TRUE OPINION: Are Labor serious about keeping their promises?

TRUE OPINION: If Labor are serious about Indigenous rights, prison reform is where it starts, writes Gary Johnston.

Warning: This article contains the name of a deceased Indigenous person

As Federal Labor stagger towards establishing an overall, albeit paper thin majority, the question must be asked: will there be a genuine commitment toward Indigenous rights? 

And when?

Back in May 2020, during the deep dark and dismal days of a worldwide lockdown, when all we could expect of the Australian Government was incompetence, sexual abuse and corruption – we were never disappointed – True Crime News Weekly conducted an interview with Labor’s then shadow minister Andrew Leigh.

Described as a ‘rising star’, Leigh to his credit was, at that time at least, one of a small group prepared to go public with the shocking issue of Indigenous incarceration.

During our interview, Leigh addressed the shameful reality that Indigenous Australians are 13 times more likely to be imprisoned than any other cultural group.

By way of context, the imprisonment rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in Victoria increased by 3.1%, from 1845.4 per 100,000 people in June 2020 to 1903.5 in June 2021. Since that time, the curve has continued upwards; never in Australia’s spotted colonial history have we locked up so many of the original inhabitants of the land, the oldest known civilisation on Earth. Of the near 41,000 people currently in custody across Australia, almost 13,000 are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

In Victoria and indeed nationwide, the trend is rising faster than Barnaby Joyce’s rosacea; completely ignored by the previous administration, it is now accepted by criminologists that Indigenous Australians comprise the most incarcerated cohort in the world. 

A disgrace? To say the least.

What’s more, when remand figures are factored in, Indigenous women are the fastest growing group, with 42% of remandees (all of whom are unsentenced and therefore presumed to be innocent) being ATSI.

Of course, this is not directly a Federal issue, since Section 120 of the Australian Constitution states that… “every State shall make provision for the detention in its prisons of persons accused or convicted of offences …” and the ridiculously punitive bail laws in Victoria for instance, have largely contributed to these figures in Australia’s ‘most liveable state’.

This however, shouldn’t mean Albanese’s Labor is off the hook.

Remanding people in custody or being sentenced to a short sentence of less than a year (another group in which Indigenous women are hugely over-represented), significantly restricts access to health and other programs, and marginalises the opportunity to address health issues in prison and plan for release, further compounding poverty and  social inequality.

LISTEN: Andrew Leigh speaks to True Crime News Weekly about crime and justice

Leigh himself acknowledged that imprisoning Aboriginal women, primary caregivers who have not been found guilty of any crime or have been convicted of minor offences, is contributing to the unacceptable number of Aboriginal children being removed from their families and their culture – a modern day Stolen Generation.

Disgrace simply doesn’t cut it.

It’s frankly, a national scandal.

What’s also tragically clear, is that this continued policy is contributing to Aboriginal deaths in custody.

On the last day of 2019, Yorta Yorta woman Veronica Marie Nelson was arrested in Melbourne for an alleged shoplifting offence. Later that afternoon, she was denied bail in the magistrates court and was then taken to the Dame Phyliss Frost Centre, one of only two such female institutions in Victoria.  

Over the course of the next several hours, Ms Nelson repeatedly used the emergency buzzer in her cell to ask for medical assistance.  Prison Officers told her she couldn’t see a doctor and administered basic medication and water through a cell door ‘flap’.

Between the hours 2am to 4am on January 2, Ms Nelson buzzed for help 11 times. She was told a nurse wasn’t available and that she was ‘keeping other prisoners awake’.

At 7.50am, Veronica Marie Nelson, less than 48 hours after being arrested, was found dead in prison cell number 40.

She died, in the eyes of the law, an innocent person.

In August 1987 – almost 35 years ago – The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was established to inquire why so many Aboriginal people die in custody and make recommendations with a view to preventing such deaths in the future.

The Royal Commission’s final report made 339 recommendations, chief amongst which was a sanction that imprisonment of Indigenous people be only used as a last resort.

The report also included recommendations for the calling of medical assistance if the condition of a detainee deteriorates; greater collaboration with Indigenous communities; improved access to records; and more broadly, to initiate a process of reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians.

At the time of the commission’s final report in 1991, Aboriginal people were eight times more likely to be imprisoned than non-Aboriginal people.

Today, more than 30 years later, that figure has almost doubled.

Of the 339 recommendations, only a fraction have been implemented.

Since 2004, the number of Indigenous people in custody has increased by 88%, compared to a 28% increase for non-Indigenous Australians.

In 1992, one in seven prisoners in Australian jails was Indigenous; in 2022 that ratio has risen to one in four.

Australia’s proportion of adult Indigenous prisoners ranges from 9% in Victoria, to 84% in the Northern Territory.

The estimated resident Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population of Australia is 3.3% of the total Australian population.

If, as expected, Andrew Leigh is awarded a position on Labor’s front bench, quite possibly as the Federal Justice Minister, we can only hope that his previous commitment to reducing this shocking imbalance, this national humiliation, is reflected in the new Government as a whole.

Otherwise, the new dawn, if that’s what it is, will simply be characterised in the following way: new racists, same as the old racists.

Andrew Leigh, Anthony Albanese, it’s over to you.

About Gary Johnston 79 Articles
Gary Johnston is an author, academic and former parole officer with decades of experience in the criminal justice system. He is True Crime News Weekly's Deputy Editor and Melbourne correspondent. His book 'No Previous Conviction' was published in May 2017 and is available on Amazon.

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