“We need to have an honest conversation about incarceration"


With the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in jail remaining well above the national average, experts and others affected by the issue detail what could be done to address it.

Video above: Apryl Day talks about the death of her mother Tanya Day, who died while in police custody. Indigenous Incarceration, an Insight and NITV special aims to provide a clearer understanding around the incarceration of Indigenous Australians. Watch it here from 8:30pm Tuesday, November 9.

“Australia’s incarceration system is broken and it’s a system that needs to be dealt with,” said Shane Phillips, CEO of the Tribal Warrior Association. He believes that Australians need to step up and have an honest conversation about how we incarcerate First Nations people because “the system won’t fix itself”.

The statistics tell a bleak story, and only serve to back him up. According to the Australian Law Reform Commission, as of 2016, more than 20 out of every 1000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders people are locked behind bars in Australia at a cost of $9.7 billion per year. That cost is projected to rise to $19.8 billion by 2040 if the rates of incarceration of Indigenous Australians remain at their current rate.

“What we are seeing is the rates of crime are down, but the rates of imprisonment are increasing and that's the issue…it means that the prison industrial complex is getting bigger,” said Deb Kilroy, the CEO of female prisoner advocacy organisation, Sisters Inside.

Deb Kilroy
Deb Kilroy, the CEO of female prisoner advocacy organisation, Sisters Inside.

“Everyone at Sisters Inside work day in, day out, to do ourselves out of a job trying to help women and children caught up in the prison system.”

But the issue of dismantling the prison industrial complex remains highly complicated, with fears Australia has gone down the path of America in privatising its prisons in the pursuit of profits.

“What we see funded all the time is the violence of policing and the violence of prisons… we know that those mechanisms are continually funded by the state. The services that are required to build a different world of safety and security are not being funded and supported,” Ms Kilroy said.

If Indigenous incarceration were to be reduced equal to that of the broader Australian population, the projected bill of $19.8 billion by 2040 would be reduced to $900 million. A saving to taxpayers of $18.9 billion.

And it’s not just high numbers of Indigenous adults who are incarcerated. Indigenous youth make up 55 per cent of the population in custody, but in the Northern Territory it has been as high as 100 per cent.

Keenan Mundine
Keenan Mundine.

Keenan Mundine spent much of his youth behind bars and said it’s not the place for young people to end up.

“It was a place that wasn't meant for a young boy like me. It doesn’t give us the skills to process into an adult, to fit in in the community as an adult, to get a job,” Mr Mundine told Insight.

“My experience was just one of perpetual traumatisation. Most kids that are in care would understand where I'm coming from. I just wanted my mum and dad. I wanted to be around my family. I wanted to feel loved… and I didn't get a chance to do that.”

Mr Mundine believes real change for the incarceration of youth needs to start with raising the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14.

“It's a shame in this nation that we lock young children up as young as ten, ” he said.

“We are delaying the maturation of young kids to grow into independent adults who don't become anti-social and be caught up in addiction and crime.”

The government ought to be ashamed of themselves that he won't consider even looking at any of these cases of deaths in custody.

Still, the problems for incarceration continue to grow. Just this year there have been five Indigenous deaths in custody, taking the current total to 474 deaths since the 1991 Royal Commission in Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. Skye Hipwell’s former partner Frank Coleman was another name added to this tragic list.

“We now have to face a Coronial Inquest into Frank's death that could take years, so there's no closure in any sense for us and you know” Ms Hipwell said.

“It's just a continuum of trauma and stress and there's no resolution for anything.”

Leetona Dungay, who lost her son David Dungay Jr in 2015, is still feeling his loss. Now she has taken his case to the world stage, to the United Nations, to expose the conduct of Australian Governments in the hope that, that change will come.

“It's been very devastated and painful that we've got to carry this through for so many years to give it to UN,” Aunty Leetona told Insight.

“We're not getting nowhere with the law here and I said, 'let's move it out of Australia' and if we get them to fight for us, at least we might get some changes.

“The government ought to be ashamed of themselves that he won't consider even looking at any of these cases of deaths in custody. It's a big, big shame of Australia, so when is this going to stop?”

Source Insight, NITV

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