First Peoples as captives of the modern-nation state – literally!

The Northern Territory is as self-governing Territory of the Commonwealth of Australia, It is the one place in Australia with a large indigenous population where the Commonwealth can show its best practice in relation to First Peoples. It seems the Northern Territory Government will not rest until the entire indigneous population is in jail, to be refashioned to comply with non-indigneous ways of life.

“Indigenous incarceration rate jumps

The 7:30 report. Australian Broadcasting Corporation

Broadcast: 06/07/2009

Reporter: Murray McLaughlin

The grim report by the productivity commission last week on indigenous disadvantage revealed that for indigenous men, the rate of imprisonment increased by 27 per cent in the years between 2000 and 2008, and for women, by more than 40 per cent. Indigenous adults are now 13 times more likely than non-indigenous adults to be sent to gaol, and they’re much more likely to re-offend.


KERRY O’BRIEN, PRESENTER: Probably the single worst set of statistics in the grim report by the Productivity Commission last week on Indigenous disadvantage related to the jumps in the rates of imprisonment. For Indigenous men, the rate of imprisonment increased by 27 per cent in the years between 2000 and 2008; for women, by more than 40 per cent. Indigenous adults are now 13 times more likely than non-Indigenous adults to be sent to gaol, and they’re much more likely to reoffend. The starkest picture is in the Northern Territory, where the Government plans to build a new 1,000 bed gaol to accommodate an ever-increasing prison population. Murray McLaughlin reports from Darwin.”

MURRAY MCLAUGHLIN, REPORTER: Darwin’s old Fannie Bay Gaol is a landmark for tourists these days. It was shut down 30 years ago, one year after the Northern Territory attained self-government. And over those past 30 years, successive Northern Territory governments, Country-Liberal Party and Labor both, have competed to crank up law and order policies which have resulted in ever-increasing rates of imprisonment.

CHRIS CUNNEEN, CRIMINOLOGIST, UNSW: What we’ve seen is this constant auction on who can be the most draconian when it comes to law and order. And the result of that is that we’ve locked up ever-increasing numbers and the people that we lock up are inevitably the most marginalised people in our society, and in most cases their Aboriginal people.

MURRAY MCLAUGHLIN: Per head of population, the Northern Territory gaols more people by far than any other jurisdiction. Three times more than Western Australia, which has the next highest rate of imprisonment, and seven times more than Victoria. And of the Territory’s gaol population, more than 80 per cent are Aboriginal, although Aborigines represent only one third of the population.

DELIA LAWRIE, NT ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Look, any Australian jurisdiction that has a high number of Indigenous people has high Indigenous prisoner populations. We’ve got very high problems with alcohol abuse. We’ve also got very high domestic violence rates in our Indigenous community, and we’ve had a crackdown on domestic violence in terms of ensuring that offenders are brought to justice.

MURRAY MCLAUGHLIN: The latest figures from the Bureau of Statistics show a startling jump in the number of prisoners held in the Northern Territory’s two gaols. In the 12 months to the end of March, the prison population grew by 20 per cent to more than 1,100.

CHRIS CUNNEEN: Look, the Territory is just way out of kilter. Imprisonment rates have gone up throughout Australia, there’s no doubt about that, but they’re going up in the Territory at a very quick rate and they’re going up on top of what is already a very high rate.

MURRAY MCLAUGHLIN: The two year old federal intervention into Northern Territory Aboriginal communities is one likely cause of the recent surge of prisoner numbers.

18 new police stations have been quickly built on remote communities where there’s never before been a police presence.

DELIA LAWRIE: Putting specialist police units in to deal with domestic violence has shown through in the assault rates coming through and therefore prisoners in gaol. Also we’ve got more police in the areas where we didn’t have them before; under the work done between the Federal and Territory governments, there’s more police and police stations out in the bush. And so they’re following through on crimes that are committed there, which has seen an increased Indigenous prisoner cohort.

MURRAY MCLAUGHLIN: Most remarkable in the Northern Territory is the small number of offenders who receive community-based correction orders as an alternative to gaol. Elsewhere across Australia, there are two people in community-based corrections for everyone in gaol. In the Territory, that ratio is one to one, and the cost implications are immense.

CHRIS CUNNEEN: Non-custodial sentencing options run at about a 15th or a 20th of the price it costs to lock a person up in prison. I mean, we know prisons are extremely costly. They’re costly in terms of the monetary value, the infrastructure, development money that goes into building prisons, their operational costs.

MURRAY MCLAUGHLIN: Such is the stress on its two existing gaols that the Northern Territory Government has committed to spend $320 million on a new 1,000-bed gaol on the outskirts of Darwin. It’ll be the biggest ever infrastructure investment by the Northern Territory and advocates of alternatives to gaol are up in arms.

JOHN LAWRENCE, CRIMINAL LAWYERS ASSOCIATION: Spending $320 million on a new gaol is the road to nowhere, basically. It’s just same, same. That money, or a proportion of that money, should be invested in what is causing crime, namely addressing education, health, housing, employment.

GLEN DOOLEY, ABORIGINAL LEGAL AID: We say there’s no need for a new prison. We say that the current prison’s got the capacity to handle the prisoners that should be behind bars. Where that $320 million should be going is into the provision of preventative measures.

MURRAY MCLAUGHLIN: The Northern Territory Government says the new gaol will enable a new range of prisoner rehabilitation programs to be introduced.

DELIA LAWRIE: There’s no votes obviously in a new prison, but we believe very importantly in putting a decent prison in place so that people who are incarcerated have opportunity for the education and the rehab programs designed to prevent recidivist behaviour.

CHRIS CUNNEEN: If you lock up 1,000 people in a prison, it’s a large gaol, it’s much harder to run rehabilitative programs in a large prison like that. There’s usually a much greater concentration on management of prisoners rather than on programs and rehabilitation.

MURRAY MCLAUGHLIN: The Territory’s Chief Justice Brian Martin took an early interest in Aboriginal justice issues after his appointment five and a half years ago. Six months ago from the bench, he conceded that although his court has imposed higher sentences for crimes of violence, gaol is ineffective and not working as a deterrent.

GLEN DOOLEY: Aboriginal people created a whole alternative society within prison. I mean, that’s where you go to meet half your family, particularly if you’re a male. So this is not the stuff of deterrence, it’s simply using prison as a dumping ground for people in the too hard basket.

DELIA LAWRIE: There is no one magic bullet. If there was, we would’ve used it. You can’t turn around decades of neglect in a short period of time. What you’ve gotta do is put the programs and the resources and the effort in place to address the underlying symptoms.

MURRAY MCLAUGHLIN: But those programs and resources will take years to deliver benefits which might help decrease the Territory’s prison population. In the meantime, the Government remains committed to the new mega-gaol at a cost of one third of a billion dollars.

KERRY O’BRIEN: That report from Murray McLaughlin.