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'Time for truth-telling': Understanding Indigenous disadvantage in Australia

Whilst being 3.3 per cent of the Australian population, Indigenous men make up 27 per cent of prisoners and Indigenous women 34 per cent. Source: Joseph Mayers

Stemming from historical injustices, Indigenous disadvantage continues to affect First Nations people resulting in shorter life expectancy, poor health and education outcomes and disproportionately higher incarceration rates.

If you are an Indigenous Australian, you can expect to have a shorter life expectancy, lower levels of health, education and employment and higher infant mortality rates than non-Indigenous Australians.

And if you are a male Indigenous Australian, there is about a one in six chance that you are in prison or have spent time in prison.

These figures are reflected in the Productivity Commission's Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage report on the wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

“The main purpose of the report is to look at whether things are getting better, whether they’re not and if they’re not, what improvements might need to be made,” says Romlie Mokak, Commissioner at the Productivity Commission.

image_6_Romlie Mokak
Romlie Mokak, Commissioner, Productivity Commission
Productivity Commission

The report examines areas such as health, education, early childhood development and justice to create a picture that reflects cultural contexts, languages, community remoteness and family composition, and how they intersect.

The 2020 report shows some improvements but highlights areas of deep concern, such as increasing numbers of children in out-of-home care.

Statistics show that removing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families and kinship structures has a direct correlation with their overrepresentation in the youth justice system and later, adult prisons. 

Since the Royal Commission in 1991 into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, First Nations people as a percentage of the prison population has doubled from 14 to 28 per cent, says Helen Morrison, Producer of NITV’s new documentary, Incarceration Nation.

Our First Nations people are amongst the highest percentage of population of incarcerated people in the world. So, things are not getting better.

She says Indigenous incarceration costs Australia $8 billion per year.

“Now that’s a terrible cost but worse is the destruction of culture, family and the added trauma of being related to people who are going into prisons, and it just then rolls onto the next generation," says Helen Morrison.

"And intergenerational trauma is something our country has never dealt with.”

Attitudes and policies of colonisation can be directly linked to the lack of opportunities and the systemic disadvantages experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living today.

Past treatment such as loss of land and culture, stolen wages and violence transmits poverty and other disadvantages from generation to generation.

Leetona Dungay and Karina Hogan, Incarceration Nation participants_Joseph Mayers
Leetona Dungay and Karina Hogan, Incarceration Nation participants
Joseph Mayers


Under government policies from 1910 to the 1970s, children were forcibly removed from their families in the hope that they would assimilate into white society.

They are known as The Stolen Generations.

There are many Indigenous Australians living today who:

  • are members of the Stolen Generations
  • had children stolen from them
  • were denied an education
  • had their wages stolen
  • were not permitted in public places
  • could not receive healthcare
  • did not have the right to vote

The impacts play out most vividly today in areas such as mental health, high rates of alcohol and drug use, family violence and Indigenous incarceration rates.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 4 : Incarceration Nation - Documentary stills shoot on February 4, 2021 in Sydney, Australia.
Indigenous men make up 27 per cent of prisoners in Australia.
Joseph Mayers


Twenty years ago, approximately 4000 Indigenous adults were behind bars. That number is now around 12,000 – 12 times higher than non-Indigenous people. For young Indigenous people, it is 22 times higher.

“Connecting the dots between the over-legislation and government intervention since colonialism and how that has created trauma and disadvantage for our First Nations People, they are the two key drivers of incarceration,” says Helen Morrison.

Her documentary shines a light on the alarming statistics and how we can redress the injustices.

When you look at it holistically it seems so big and complex but in fact it’s not. We have the answers in reports. We have the answers if we listen to community and First Nations voices.

"I think it’s time for truth-telling, a deeper understanding of our past, and to lay it out in a way that the audience can link Indigenous incarceration to the past and the treatment of our First Nations People," she adds. 

Closing the Gap is a government commitment to achieving equality in terms of health and life expectancy.

The National Agreement on Closing the Gap has increased its focus on shared decision making between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and all Australian governments.

Self-determination enables all parties to be jointly accountable for progress, or lack thereof, against jointly-set goals, says Romlie Mokak.

It’s a pretty simple concept to think that those who are most impacted would be most invested in outcomes for their children and their grandchildren.

Incarceration Nation screens on NITV Sunday 29 August at 8:30pm and on SBS On Demand.


If you need to reach out or know someone who needs help, you can ring Lifeline on 13 11 14 or contact Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636.


This story is also available in other languages.

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