You have government departments who say, 'just lock them up. that will solve the problem'.—Joan Baptie, Magistrate and convenor of the Youth Drug and Alcohol Court of New South Wales [17]

“Incredibly trivial offences”

There is a persistent feeling among Aboriginal communities and legal experts that police treat Aboriginal people differently for trivial offences.

  • Did not receive court mail. Some Aboriginal people end up in jail because they did not get the postal notifications of court dates after which bench warrants are issued and bail is unlikely [11].
  • Can’t make it to court. Others simply cannot make it to a court date due to funerals or health problems and courts are too inflexible to change the date [25].
  • Driving unlicensed. Youth who might never have seen a traffic light or a freeway have difficulties getting a license because remote communities lack trainers and facilities, and the language used for driving tests is inappropriate. When they then get caught repeatedly driving unlicensed, uninsured and unregistered—a common “trifecta” on court lists—they end up in jail [12]. In many Aboriginal communities only one person holds a drivers license.
    In New South Wales, the Local Court is required to add a further 5-year disqualification period under the Roads and Traffic Authority Traffic Act’s Habitual Offender Scheme introduced for people who commit 3 serious traffic offences in 5 years [16]. This means some people who collected too many offences in their youth might get disqualified from driving until they are for example 50 years old. This has dire consequences for the standard of living, finding work and managing children.
  • Disorderly conduct. “Every day of the week we act for Aboriginal people who’ve been charged with disorderly conduct,” says Peter Collins, Legal Director of Aboriginal Legal Services in Western Australia (ALSWA) [9].
    “Their crime: To swear at the police. They use the F word, they use the C word. Often they’re drunk or affected by drugs or both, or they’ve got a mental illness or they’re homeless or whatever.”
    “But it seems to me the only people in this day and age who are offended by the use of the F word and the C word are police. And so these [Aboriginal] people are hauled before the courts for these incredibly trivial offences.” In Wickham, Western Australia, Aboriginal people have been arrested for ‘shouting’ [7]. Many times, police challenge Aboriginal people into such behaviour.

    In all my years of research in criminal justice, I can tell you it would be very difficult to find a white person charged with shouting or swearing.—Dr Brian Steels, restorative justice researcher, Murdoch University [7]

  • Being “selected” by police. Police locking up Aboriginal people for swearing is widespread and known as selective policing. Training about Aboriginal culture and awareness could assist police to find better responses.
    According to Western Australia Police Commissioner Karl O’Callaghan police are not prejudiced against Aboriginal people or any other racial group. This, however, is a statement which meets little love among Aboriginal communities, and little validation by statistics.

    Many more Aboriginal teenagers receive prison penalties than non-Aboriginal teenagers in north-west NSW. Justice is no longer blind. Dozens of Aboriginal teenagers in north-western NSW were put in jail, compared to just a few non-Aboriginal teenagers [33].
  • Provocation by police. “There have been a number of instances where our men and women have been flogged or abused by police… When they’re going off because of the abuse that’s happened to them, they’re being put down the back and they’ve got no support,” says Marianne McKay, Co-deputy Chair of the Deaths in Custody Watch Committee of Western Australia [14].

The Tall Man Case Study: Read how swearing at police can not only land you in prison but also cost your life. An Aboriginal man’s death becomes the most prolonged investigation in the criminal justice system for an Indigenous community. The Tall Man

An inside view of a prison. Aboriginal prison rates lock out a large proportion of Aboriginal men and youth from their communities. Up to 68% of juveniles in detention are Aboriginal [8].

Footnotes

Article sources

[1] 'Prisoners in Australia', ABS 2007; 'Population Distribution, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians', ABS 2006
[2] ABS 1999, Australian Institute of Criminology 1995
[3] 'Inmate levels worsen', Koori Mail 454 p.14
[4] NSW Department of Aboriginal Affairs
[5] Koori Mail 390 p.68
[6] NIT 30/10/2008 p.26 citing The Australian
[7] ''Selective policing' under fire', Koori Mail 393 p.14
[8] 'Govt accused over jail deaths report', Koori Mail 458 p.10
[9] 'Freddo Frog case dropped', Koori Mail 465 p.11
[10] 'Calma's final report points to brighter future', Koori Mail 468 p.7
[11] 'Incarceration rates increase', Koori Mail 473 p.13
[12] 'Jailing youth not working - Chief Justice', Koori Mail 473 p.13
[13] 'Inquiry reveals huge jail rates', Koori Mail 474 p.11
[14] 'Waiting for action', Koori Mail 487 p.10
[15] 'WA's high jail rate in spotlight', Koori Mail 490 p.16
[16] 'Decades of driver disqualification finally driving Government to action', Aboriginal Legal Service (NSW/ACT), email 3/3/2011
[17] 'Jail rates at crisis point, inquiry told', Koori Mail 494 p.13
[18] 'Climate of Death - justice denied means more will die', Gerry Georgatos, 29/9/2012, email
[19] '20 years later, and 269 more are dead', Koori Mail 499 p.5
[20] 'Australia, the mother of all jailers of Aboriginal people', The Stringer 22/11/2013
[21] 'Juvenile jail rate slammed', Koori Mail 504 p.7
[22] 'Incarcerations: The sad truth', Koori Mail 504 p.27
[23] 'WA 'high achiever' - for locking up people', Koori Mail 455 p.10
[24] 'Sisters Inside – Debbie Kilroy on women in prison', The Stringer 25/4/2013
[25] 'Justice focus in WA', Koori Mail 400 p.10
[26] 'Packed prison sparks concern', Koori Mail 517 p.9
[27] 'Long way to go to end disadvantage', Koori Mail 509 p.9
[28] 'The Summertime Bathurst Blues', Koori Mail 516 p.23
[29] 'Inside stories', SMH Good Weekend 13/2/2010 pp29
[30] 'Taking our rightful place', statement by Wadjularbinna Nullyarimma, 8/1/2002
[31] 'Jail paid to keep felons out', The Australian 14/12/2012
[32] 'A stolen generation of our young in detention', Sun Herald 22/8/2010
[33] 'Black sentences soar as juvenile jails become a 'storing house'', The Australian 5/1/2013
[34] 'Australian Bureau of Statistics on prison rates', The Stringer 12/4/2013
[35] '4517.0 - Prisoners in Australia, 2012 - Imprisonment rates', ABS 2/4/2013
[36] 'First time in 30 years - Considering Aboriginality in Sentencing', Aboriginal Legal Service, media release 2/8/2013
[37] 'Time on Country instead of in prisons', The Stringer 25/10/2013
[38] 'Prison diversion programs not meeting needs of Indigenous offenders', The Stringer 7/12/2013