Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are 12 times more likely to be in jail than non-Indigenous Australians, and their rate of imprisonment has more than doubled in two decades.
The issue of Indigenous incarceration has been thrust back on the agenda in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests earlier this month, which attracted tens of thousands of demonstrators.
Now, a leading expert has shared her views on how Australia can begin to reverse a shocking trend that’s been steadily worsening for generations.
Indigenous researcher Associate Professor Megan Williams is the assistant director of the Centre for Cultural Competence at the University of Sydney, and has more than 20 years of expertise in the areas of public health and justice.
Last week, she joined news.com.au for a special Facebook live interview to discuss the social, health and economic issues facing Indigenous Australians.
And she offered a solution to tackling disproportionate and rising Indigenous incarceration rates by focusing on three areas.
Tackling the problem involves understanding some of the major, systemic factors that lead to offending, Associate Professor Williams said.
“Sometimes breaking the law is about a health issue – poor mental health, drug and alcohol issues – as well as entrenched poverty,” Associate Professor Williams said.
“Clear data shows extreme rates of poor mental health among prisoners.
“If you have poor mental health, I would say, from a public health perspective, you need health services for that and not the removal from family and society, and isolation in a prison, an extremely hostile situation.
“For every person who came into contact with police because of drugs and alcohol, if only there was a real place to heal that issue or divert them in some other way from going to prison.
“We’re setting up those individuals, who we label as criminals, for even poorer health. On top of that, they’re marked as a criminal which makes it hard to get employment education after release.
“And so, the cycle continues.”
The overrepresentation of Indigenous people in prison has myriad consequences, including the issue of deaths in custody, Associate Professor Williams said.
For example, suicide is the second leading cause of death of Indigenous prisoners – more than double what it is in the general community.
“And two-thirds of Indigenous suicides in custody are among people who haven’t been sentenced for a crime,” she said.
Indigenous people who die of natural causes while behind bar are also younger on average than non-Indigenous prisoners.
In the 30 years since a Royal Commission into deaths in custody was held, 432 have died behind bars.
Critics of the Black Lives Matter movement point out that at a national level, more non-Indigenous people died in prison in that time frame.
While that might be true, Associate Professor Williams said it’s a very simplistic way of looking at a complex issue – and it discounts important considerations.
“We have to look at state and territory data too,” she said.
“In New South Wales for example, in 2017-18, the numbers grabbed my attention because I was visiting jails at that time. Five Aboriginal people died out of 27 overall.
“If we do basic maths on that, we’re coming up at about 18 per cent of deaths (being Indigenous people) in custody, compared to being 4.5 per cent of the New South Wales population.
“That’s where we see the discrepancies. We also must look at the differences in gender too … and cause of death.”
In 2000, when Associate Professor Williams was beginning her career, there were 21,000 Indigenous people in jail, she said.
“Now, it’s 43,000 across Australia – it’s more than doubled. In 20 years, is that number going to double again?
A report by the Australian Law Reform Commission based on 2016 data found that Indigenous people were disproportionately represented in prison populations in every state and territory.
“In the NT, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples constituted 30 per cent of the general population, and 84 per cent of the prison population,” the ALRC report said.
“In Victoria, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples constituted 1 per cent of the general population and 8 per cent of the prison population.”
The ALRC analysis determined the national imprisonment rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples was 2039 per 100,000.
“That is, about 20 in every 1000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were incarcerated in 2016.”
To put that in perspective, the non-Indigenous incarceration rate was 163 per 100,000 – or less than two in every 1000 people.
“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were therefore over-represented in the imprisoned population by a factor of 12.5. In other words, (Indigenous) people were 12.5 times more likely to be in prison than non-Indigenous people.”
Currently, at a national level, Indigenous people account for 27 per cent of adult prison populations compared to less than 3 per cent of the Australian population.
A recent project by independent health news outlet Croakey, which Assistant Professor Williams was involved in, published 90 articles from 70 expert authors – half of whom are Indigenous – presenting solutions to disproportionate incarceration rates.
The exercise demonstrated that there are strategies to tackle the issue that are based on “evidence, experience, opinion and story”.
For her part, Associate Professor Williams said her solution involved focusing on three things: the system, services and community.
“At the system level, that’s the Uluru Statement. Make the three changes it’s calling for – constitutional amendment, legislative change and a Makarrata Commission for a process where Aboriginal people make decisions,” she explained.
“I’m not a fool. My colleagues aren’t fools. We have a lot to showcase, and a lot of solutions for the whole country.”
When it comes to services, involving Indigenous people in decision-making and resource allocation positions would improve take-up and efficacy of programs – particularly those addressing health.
“We know mainstream health services are poorly accessed by Indigenous people. We also know that Aboriginal community-controlled health services are accessed really, really well.
“They are oversupplied with patients. We need more funding in that area to meet need. We’re not investing in them.”
Generally, when it comes to service delivery, Associate Professor Williams believes “the money could be better spent”.
“We also need cultural competency training for (non-Indigenous service delivery) staff. Sydney University offers it – it’s online, it’s easily accessible, it’s well-evaluated. There’s no reason to not put every staff member through that training.
“It’ll open hearts and minds to embrace Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures of this country.”
And finally, in communities themselves, Associate Professor Williams said funding should be ramped up for drug and alcohol rehabilitation, as well as men’s and women’s groups.
Those kinds of social initiatives would help to “tackle extremely complex challenges in supportive environments”, she said.