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A problem kept locked away

Date

Ewa Kretowicz

Aborigines are over-represented in ACT's prison population, and the numbers are rapidly rising.

The Alexander Maconochie Centre, where on an average day a fifth of the male prisoners on remand are Aboriginal.

The Alexander Maconochie Centre, where on an average day a fifth of the male prisoners on remand are Aboriginal. Photo: Rohan Thomson

Ngambri elder Matilda House had one family member who was in and out of jail his whole life - while figures on the number of her extended Aboriginal family who have stayed at Her Majesty's pleasure are too difficult to count.

''I've had family there and it's just the way it is - it's a revolving door that the ACT government does not want to address.''

House has four children, 12 grandchildren and one great grandchild. She is the eldest of 10 children and grew up on two Aboriginal missions, one in Cowra and one in Yass.

Ngambri People elder Matilda House with Kevin Rudd.

Ngambri People elder Matilda House with Kevin Rudd. Photo: Andrew Taylor

And while a majority of Canberrans will never experience the feelings that go along with a family member being locked up, in the ACT Aboriginal community its viewed as almost inevitable.

On one average day last year, a fifth of the male prisoners locked up on remand at the Alexander Maconochie Centre were Aboriginal. Almost 14 per cent of those doing hard time also identified as Aboriginal.

What angers House is the fact that Aboriginal adults make up less than 2 per cent of the Territory's population.

Almost 23 years after the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody was released, the rates of incarcerated indigenous people are going up again.

The imprisonment of indigenous Australians in the ACT is 13 times higher than that of the general population.

Last year Western Australia's top judge, Chief Justice Wayne Martin, said the over-representation of indigenous people in the nation's prisons was getting worse.

Western Australia has the highest rate of Aboriginal incarceration - Aboriginal adults make up less than 4 per cent of the population, but 38 per cent of prisoners.

In the ACT, Aboriginal people make up less than 2 per cent of the population, but last year Aboriginal adults made up 13.6 per cent of the prison population.

That was up from 12 per cent the year before.

The 2011 census of population and housing found the resident population of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the ACT was 5183. However, about one in three were under 15 years of age, so per capita the over-representation of indigenous adults in the AMC is even higher.

When Aboriginal incarceration rates reached 38 per cent in WA last year, Chief Justice Martin said the system had failed despite the best efforts of the judiciary, legislators and non-government organisations and warned the situation was deteriorating.

However, the ACT Supreme Court Chief Justice, Terence Higgins, said the situation in the territory was not as bad.

''But the same comment would be justified … clearly, if the incarceration rate is higher than the general population, there is something wrong there and it needs to be addressed,'' Chief Justice Higgins says.

''Whatever we are doing, it's clearly not working.''

He says keeping people out of court should be the main objective.

Prison does not seem to have any deterrent or rehabilitative effect in preventing future offending. Australian Institute of Criminology figures show that more than half (58 per cent) of the 22,000 people in jail on June 30, 2002, had been previously imprisoned.

House says the trend is alarming. ''Even if the rates only go up a touch, it's still too much,'' she says.

In a forthcoming edition of the Australian Indigenous Law Review, an assistant law professor at the University of Canberra, Anthony Hopkins, argues that not enough weight is given to an indigenous person's history.

Hopkins practiced criminal law for Legal Aid in Alice Springs for four years before moving to the ACT.

''It's crazy, and it's just gone up and up. Nothing has changed from the royal commission, so we don't seem to be achieving much,'' Hopkins says.

He said the ACT had one of the highest rates of Aboriginal incarceration per capita.

''It's a hidden issue in the ACT and we don't pay nearly enough attention to it as other places, but if you looked at the prison you'd think we should,'' he says.

''I think part of that is that it is hard to get the courts here to take Aboriginality and the experience of being an Aboriginal person seriously, and I don't really know the reason for that.''

As a practical measure, he says the ACT government should put more weight on Aboriginality in pre-sentencing reports.

''Taking indigenous experience seriously in sentencing will often result in a rehabilitative focus, better calculated to reduce the prospects of recidivism,'' Hopkins says.

And he says that most of the illegal behaviour stems from disadvantage.

''If we're not addressing that disadvantage, [then] nothing will change … it's the experience of that disadvantage outside of court which is the nub of the problem.

''There is an ongoing and entrenched level of disadvantage in the Aboriginal community in the ACT.''

House wants to see more money spent on preventative drug and alcohol programs and education.

''All the Aboriginal organisations aren't being monitored by the government about how that preventative care is going on and how that money is being spent … those things could be run better … you can have four or five generations that could have been helped but weren't.

''It's got to drop because we are now in 2013, and no one would ever have envisioned that it would be the same. It's not dropping at all - it's heading back to the numbers that we had after the royal commission.''

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