• Elva Richards works long hours to keep Indigenous people in custody safe (VICE)Source: VICE
A social worker with the Aboriginal Legal Service says she is concerned that most Aboriginal people taken into custody are just 'scared'.
Andrea Booth

22 Oct 2015 - 4:13 PM  UPDATED 22 Oct 2015 - 5:03 PM

"I couldn't speak for everyone but I know that, it’s usually they’re afraid to be locked up by police," Elva Richards said.

The 28-year-old Barngarla and Gubrun woman and client service officer with the Victorian ALS speaks to VICE in the third instalment of its documentary series about Indigenous incarceration.

"That’s probably one of the biggest issues that most of our clients have, is just being scared that they're there in custody."

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Elva, who works 12-hour night shifts to ensure the welfare of Indigenous people in police custody, says the Aboriginal legal service is a response to the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the justice system.

The Australian Institute of Criminology reports that Indigenous Australians, who only make up 3 percent of the country's population, are 12 times more likely to be incarcerated than their non-Indigenous counterparts.

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Elva told NITV there are usually reasons behind the fear and agitation expressed by people who entered custody.

“It goes right back to their culture too, so a lot of people feel lost,” she said. “So if they’re connected to their family or their community or they don’t have a support system, there is a high chance that they don’t have a connection their culture.

“They don’t really know who they are and because of that they are afraid and they act out.”

Elva says the service is essential because of the safety net it gives disadvantaged people. 

"We don't live for a very long time and the time that we do have we've got racism, we've got children in and out of, you know, out of home care, we've got alcohol and drug abuse, we've got people who've got mental health issues, people committing suicide."  

Former prime minister Tony Abbott acknowledged the federal government had failed to make substantial change in its effort, through its Close the Gap program, to provide equal opportunity for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders across arenas such as health, education and justice.

Following the release of the 2015 Close the Gap report Mr Abbott told media: "This seventh Closing the Gap report is, in many respects, profoundly disappointing.

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"Despite the concerted efforts of successive governments since the first report, we are not on track to achieve most of the targets."

Elva says that having someone call while a vulnerable person is in custody can make all the difference. "That's the one question I always ask when I call is, 'Are you OK, do you have family support?'".

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The improving relationship between the legal service and the police is helping to make a positive difference in the effort to keep people safe, she says. "I have great relationships with some of the police officers and some of them are really friendly guys.

"If we can get to that point where we all understand, have an understanding of each other, I think that would be like, great."