• Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are incarcerated 12 times the rate of non-Indigenous people. (NITV)Source: NITV
An examination into how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have become the most imprisoned on earth.
NITV Staff Writers

12 Aug 2021 - 6:58 PM  UPDATED 6 Sep 2021 - 11:06 AM

Content Warning: This article contains subject matter that some readers may find distressing. 

In 1778, a penal colony was established on the sovereign lands of the oldest continuing cultures in the world. 

In 2021, it still exists, now with the name Australia. 

This is the simple, terrible truth behind the concept of the 'incarceration nation'.

It's the subject of a new documentary that will soon be airing on NITV, an unflinching look at the carceral system in this country. 

New NITV documentary reveals the hard truth of Australia's 'Incarceration Nation'
A searing documentary puts the justice system on trial.

It takes a broad lens, going back to the very beginnings of the white presence on Aboriginal lands, up to the modern-day, and the grim reality that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are the most imprisoned on the planet


What is 'Incarceration Nation'?

But incarceration nation isn't simply a film title. The two words reference the very real issue of mass incarceration of Indigenous people in Australia, and the systemic components contributing to these high statistics.

Every day, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across the country wake up behind bars of the nation's prisons. Too many First Nations people don't have the life path of the majority in this country; the progression from primary school to high school, higher education and then onto employment. Instead, many Indigenous people experience a bleak parallel, going through the traumas of out-of-home care, the carceral induction of juvenile detention, and the final graduation into adult prisons. 

But the stakes for Indigenous people are beyond doing time. Since the landmark Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1991, over 474 First Nations people have died in police custody. This year, 10 Aboriginal people have died. It's a national crisis ongoing since colonisers began imprisoning, surveilling and policing Indigenous people in the 18th Century. 


Don't look away

The majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have never been incarcerated, and the most recent ABS (2016) reports that most have not been arrested within the last five years. However, Indigenous people experience contact with the criminal justice system—as both offenders and victims—at much higher rates than non-Indigenous Australians. And this is key, Indigenous people are more likely to die in police custody because they are more likely to be in police custody. 

  • Indigenous people make up 3.3% of the population, yet are
    - 29% of the male prison population
    - 34% of the female prison population
    - 55% of the youth prison population

  • Indigenous adults are imprisoned 13 times the rate of non-Indigenous adults

  • As of 2020, nearly 18,000 Indigenous children were in out-of-home care. A 39% increase from the previous year
  • Over 80% of Indigenous women in prison are mothers
  • Indigenous people who have contact with the criminal justice system are more likely than their non-Indigenous counterparts to have entered into the child protection system as children

  • In 2009, Aboriginal inmates in NSW prisons were twice as likely to report a history of juvenile detention compared with non-Indigenous inmates

  • Since the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, Indigenous people have doubled as a proportion of the prison population; 14% in 1991, 28% in 2021

  • Since 1991, there have been 474 Indigenous Deaths in Custody. There have been no criminal convictions for a death in custody in Australia. 

(Statistics taken from Incarceration Nation Documentary, 2021 and Australian Institute of Health & Welfare, 2021)


Intergenerational disadvantage

The historical background is important; the poor relations between police and First Nations people have deep roots. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, who have a significantly high level of intergenerational disadvantage, are more likely to experience risk factors for offending.

Mass killings of Indigenous people are recorded as beginning 1794, a mere six years after the arrival of the First Fleet. 

To the extent that, with regards to First Nations people, the law functioned at all in this period, to a large degree it served only to solidify and further the theft of land and practice of slave labour on the part of the English colonialists. 

British soldiers, settlers and an inchoate police force engaged in the widespread massacres of Aboriginal people up until the 1920s, with the severity of these killings increasing over time.

The early 20th Century saw a shift in public policy towards Indigenous people, with a new aim of assimilation— the cultural genocide of First Nations people —taking precedence. 

Children were forcibly removed from their families and forbidden from practising their culture and speaking their language, known now, of course, as the "Stolen Generations".

The trauma of this period is present in the lives of many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders today, with a redress scheme announced only recently

In the late 1960s/early '70s, the end of the mission era led to an exponential increase in Indigenous incarceration, as a highly visible Aboriginal community found themselves unable to access jobs, education and housing and were subsequently subjected to severe discriminatory policing.


A lifetime of supervision

And today, the rate of child removals from Aboriginal families is increasing at alarming levels every year.

Indigenous children are ten times more likely than non-Indigenous to be removed from their families. 

It's a dark and shocking statistic, all the more so because of its implications for the future: child removal lies at the root of Indigenous deaths in custody. 

The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody found in its 1991 report that, while First Nations people were dying in custody at the same rate as their non-Indigenous counterparts, they were much more likely to end up in police custody in the first place. 

The commission found a direct correlation between dying in custody and having been removed from the home as a child. The neglect, abuse, and instability that can arise from being rehomed leads inexorably to a dark path. 


The systemic issues

Key drivers of Indigenous incarceration are rooted in the historical disadvantage that continues to impact many First People; housing, employment and health issues.

However, underlying racism and prejudice in the justice system is another key factor.

It's an unavoidable conclusion when considering the statistics cited above: how can First Nations people be incarcerated at such high levels without racism operating within the system?

Systemic racism is the bloody heirloom of Australia's colonial roots, and much as the dark history of this country lives on in the intergenerational trauma of Blak communities, so too do police forces nationwide exhibit the evidence of their violent pasts, baked into their DNA. 

Many of today's state-based police forces have their origins in the murderous militias that maintained and expanded early colonial territories at the expense of Aboriginal lives. 

It continues today, in far too many instances of lawlessness on the part of police: the 1989 shooting of David Gundy, an unarmed man shot in his Marrickville home during an illegal police raid; the death of Ngaanyatjarra Elder Mr Ward, who became literally cooked alive in the back of a police wagon.

Institutional racism is on display when such incidents are met with indifference by leadership, absolving the perpetrators of guilt.

This was on vivid display last year when a young Indigenous teenager was slammed face-first into the ground by an officer twice his age and size: NSW police commissioner Mick Fuller responded to the event, saying the police officer in question was just having “a bad day” (that officer has now been charged with assault, a rare moment of accountability). 

It expresses itself in laws that disproportionately affect First Nations people, such as the youth bail laws recently enacted in the NT

The laws make it more difficult for young people to access to bail and diversionary programs, and were enacted despite warnings from advocates that they would affect young Indigenous citizens. 

The Territory has since seen marked increase in the number of young people in detention, most of them Indigenous. 

It exists in policies of surveillance, such as NSW's Suspect Target Management Plan. The legality of this police tool has been questioned as it places citizens under increased police surveillance and interaction without their knowledge, and without ever having committed a crime.  

Indigenous children as young as nine with no criminal history have been discovered (after investigation) to be on the list, which sees them the target of police intervention in their daily lives, at home or on the street. 

This over-policing experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities looks set to continue into the future.

Police forces across the globe are trialling and implementing "predictive policing", whereby increased resources are concentrated on areas where authorities believe crimes will occur in the future. 

These predictions are the result of existing data, but here of course we see a self-fulfilling prophecy: the more frequent interactions between police and First Nations people mean more data pointing towards criminality; police send more resources, even more interactions with First Nations residents, more data... 

It goes back to the very first days of British occupation: a white and punitive eye has remained fixed on Blak communities ever since. 


What are the solutions?

Plans are needed to address the causes of incarceration rather than continuing to funnel billions of dollars into the prison system.

A radical overhaul of the justice system is required to combat the overrepresentation of First Nations people in prisons. 

The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody recommended that incarceration be avoided at all costs. Instead, community-based support services and diversionary programs could include:

  • police warnings;
  • referral to services such as drug and alcohol treatment;
  • bail supervision for those at risk of remand;
  • youth justice conferencing.

The idea of Aboriginal community patrols also enjoy widespread support amongst First Nations law reform advocates, as do sobering up centres. They both offer an opportunity for vulnerable people to avoid contact with law enforcement. 

In addition, meeting basic needs for housing, education and employment will go a long way to addressing the current problems.

All of these however, must sit within a framework of self-determination, the ongoing struggle for First Nations people in this country to control and determine their own lives. 


Stream Incarceration Nation on SBS On Demand:

Those feeling affected by this content are encouraged to contact the following services for assistance:

Lifeline (24/7) — Call 13 11 14 or chat online

Beyond Blue — Call 1300 22 4636 or chat online

Headspace Yarn Safe

Trauma & Grief Network

NACCHO community health service 

and find information & resources at Proppa Deadly podcast