Failure to keep us safe

3 June 2021 | Posted In: #139 Winter 2021,

Until it is properly acknowledged that centuries of ill-treatment of Aboriginal people is linked to our imprisonment and deaths in custody, our circumstances will not improve, writes Meena Singh.

Governments on both sides of politics tell us that law-and-order policies combat crime; that by charging and detaining more people, by giving ever-increasing budgets to police, by building more and bigger prisons, our communities will be kept safe.

But the evidence tells a very different story. Keeping us safe starts much, much earlier. Our health system knows this. Prevention is far better than treatment. During COVID-19, the public health response has centred on keeping us safe by preventing its spread, because if we prioritise treatment, more people will be exposed, get sick and die. So why doesn’t the criminal legal system use the same approach?

When I practised criminal law, I could clearly see the point in a person’s life when things started to go wrong; when life spiralled out of control as one negative event — like losing a job or falling sick — led to another, and they became trapped in the revolving doors of the justice system.

Financial instability led to repeatedly moving for employment or cheap housing, which led to children missing out on school. Trauma from family violence or child abuse led to disconnection from family which led to homelessness and low self-worth which led to self-medication and criminal activities.

Any of these experiences could upend a life that was otherwise on track to be long and healthy. With so much evidence reinforcing the connection between socio-economic disadvantage, trauma, disability, family violence and abuse with behaviour that traps people in the criminal legal system, we need to ask why society does not look after its most vulnerable better.

Thirty years ago, the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody found that Aboriginal people were more likely to die in custody than non-Aboriginal people because we were more likely to be in custody in the first place. Sadly in these 30 years little has changed. Aboriginal people are still being locked up and dying in prison at alarming rates. In the month to Easter, five Aboriginal people died in custody.

Right now, we represent three percent of the Australian population, but make up nearly 30 percent of the prison population. If non-Aboriginal prisoners were dying at the rates that Aboriginal prisoners are, there would be outrage. But — as we’ve seen too often — black lives truly don’t matter. Most of the ‘events’ that could upend an individual life 30 years ago continue to destroy Aboriginal lives today.

Why? Because of colonisation, and the racism at its core. Too often, colonisation is framed as something that happened over 200 years ago. As long as we continue to believe the devastation of colonisation is only in the past, we can never heal. The dispossession of land took away our ancestors’ connection to home. The same land was given to white people to use and prosper from; to pass down to their children and create intergenerational wealth.

Policies to stop Aboriginal people speaking their own language prevented cultural practices and intricate knowledge being passed between generations. Aboriginal children who were removed from their families were often abused and forced into slave labour. This undermined cultural and familial identity and was often accompanied by the deliberate and sustained entrenchment of disadvantage through the denial of wages and exclusion from work.

When a community sustains this kind of ill-treatment for over 200 years, the trauma is long lasting and deep. Until it is properly acknowledged as the source of Aboriginal overrepresentation in arrest rates, imprisonment and deaths in custody, our lives will not improve.

When people ask me why Aboriginal people offend so much, I try to look through their lens; to find the question they are actually — or should be — asking. What keeps us safe, and what will stop more deaths in custody? The answer most definitely is not the quick fix of big prisons and tougher bail legislation.

Instead, we need to invest in social and legal infrastructure that doesn’t remove Aboriginal people from society, but supports us to engage and grow — education, family, housing, mental health and wellbeing support. Aboriginal people need our lives to be valued, and our history and culture to be known and accepted. This is the investment that lays the foundations for generations to grow stronger.

This is what keeps us safe.

  • Meena Singh, a Yorta Yorta and Indian woman, born and living on the land of the Kulin Nations, is the legal director of the Human Rights Law Centre.
  • An edited extract courtesy of Indigenous X