A damning new report by the National Indigenous Drug and Alcohol Committee (NIDAC) has revealed that Indigenous people are filling Australian prisons at alarmingly disproportionate rates. Indigenous people are 13 times more likely to end up in prison than other Australians. Western Australia was the worst place for Indigenous people who were 21 times more likely to be in prison than non-Indigenous West Australians. In total, 31 percent of all Australian prisoners are Indigenous (despite making up just 2 percent of the population), and that figures rises to half of all juvenile offenders in detention. The report also noted that there are now three times more Indigenous women in prison since the supposedly ground-breaking 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. It makes a mockery of that report’s recommendation that “imprisonment should be utilised only as a sanction of last resort”.
This latest report (pdf) says the issues involved are significant and complex but says there are strong links between substance abuse and incarceration levels. The report applauds the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) announcement that the 2 July federal, states, and territories meeting in Darwin will give special consideration to Indigenous Closing the Gap matters. But NIDAC says any initiative to improve Aboriginal health issues will not work unless it addresses Indigenous imprisonment rates.
The incarceration problem is partially caused by trauma and suffering that Indigenous people have experienced over generations. NIDAC says that Indigenous Australians in prison are themselves victims of substance abuse or violent crime and have the right to access appropriate treatment and rehabilitation to address these underlying issues. The report says this problem will not be fixed unless there is a national program to tackle health inequalities in the prison system and also strengthens the health and cultural wellbeing of all Indigenous people.
NIDAC says health issues are usually made worse by incarceration. Prisoners are more likely to suffer serious mental health problems, as well as blood-borne virus (BBV) transmission, violence, sexual assault and isolation. People suffering from mental illness are often consigned to incarceration, rather than treatment, because of the lack of appropriate facilities. Meanwhile BBV transmission is caused by high risk behaviour such as injecting drug use, tattooing, physical violence, body piercing and unprotected sex. The Australian Government National Drug Strategy estimated that the level of Hepatitis C among adult offenders in custody is 17 times greater than in the general community and prisoners are 31 times more like to have contracted HIV than non-prisoners.
NIDAC says there are numerous social and economic factors causing these problems. Indigenous Australians remain seriously disadvantaged compared with other Australians and suffer more ill-health, die at much younger ages, have lower levels of educational attainment and income, higher rates of unemployment and poorer housing conditions. Aboriginals most in jeopardy had a depressing list of socio-economic characteristics. These were the lack of schooling, unemployment, financial stress, crowded living conditions, association with the stolen generation, remote location and drug and alcohol abuse. Alcohol in particular is the cause of 90 percent of all Aboriginal offences.
(Photo by Pierre Pouliquin).The report offered a number of short and long term recommendations to solve the problem. The short term items include education support, jail diversion programs, re-integration of offenders, health care performance indicators, health screening, health research, leadership forums and partnerships with Indigenous services. The longer term goals would be funding youth networks, Indigenous drugs and alcohol campaigns, collaborative management plans, best-practice Indigenous-specific programs, working partnerships with law enforcement agencies, rehabilitation centres, consistent national legal approach and employment health training strategies.
All of these goals are laudable and the report deservedly criticises Australia’s shameful approach to Indigenous incarceration. Though it is debatable whether some of the short term goals are a bit optimistic, the real problem with this report (and many other similar ones over the years) is that the recommendations are uncosted. In the recent federal budget the Government announced a spending of $805 million on Indigenous health over four years. But will this spending address the underlying causes? NIDAC Chair Ted Wilkes doubts it. “It is clear current initiatives simply aren’t enough," he said. "It is widely known that there is a strong link between harmful alcohol and drug use, offending rates and poor health. A major rethink is needed and unless we address these issues, a lifecycle of offending can perpetuate and span across generations.”