South Africa, 20 years after Apartheid, doing better than Australia

Australia incarcerates its Aboriginal youth at the world's highest rates, it imprisons one in 14 Western Australian Aboriginal adult males and it removes one in 14 children from Western Australian Aboriginal families into the care of the State, and for Aboriginal peoples the whole of the Northern Territory is a prison built brick by brick by the Commonwealth, and this prison is loosely known as the 'Intervention'.

Gerry Georgatos The Stringer 11 May 11 2013

Since 1992, the rate of Aboriginal incarceration in Australia has grown 14 times faster than that of non-Aboriginal incarceration.

In 2007 I wrote about the rates of incarceration of Aboriginal people worldwide following Masters' research into international imprisonment rates. I had collated these rates and subjected them to various comparisons. Despite the self-evident maltreatment of Aboriginal peoples in this country, and the general knowledge that Aboriginal peoples are imprisoned at rates disproportionate to non-Aboriginal Australians, it did very much surprise me to find that Australia imprisoned its Aboriginal peoples at rates much worse than that of the last years of Apartheid South Africa.

Australia's imprisoning of Aboriginal people is the world's highest rate. But what rammed it all home for me of what I have always observed as a strongly held racism in this country was my discovery that Australia was imprisoning Aboriginal adult males at five times the rate South Africa was imprisoning its black adult males towards the end of Apartheid. In Western Australia this figure jacked to eight times the rate - what the hell is going on?

Six years on after reading the various Australian Bureau of Statistics data on imprisonment rates we note that rates of imprisonment have got worse, especially for Aboriginal peoples, who continue to bare the brunt of Australia's growing prison population. Once again I decided to compare incarceration rates with other countries, and for instance see where South Africa is today - 20 years after Apartheid, and where Australia is not only 20 years on but in reality 60 years on after promising to dismantle its own Apartheid practices. I also compared data with the runaway leader in the jailing of people, the United States.

In 1992, the imprisonment rate of South Africa's black males was 850 per 100,000 of the total population. In Australia, twenty years later we are imprisoning Aboriginal males at more than 4,500 per 100,000. Where six years ago I argued that we were imprisoning Aboriginal adult males at five times the South African Apartheid rate, it is now approaching six times that rate.

The Northern Territory Aboriginal peoples comprise 84 per cent of the prison population. They are the most incarcerated peoples in the world in terms of proportion to the total Northern Territory population. Aboriginal people make up nearly 28 per cent of the Northern Territory population. But Western Australia incarcerates its Aboriginal people at the world's highest rate. Western Australian Aboriginal peoples make up more than 40 per cent of the Western Australian prison population but comprise less than 2.6 per cent of the State population.

Once again, we note that one in 14 Western Australian Aboriginal adult males languish in one of the State's 14 prisons. In the period of my life where I was involved in the tertiary sector I visited some of these prisons, at the invitation of various prison officials, and met with the prisoners to discuss post release opportunities. The queues for personal advancement opportunities in our jails are long - the illiteracy rates are high. Aboriginal prisoners cry out for opportunity but there is limited opportunity and often it feels like there is no opportunity. The letters I have received from prisoners would break anyone's heart as they seek the promise of someone to bring on some hope. What opportunities do exist are quickly taken up, the limited positions filled without time to consider them. The maximum security prison of Casuarina forever remains etched in my mind - half its prisoners are Aboriginal, about 300 of them, and the hopelessness and dejection was evident on their faces. For each one I may have assisted into education and employment rest assured there are hundreds who have not been assisted, who remain alone either unto themselves or to the (brother/sister) hood.

Australia has one of the world's worst prison suicide averages - and all in all, in total no less than 70 prison deaths per annum. But its post release suicide/deaths average during the first year is horrific - at least five times the prison deaths average. 350 to 500 die post release - suicide or by various self-harm including addiction to various substances. It has been my observation that in general people come out of prison worse than they went in.

Western Australia, was, and remains the worst offender in the world in terms of the incarceration rate of Aboriginal peoples. Whereas the Aboriginal imprisonment rate nationally was five times higher than that of the last years of Apartheid South Africa, and now moving to six times the rate, in Western Australia the incarceration rate of Aboriginal adult males was eight times that of the incarceration rate of black South African males and is now moving to nine times the rate.

How can this be so in a country such as Australia, the world's twelfth largest economy?

I have decided to write again, and again, about these rates so it sinks into the consciousness of many more Australians what exactly is happening here in Australia - racism. I have often been gentle to Australia that racism has its myriad veils and layers and that we are caught up in these but in the end racism is just that, racism.

Every Australian jurisdiction has an Aboriginal imprisonment rate worse than that of the last years of Apartheid South Africa.

The United States imprisons people at the highest rate in the world but Australia imprisons its Aboriginal people at a rate more than two and a half times that of the United States.

The Americans are imprisoning their people at about 740 per 100,000 while Australia imprisons Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders at nearly 2,000 per 100,000 of the total population.

Australia's June 30, 2012 imprisonment rate was at 168 per 100,000 but for its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples it was at 1,914 per 100,000. As a researcher who follows the trends I can assure it has risen since then.

The rate is increasing year by year, and the exponential increase in the rates is nightmarish as Australian Governments inept in having addressed Aboriginal impoverishment and despair hide their failures by legislating tougher sentencing laws, including mandatory detention laws and three strike laws, which indeed are prescribed to target Aboriginal peoples.

In 2002, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics the rate of Aboriginal incarceration was 1,262 per 100,000 but in 2012 this had been jacked up by nearly 700 more Aboriginal people, while the total national incarceration rate was at 168 per 100,000.

So Australia incarcerates Aboriginal people at higher rates than the United States rate of 740, the Russian rate of 570, the Chinese rate of 120 per 100,000. But South Africa's rate today, with its myriad social problems as it continues to unravel the effects of Apartheid two decades later, rests at 310 per 100,000.

South Africa is not happy with its large prison population - the African continent's largest at 160,000 plus, but indeed their prison population has reduced in the last five years. In 2008, the South African incarceration rate was 348 per 100,000. In that time Australia's has risen, with the brunt borne by Aboriginal peoples. In 2005, the South African prison population was 180,000, therefore the troubled country of South Africa is reducing its prison population post-Apartheid.

The United States during the last decade reduced its juvenile prison populations whereas Australia has not. In that same time the United States has stagnated and marginally reduced its adult prison population whereas Australia has continued skyrocketing its prison population (once again the rises due to Aboriginal peoples incarcerated in increasing numbers).

From 1993 to 2013, Australia doubled its prison population. In 2013 more than one in four of Australia's prisoners are Aboriginal.

The jail occupancy of Australia is well over more than 100 per cent. Australian prisons are full. Officially they are at nearly 110 per cent occupancy, and therefore this leads to cramming and double bunking, but in real terms when we consider the numbers the prisons were originally designed for the occupancy rate is at 200 per cent thereabouts.

All these figures are startling because firstly every nation except Australia that I have referred to is reducing its incarceration rates, prison populations, its incarceration rates of their minorities - for instance blacks and First Nations people. On the other hand, Australia has been increasing its imprisonment rates of Aboriginal people, adults and juveniles.

If Australia is imprisoning its Aboriginal adult males at nearly six times the rate of the last years of Apartheid South Africa, and if Western Australia is imprisoning its Aboriginal adult males at nearly nine times the rate, then where are the real questions at the parliamentary levels? If the United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did during Apartheid, and Australia has an Aboriginal imprisonment rate more than two and a half times that of the United States incarceration rate then what does this suggest about Australia's treatment and attitudes to Aboriginal peoples, who are less than 3 per cent of our total population? Furthermore, the point has to be hammered home, that if Australia incarcerates its Aboriginal people at rates higher than what the mother of all incarcerators, the United States does, then what does this really say about Australia?

Australia incarcerates its Aboriginal peoples at rates higher than what the United States does its black people, its Hispanic people, its First Nation peoples.

In the United States Hispanic males are incarcerated at 1,750 per 100,000, blacks at 4,350 per 100,000 and white Americans at 680 per 100,000. In Australia, the total national incarceration rate is at 168 per 100,000, but for Aboriginal people it is at nearly 2,000 per 100,000. For Aboriginal adult males it is slightly higher than the imprisonment rate of American blacks. Australia, unlike the United States, has not had a historical or contemporary bent on imprisoning its people, with the exception of Aboriginal peoples. In Australia, there is only a bent on imprisoning Aboriginal people, this is a fact, a dirty, obnoxious truth but it is the light of day truth.

According to the United Nations Development Program's Human Index, Australia is ranked number two in the world, out of 187 nations, for its social and public health.

Australia, the world's twelfth largest economy, has no excuse for not improving the lives of a few hundred thousand Aboriginal people. The Native Title Act has cheated Aboriginal communities of their rights, the resources sectors (multinationals and domestics) have ripped off blind Aboriginal peoples, the Government has neglected Aboriginal peoples by refusing to provide the full suite of infrastructure and other various equity to Aboriginal townships and communities and most of the rest of the nation turns a blind eye while its consciousness continues to be damaged.

I should not have had to skew two Masters and a PhD into researching why Aboriginal incarceration rates are on the rise in this country, but then again Australia forced me into it - during my youth it did its best to hide from me the true history of this nation. It hid its nefarious treatment of Aboriginal peoples, it shoved stereotypes down our throats, prejudices and biases that are still wreaking carnage to this day. Australia continues to deny its racist identity, its racist ideologies, its racist origins-of-thinking, its pernicious attitudes and it does so at the expense of humanity - in this instance Aboriginal humanity.

There have been hundreds of reports and inquiries during the last two decades into Aboriginal neglect, impoverishment and incarceration rates. The fact remains Australia has never prioritised addressing its greatest crime.

We can argue all we like about statistics but in the end when the statistics are so stark, their impost tells the truth - Australia remains a racist nation.

Gerry Georgatos is a PhD researcher in Australian Custodial Systems and Australian Deaths in Custody. He is a prison reform advocate who believes that children and adults should not be incarcerated for non-violent offences. He has visited prisons on a number of occasions to inspire the incarcerated to various opportunities pre-release and post-release.