Defying the evidence on prisons


By Sean Healy

SYDNEY — The NSW coroner's report into the death in custody of a young Aboriginal man, James Brindle, has highlighted the urgent need for alternatives to incarceration for minor offences. Yet politicians are strengthening their "law and order" policies.

Brindle died on February 6, 1997, after hanging himself with his shoelaces while on remand in Sydney's Long Bay Jail. Senior deputy state coroner John Abernethy found on July 29 that Brindle's death was a result of an "inadequate and ad hoc" system in the prison.

Brindle was left off the ward register (so warders were not even aware he was there) and incarcerated first with a non-Aboriginal person and then alone for three days. He was given no attention despite having been assessed as suicidal.

"Anyone with any knowledge at all of Aboriginality must know of the importance of an Aboriginal person being housed with another Aboriginal person", Abernethy said.

One of the major recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was for a review of the circumstances under which indigenous people should be incarcerated. However, over the past decade, while the number of juveniles in detention in NSW has dropped, the proportion of Aboriginal youth in custody has increased from less than 25% to more than 30%.

This fact, coupled with new data showing that half of the 350 juveniles in detention in NSW are in for minor theft offences, has prompted the director-general of the NSW Department of Juvenile Justice, Ken Buttrum, to describe locking up young people as "a waste of time". Buttrum was speaking at a NSW parliamentary summit into young Aborigines in custody on July 29.

"It worries me that society is becoming more and more punitive with our young people", Buttrum said. "Instead of being compassionate, we go into punishment mode."

The Sydney Morning Herald reported on July 30 that an anonymous letter, apparently from a magistrate, was circulated at the summit that strongly criticised over-reliance on custodial sentences.

"I am daily depressed by the number of Koori kids coming before me and the very limited options I have for sentencing", the letter said. "Almost all indigenous kids start their involvement with the law on an offensive language charge. The police here almost always still arrest on this charge."

The letter argued for a review of offensive language cases in the Supreme Court.

But while even those responsible for implementing harsh penalties recognise the damage being caused, Coalition politicians are heading in the other direction.

On July 30, federal National Party leader John Anderson, speaking at the Queensland Nationals' state conference, supported calls for a referendum on the death penalty. "There may be a case for capital punishment for really heinous crimes", Anderson said.

He was backed by state National Party leader Rob Borbidge who, despite saying he personally opposed the death penalty, said he would allow Coalition MPs a conscience vote on the issue. A private member's bill for a referendum on the death penalty, introduced by One Nation MP Jeff Knuth, is before the Queensland parliament.

Given the disproportionate number of indigenous people in jail already, and the United States experience that the death penalty is more heavily imposed on black and/or poor people, there can be no doubt that a death penalty in Australia would have a racist impact.