Analysis: While Western Australia enjoys the nation’s highest median wage, the poorest and most vulnerable have it harder than anywhere else in the nation.
Gerry Georgatos

10 Mar 2017 - 4:20 PM  UPDATED 13 Mar 2017 - 9:46 AM

As West Australians vote in the state government elections tomorrow, one in 13 of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander adult males are in prison.

Nearly two and a half years ago, the state’s Premier, Colin Barnett, fronted more than a thousand protestors at the steps of parliament. They were calling for urgent changes following the death of 22-year-old Miss Dhu in a Western Australian police cell. Premier Barnett promised that he would personally follow through with changes, and reduce the sentencing rates of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal prisoners, that he would set in place ways forward to transform lives…

None of this has come to pass.

While non-Indigenous Australians are incarcerated at around 200 per 100,000 adults, Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander adults are imprisoned at 2330 per 100,000 Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander adults.

In disaggregating jailing rates, Western Australia holds the nation’s highest jailing rate; of 3745 per 100,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults, which makes it the world’s second highest, just below the incarceration of African Americans in the United States (about 4000 per 100,000). It’s beyond justification.

Yes, Western Australia enjoys the nation’s highest median wage, but not so its Aboriginal peoples. If you are born Black in Western Australia, you have a two in three chance of living poor your whole life.

Western Australia’s prisons are full – in fact they are overcrowded. As of June 30 2016, the Inspector of Custodial Services reported that state prisons in WA were at 140 per cent capacity.

In Western Australia, the rate of imprisonment of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander children is 50 per cent higher than the imprisonment rate of black children in the US. Australia incarcerates Aboriginal juveniles at 37 per 10,000, whereas the United States is at 52 per 10,000, according to the US Justice Department. But Western Australia incarcerates Aboriginal children at 78 per 10,000.

The state also has the nation’s highest incarceration rate of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander females, with women comprising 22.3 per cent of the Aboriginal prison population.

Comment: Every State and Territory must roll-out the Custody Notification Service
Several recommendations from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (1987 to 1991) screamed for the enabling of immediate support to detainees through highly skilled advocates. Today, this support exists through the Custody Notification Service (CNS), but only in NSW and the ACT. With nearly half the nation’s arrests comprising of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, it is unjustifiable that the rest of the nation has not implemented this service.

Disaggregating the stats: The case for a Custody Notification Service

To understand what the statistics tell us about deaths in custody, we need to disaggregate them.

If you are non-Indigenous, over 50 years of age, and incarcerated, you are more likely than an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander inmate to die from natural causes. However, this is not the case for detainees in their early twenties. They are more likely to die in custody from unnatural causes and to be of Aboriginal descent. In fact, deaths in police watch houses are nearly always Aboriginal and/Torres Strait Islander detainees.

Between 2015 and 2016, Western Australia reported six unnatural deaths in custody – the nation’s highest in number and in rate. I believe these deaths could have been prevented had the Western Australian government established a Custody Notification Service (CNS).

The service would provide a mandatory stout advocate, who is also a lawyer, to every Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander detainee immediately after their arrest. It would also provide vital health, welfare, legal support and psycohosocial validation.

NSW and the ACT governments have implemented custody notification services, which have led to zero deaths in police custody and lower sentencing rates.

If elected, WA Labor has promised to implement it within its first 100 days in government.

The Federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Senator Nigel Scullion, has offered three years of funding for each state and territory looking to establish a Custody Notification Service.

Every state and territory has taken up the offer, with the single exception of Western Australia – unless there is a change of government on March 11.  

State politics

More than a year ago, the government established a ‘Working Party’ to consider ways forward in how to reduce incarceration rates, in order to transform lives. They returned very little. Fine-defaulters are still jailed.

The incumbent government, who promised to focus on transforming the lives of the impoverished and vulnerable, the majority of the state’s prison population, remains fixated on punishing people.

There is a sliver of hope that a new government will do away with criminalising fine defaulters and will bring on elements of Justice Reinvestment, but more importantly, will hopefully invest significantly in transforming the lives of inmates.

Federal funding saves Indigenous Custody Notification Service
The federal government has stepped in to fund the Aboriginal Legal Services' Custody Notification Service until 2019, while chastising the NSW government for not stumping up the money itself.

In Western Australia, more than 90 per cent of inmates have not completed a Year 12 education; more than 60 per cent have not completed Year 10; and more than 40 per cent have not completed Year 9. One in six of the state’s Aboriginal people have been to prison.

Lives can be changed, hope can flourish and outcomes achieved, but the helping hand is needed – pre-release and post-release.

As a society, we should be doing everything possible to keep people out of prison – and not everything we can to jail people, but where incarceration is the outcome, then everything must be done to help the people within.

I believe it can be done. In my time in the tertiary sector, I assisted many former inmates and homeless individuals into gaining entry into an educational institution. However, ‘bridging them’ into university alone is not good enough. As a student cohort, the ‘bridged-in’ have low student retention levels. I developed programs and services to provide psycho-social support, from entry to graduation.

We supported many of them into shared accommodation, stabilising their lives, and assisted or connected them to services where they could be further supported in health, welfare and legal issues. I developed tutoring programs to support them as needed. As a result, the majority of them graduated and none to my knowledge have re-offended or ended up homeless again.

Kuku-Yalanji man, Jeremy Donovan oversaw the production of the Prison to Work Report last year for thClosing the Gap mob. On the first page of the report is an image by Jeremy titled, ‘Set Me Free.’ Jeremy writes, “‘Set Me Free’ refers not just to prison walls but also the layers of trauma Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners often deal with.”

If we are to go forward in tangible ways to improving the lot of the most vulnerable and critically at-risk, then we must not leave behind those who finish up in jail. In helping transform their lives, we also improve the lives of their families and give hope to their children. There is a wider social return.

There are only a few organisations and programs authentically transforming the lives of inmates and former inmates. One of the most successful programs is Ngalla Maya, a prison to wellbeing, to training and education, to employment effort founded by a former inmate, Noongar man Mervyn Eades.

In the past year, Ngalla Maya inspired more than 140 inmates to participate in training and educational programs. They are now employed. No other program has achieved these results. Despite receiving support from the Federal Government, the Western Australian government has not given it a single penny.

School in prison programs and investment in education opportunities is also needed for people in Juvenile Detention and in adult prisons. Not only will inmates get an education and gain qualifications, but they will also be psycho-socially validated and strengthened, which in turn reduces trauma.

If governments fail to invest to transform the lives of prisoners and former inmates, no doubt more prisons will be built.

If we don’t address Indigenous incarceration rates now, it is estimated by 2025 one in two of prisoners in Australia will be an Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander. In Western Australia it’ll be to two of three, and in the Northern Territory it will edge near the 100 per cent mark.

Is this fair?

– Gerry Georgatos is a suicide prevention researcher and restorative justice and prison reform expert with the Institute of Social Justice and Human Rights. He is a member of several national projects working on suicide prevention, particularly with elevated risk groups, and in developing wellbeing to education to work programs for inmates and former inmates. He is an advocate for the national roll-out of the Custody Notification Service and for the transformation of Juvenile Detention facilities into places of educational and positive developmental opportunities.