The need for effective solutions to the “public health catastrophe” of the over-incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people was highlighted at a conference held this week in Geraldton, WA.

The conference coincided with the launch of a new Croakey project, #JustJustice: a crowd-funding campaign that aims to produce a series of articles and an e-book exploring solutions to over-incarceration.

From 4-4.30pm today AEST, #JustJustice team member Summer May Finlay, a public health advocate and a Yorta Yorta woman, will be live-streaming on Periscope to talk about the project and to take your questions. Please join her (you can download the Periscope app for free).


Marie McInerney reports:

Below are some of the ideas generated by nearly 100 policy and frontline experts in Indigenous health and justice who met this week at the Prison Health: From the Inside Out conference in Geraldton.

  • Stop jailing Aboriginal people with cognitive disabilities
  • Add justice to the national Close the Gap targets.
  • Keep offenders in their own communities, close to ties.
  • Reform visiting times. Make sure all prisoners are able to contact their families and communities at least once a month.
  • Shut down the drug dealers in regional areas.
  • Evaluate what we do. Listen to what we say.
  • Set up a community fund to pay fines and let offenders pay them off in cultural ways – empowering not punitive.
  • Improve the quality of justice data available.
  • No one-size-fits-all solutions: local responses to local issues.

The two day event, staged by the Geraldton Regional Aboriginal Medical Service (GRAMS), brought together delegates from Broome to Albany, as well as high profile speakers like Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda and National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation CEO Lisa Briggs and chair Matthew Cooke.

The conference looked at the health issues for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people before, during and after prison, and at disadvantage and racism within the justice system that not only affects health but, as Gooda put it, “makes us sick”.

The speakers laid out the statistics:

  • Indigenous people, who make up 2.5 per cent of the total population, make up 25 per cent of the prisoner population (80 per cent in the Northern Territory) and are 14 times more likely to end up in jail.
  • Indigenous women are the fastest growing prison population group in Australia, having risen 58 per cent over the ten years to 2010.
  • 90 per cent of young people in out of home care in the Northern Territory are Aboriginal.
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are over-represented at the ‘lower end’ of the crime scale, most often jailed for fines, on ‘three strike’ policies, and for public order offences. In WA, up to 60 per cent of Aboriginal people are in jail for driving offences.

There are, as the conference heard, complex reasons behind these statistics, from colonisation and intergenerational trauma to inappropriate policing, family breakdown and drug and alcohol abuse.

But too often our justice responses are too shallow and/or blunt.

“We have to change the way we do justice”
For example, criminologist Professor Harry Blagg outlined his research from the Northern Territory between 2010 and 2013, in the wake of the NT Intervention, looking at the impact of tougher legislation and increased police numbers.

“Despite heavy rhetoric about saving Aboriginal women and children from sexual violence, paedophile rings, all this emotive language, we found no increase whatsoever in the rate of arrest for family violence or notifications of child abuse, despite in some cases a tripling of the number of police,” he said.

“What we did find was a 250 per cent increase in the rate of arrests for driving offences. (Police would) go into communities, and do what they do elsewhere: check the cars, check the drivers. So a lot of people were ending up in prison (for those).”

Blagg also warned that the recent case of Rosie Fulton – a young women with foetal alcohol syndrome disorder (FASD) who was held in a WA prison for 21 months with no conviction after a magistrate found her unfit to stand trial – was not unique.

Failure to deal with mounting evidence that young Aboriginal people are more likely to be affected by disorders such as FASD and Acquired Brain Injury (ABI) risked “undermining our justice system,” he said. Blagg said he knew of magistrates and prosecutors who were “encouraging people with FASD to plead guilty because otherwise they would be considered unfit to plead.”

He said:

“Our system of justice is based on the premise that we understand what we’re doing, we can make rational decisions, so we can be deterred by the prospect of being punished. In court, if you’re on the FASD spectrum or have another cognitive impairment, you can’t make those rational judgments.

“We have to change the way we do justice, integrating health, mental health and disability services at the front end of the criminal justice system.”


In his keynote speech, Gooda said he had run out of adjectives to describe the rate and impact of Indigenous incarceration – “disaster, emergency, a catastrophe in the making” – and he would make it, and the issue of community violence, particularly against women, his priority for this, his last two-year term.

So too, he said, should the Federal Government, given its Budget concern: getting Indigenous incarceration rates down to population level would mean an $800 million saving per year in prison costs.

Texas, and other US states, had shifted away from ‘tough on crime’ policies because they could no longer afford the prison costs, and adopted Justice Reinvestment approaches, he said.

Gooda said there were plenty of examples of success across the country – not least in the inner-Sydney suburb of Redfern where good dialogue between police and the local community had seen an 80 per cent drop in robberies committed by Aboriginal youth, helping to make it “the safest inner city suburb in Sydney”.

Barriers to fairer justice
But the Prison Health conference also heard of many barriers and backward steps, at national and local levels including:

  • Moves to establish accommodation for young offenders in Geraldton who would otherwise be held far from family and country in Perth were opposed on “real estate values” by the local non-Indigenous community.
  • Conditions are still “appalling” at the Roebourne prison, with prisoners sleeping in unventilated tin sheds in fierce heat more than 15 years after concerns were first raised by the WA Office of the Inspector of Custodial Services. There is no local housing for them when they are released, and the local health services are overloaded (one health worker had a caseload of 300) and struggle to get ex-prisoners to engage. “Help me make it better,” she pleaded.
  • With $10 for a bottle of milk in some areas, food security is expected to loom as a justice issue.
  • Plans to close remote WA communities will put further pressure on the justice system, if communities end up living on fringes of existing towns.
  • Geraldton’s Barndimalgu Court – Australia’s first specialist Indigenous family violence court – was defunded this year for not showing “statistically significant” improvement on mainstream court outcomes, in a decision that overlooked other aims of the project.

Where to from here?

GRAMS chair Sandy Davies was insistent throughout the conference that it was aimed at producing action and solutions, and had to come up with at least half a dozen trials he could put on the ground locally by end June.

Those ideas are still to be finessed, but the meeting explored a range of broader potential directions too:

  • Gooda agreed with one delegate that the conference may not have been necessary had governments implemented all the findings of the Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody. He said exploring accountability on that could also be one of his final pieces of work as Commissioner.
  • Blagg said he would follow up the concern by delegates for research into the “knock-on effect” on families and communities from growing imprisonment of Indigenous women prisoners – and no doubt on Federal Government “safe community” priorities.
  • University of Western Australia researcher Craig Cumming asked for stronger input from frontline organisations in the Health In Prisoners in Australia (HIP-Aus) Project, which will aim to diminish recidivism through health policy and expects to have the largest ever prisoner health cohort ever, globally. “We are always looking for collaboration to inform baseline statistics on health issues, we need culturally appropriate interventions as well,” he said.
  • And, after some heated debate on how to structure such a body, the meeting agreed to set up a taskforce to progress the issues, with deep local roots but focused also on national change.

Croakey thanks Sandy Davies and the staff and management at the Geraldton Regional Aboriginal Medical Service for inviting Croakey to attend, and covering flight and accommodation costs. Croakey also thanks GRAMS for supporting our JustJustice crowd-funding campaign.


A selection of conference tweets (click on images for larger versions)


Meanwhile, thanks to the tweeters who had #JustJustice trending number one in Perth during the conference – and a particular shout-out to @DameyonBonson.

• We are looking for sponsors, donors and supporters for #JustJustice. Please support if you can.
Read more about the campaign here. 

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