Aborigines continue to be massively over-represented in the nation’s jails. But in WA, the situation is beyond dire: Aborigines are closing in on being half the total number of people jailed in the state, when they comprise only about 3% of the state’s population. It is beyond time for Premier Barnett and A-G and Corrective Services Minister Porter to take decisive, positive action, CLA says.
Aborigines bear the brunt of ‘lock ‘em’ up’ mentality
By Bill Rowlings, CEO of Civil Liberties Australia
The abandoned Australians – Aborigines – were jailed 7% more on average throughout Australia in 2009 than they were a year earlier.
But in WA, the figure was twice that: WA had 14 % more Indigenous people in jail at the end of 2009 than it did a year earlier. 2009 represented the first full year where the “lock ‘em up” policies of a Liberal Party under Colin Barnett, elected in late 2008, came into effect throughout the state.
CLA had anticipated the danger of a rise in imprisonment of Indigenous people in WA. In January 2009, we asked directly by letter to Attorney-General Christian Porter for him introduce a scheme to lower the rate at which Indigenous people are jailed to below 40%. He refused to specifically address the problem. Instead, the rate in WA rose yet again throughout 2009.
Until the WA Government prioritises tackling the problem of over-representation of Indigenous people in the state’s jails, WA must be considered to be running either a totally skewed prison policy, or a racist one. Even Queensland, long considered the redneck capital of Australia, has an Indigenous imprisonment rate less than half that of WA.
There is no evidence to show that Indigenous people in WA are any more criminal than Indigenous people are in any other State or Territory. Therefore, the problem lies in the social and prison policies, the policing or the courts…or all these areas.
Throughout Australia, more than a quarter (26%) of prisoners in jail are Indigenous. In WA the figure (44%) is closer to half than to a quarter. Indigenous people comprise about 2% of Australians, about 3% of West Australians…but they are locked up in unconscionable numbers nationally, and at an even higher proportional rate in WA.
Indigenous people go to jail in Australia at a rate, shown in the annual Prisoner Census conducted in June 2009, more than 14 times higher (1,891 per 100,000 adult Indigenous population) than the rate for non-Indigenous persons (136 per 100,000 adult non-Indigenous population).
If the Australian Government wants to intervene anywhere else in Australia other than the NT, it should do so in prisons, and particularly in prisons in WA, to examine why Indigenous people in one State only are so brutally punished in numerical terms.
New federal legislation, being passed this year, may well bring the spotlight down on WA prisons in a way never seen before. As well, early in 2011 there will be a UN Human Rights Council examination of Australia: on the current figures, WA will be named internationally as a racist, pariah prison state.
As WA jailed more people in 2009 (17% more were jailed there than a year earlier), Tasmania cut its prison population by 6%. Perhaps WA could start to learn from Tasmania and other states.
As one long-term observer of the inequity that is the WA prison system commented on seeing the current figures:
“…no long-term commitment to deal with the underpinning issues of loss, trauma, cultural loss, loss of land, overcrowded housing, alcoholism, etc, etc. We can’t expect someone to change their lifestyle when they have little or nothing to hope for.”
Mr Barnett, Mr Porter, these are your (Aboriginal) people: only you can help set them free.
– from Aust. Institute of Criminology 4512.0 – Corrective Services, Australia, Dec 2009 Released 18/03/2010