25% more Aborigines in prison


By Peter Boyle According to a study by Sydney University's Institute of Criminology, the number of Aborigines in Australian prisons rose by 25% in the four years to last June. The numbers of Aboriginal women imprisoned, already high compared to

By Peter Boyle

According to a study by Sydney University's Institute of Criminology, the number of Aborigines in Australian prisons rose by 25% in the four years to last June. The numbers of Aboriginal women imprisoned, already high compared to non-Aboriginal women, rose by a staggering 63%.

The report is especially disturbing because the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody identified the disproportionate rate of imprisonment as the main reason for the large numbers of Aboriginal deaths in custody. Since the royal commission, which investigated 99 Aboriginal deaths, delivered its final reports 10 months ago, another 29 Aborigines have died in prisons or police custody, according to Aboriginal activists.

The royal commission found that while Aborigines make up only 1.4% of the Australian population, 28.6% of all people imprisoned during a month-long survey in August 1988 were Aborigines. Most were young and imprisoned for minor offences.

The mean age for Aboriginal prisoners was 26.3 years, compared to 30.7 years for other prisoners; 57% of Aborigines in prison were locked up for public drunkenness (27% of non-Aborigines).

Overall, in 1989, Aboriginal adults had an imprisonment rate of 1465 per 100,000, compared to 97 per 100,000 adult non- Aborigines — i.e. 15 times higher!

'Public order' offences

The University of Sydney study showed that the disproportionate imprisonment of Aborigines continues.

In NSW, the number of Aborigines in prison increased by 80%, while non-Aborigines in prison increased by 54%. The big rise in this state was due to the reintroduction of minor "public order" offences under the Summary Offences Act 1988, according to researcher Chris Cuneen.

There were increases also in Western Australia, Victoria and South Australia, while Aboriginal imprisonment numbers fell slightly in Queensland and the Northern territory. The WA Labor government's recent decision to introduce harsh penalties for juvenile offenders is expected to lead to a sharp increase in Aboriginal imprisonment rates.

Laws on public order offences typically give police wide

discretion whether to carry out arrests, and hence can easily reflect racist attitudes held by police officers. They also hit poorer people hardest because drunken and disorderly behaviour among the well-off is normally hidden in comfortable homes, clubs, pubs and restaurants.

The royal commission found that the disproportions were even higher when the figures on police custody were examined. "Aboriginal people were apprehended and placed in police cells at a rate over 20 times that of non-Aboriginal people." Rates of police imprisonment of Aborigines were highest in Western Australia, followed by South Australia and the Northern Territory.


The police force is not the only institution to blame for the blatantly unequal treatment Aboriginal people suffer at the hands of the law. The law is marked by its theoretical definition of Australia as an "empty land" before European colonisation and the fact that Aboriginal people did not have the constitutional right of citizenship until 1967. These legal positions are a justification for the policy of extermination and dispossession carried out by the colonisers for most of the last two centuries.

As recently as 1979, a Wilcannia magistrate declared that "Aborigines are a pest race". Statistics suggest that this is not an isolated example of the judiciary's racism. The royal commission found that many Aborigines were imprisoned for defaulting on fines and were sentenced to jail terms for offences that would not attract such penalties in most other cases.

Obviously, this also reflects the low economic status of many Aboriginal people, but the low socioeconomic position of Aborigines is the inevitable result of the colonisers' attempted destruction of a people and their society. The social problems, exemplified by the life expectancy rates 15 to 20 years shorter than the average, infant mortality three times higher and unemployment six times higher, are a result of this history and remain to be adequately addressed.

Recommendations ignored

The royal commission concluded that, since its detailed studies showed that Aboriginal people in custody "are no more likely to die than non-Aboriginal people in custody", the "immediate explanation of the number of deaths in custody is the number of Aboriginal people found in custody".

Hal Wootten, QC, who headed the royal commission, said on February 24 that he was very disappointed that a "country posturing as a great defender of human rights" had taken so long to respond to the 339 recommendations in the royal commission's reports.

Some of the recommendations aimed at addressing disproportionate Aboriginal imprisonment and unequal treatment by the law included:

  • Police services should take all possible steps to eliminate "violent or rough treatment or verbal abuse" and the use of racist or offensive language. Such conduct should be treated as a "serious breach of discipline".

  • Police paramilitary groups (like the NSW SWOS and Tactical Response Group) should not be used against Aboriginal communities if avoidable.

  • Governments and Aboriginal organisations should together devise strategies to reduce the rate at which Aboriginal juveniles are separated from their families and communities, whether by being declared to be in need of care, detained, or imprisoned.

  • State governments should decriminalise drunkenness where they haven't already done so, and adequately funded programs should be established to maintain non-custodial facilities for the care and treatment of intoxicated persons.

  • The use of offensive language in interventions initiated by police should not normally lead to arrest. Arrest should be the sanction of last resort.

  • Over-policing or inappropriate policing of Aboriginal people should be avoided.

  • Laws relating to bail should be reviewed to remove criteria which inappropriately restrict the granting of bail to Aboriginal people.

  • Aborigines held in custody without bail should be seen by a representative from the Aboriginal Legal Service.

  • States should bring in more non-custodial sentences, with adequate support.

The latest figures make it clear that most of the recommendations have been ignored.