No end to Western Australia’s jail rate shame

In Western Australia there are more Aboriginal people in prisons than there are in tertiary education. In Western Australia there are affluent communities fast tracked for the mining boom but which surround and hence taunt impoverished Aboriginal communities. Just visit the Pilbara, the engine of the mining boom.
- Gerry Georgatos

Gerry Georgatos The Stringer 20 July 2013

Half a dozen years ago I made several startling findings from comparative data research during Masters research into underlying issues that give rise to the shockingly high imprisonment rates of Aboriginal peoples – and to the disproportionate statistics evidencing the extensiveness of Aboriginal homelessness and acute impoverishment. I compared imprisonment rates of Aboriginal peoples with the imprisonment rates of the rest of the world.

My comparative data research found that Australia jails Aboriginal adult males at five times the rate than did South Africa its adult black males in the final years of apartheid. South Africa was imprisoning its black adult males at 850 per 100,000 of the population while Australia was imprisoning Aboriginal adult males at over 4,300 per 100,000. But for Western Australia the news was even worse, with this State jailing Aboriginal adult males at eight times the rate of apartheid South Africa.

Six years later it has got worse with the national rate now six times that of apartheid South Africa and in Western Australia it is nine times. This is racialised imprisonment and it cannot be denied. 42 per cent of the WA prison population is Aboriginal despite Aboriginal peoples comprising less than 2.7 per cent of the State population.

Nationwide, more than one in every four prisoners are Aboriginal but twenty years ago it was one in seven. My current research shows that exponentially this statistic will finish up one in three by 2020, and one in two by 2030. In the Northern Territory, more than eight in ten of prisoners are Aboriginal while Aboriginal peoples are 28 per cent of the Territory’s total population, but the rate of incarceration proportion to population is outstripped many times over by Western Australia. Why?

The mother of all jailers is the United States of America with nearly one per cent of its population jailed on any given day and its African-American peoples incarcerated at rates dramatically higher than any other racial group in America. But Australia’s adult Aboriginal males are incarcerated at rates marginally higher than America’s African-Americans. Australia’s Aboriginal peoples are therefore the world’s most incarcerated peoples.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics Census identifies nearly 600,000 people as Aboriginal or of Aboriginal descent. Nationally, one in seventy people who are Aboriginal are in an adult prison – another world record. In Western Australia it is one in 35, and for Aboriginal adult males it is one in 14, more world records for this State.

All of this is alarming and yet not enough attention is being garnered. I was so stunned by the imprisonment rates and global comparisons that I skewed my Masters into trying to understand the underlying issues that were giving rise to this, and this led to a second Masters and subsequently PhD research which studied the myriad veils and layers of racism, including our hostility to identifying own historical and contemporary racism, and the origins-of-thinking that led to their premises and which continue to permeate generations later. My focus though has been the ways forward. We do not need to be held hostage to racism but rather to identify the racisms and hence move forward, carrying us all across the line to equitable social cohesion.

Australia is the world’s 12th largest economy, and ranked second on the United Nations Human Development Index for social wealth and public health but there are hundreds of thousands of Aboriginal peoples who endure abject poverty. The real problem in Australia is that social wealth is not being disbursed to remote, semi-remote and rural Aboriginal communities and townships while predominately non-Aboriginal communities are not denied their rightful disbursements. In a nutshell, Aboriginal communities are being denied the full suite of services and facilities that others enjoy as their contemporary natural rights. Remedying this repugnant neglect is the only way to significantly reducing these horrific incarceration rates.

Thirty years ago rates of suicide among Aboriginal peoples were not what they are today. Aboriginal youth suicide rates today are the product of a widening divides among our poorest Aboriginal peoples and the rest of the nation. Aboriginal youth are now dying by suicide at the world’s highest rates. Western Australia has a horrific Aboriginal youth suicide rate in the Kimberley. Seven per cent of the Kimberley’s population is itinerant or homeless – 90 per cent of them are Aboriginal peoples. Yet little is said about it and less is done to rectify this.

In my research, for a paper titled the “Aboriginal Clock”, I have estimated that nationally 150,000 Aboriginal peoples languish in chronic impoverishment akin to third-world conditions. The remedies do not lay in piecemeal calls for ‘role models’ and ‘discipline’ and ‘education’ but in Governments and developers, such as mining companies, to prioritise impoverished Aboriginal communities, and to provide to these communities every opportunity that every other Australian community enjoys while at the same ensuring not to deny or interfere in their right to retain their cultural identity.

In Western Australia there are more Aboriginal people in prisons than there are in tertiary education. In Western Australia there are affluent communities fast tracked for the mining boom but which surround and hence taunt impoverished Aboriginal communities. Just visit the Pilbara, the engine of the mining boom.

Australia has a history of racialised violence which has culminated in racialised imprisonment. A dark thread of racism underwrites Australia’s national consciousness contemporaneously and it is not limited to Australia’s maltreatment of Aboriginal peoples. The detention of Asylum Seekers by the Australian Government is racial violence and racial imprisonment. With 25 per cent of Australians born overseas it is about time Australia gets its human rights record on track. Western Australia, jurisdictionally, is the nation’s worst offender. It can start with sorting the justice for Aboriginal peoples – the rate of Aboriginal incarceration from 1990 to 2013 has grown at 15 times that of non-Aboriginal incarceration rates.

Governments need to respond.

Gerry Georgatos is a PhD researcher and writer on Aboriginal issues, and co-editor of The Stringer.