The current statistics tell us that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are in prison at 29-times the rate of non-Aboriginal people. This number is particularly concerning when we consider that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people represent only 3 per cent of the total Australian population.
Whilst it would be easy to gloss over these statistics and attribute them to some macro perspective, the reality is that we as a community need to do more to recognise and support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to reduce the vulnerabilities that lead to the over-representation of Indigenous people in custody.
From the time of white settlement in Australia, Aboriginal people have been dispossessed from their land, had their culture and kinship systems disrupted, been subject to racism and social exclusion and had to deal with the abhorrent practice of the removal their children in what we know as the stolen generation. The result of these things has led to intergenerational trauma that continues to have adverse effects on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people today. Issues such as poor educational outcomes, unemployment and under-employment, poverty, homelessness, mental health issues and challenges with alcohol and other drugs all have their geneses in European colonisation of Australia. The 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody found, among other things, that the high rates of Aboriginal deaths in custody were directly related to underlying factors of entrenched disadvantage, poor health, low unemployment and education, dispossession from their land and a lack of suitable housing.
Almost 30 years later, these issues are still the contributing factors to the over-representation of indigenous people involved with the criminal justice system. The question is, will the next 30 years look the same? Or will we as individuals and communities come together to promote and embrace genuine reconciliation with our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander brothers and sisters so together we can develop real solutions to the underlying issues that cause disadvantage. There is no doubt that Aboriginal people and Aboriginal-controlled organisations are best placed to lead the discussion and the direction of how and what can be done to address the issues. Equally, there is no doubt that non-Aboriginal people and agencies should stand in solidarity and do what we can to support the healing process in any way we can. At CatholicCare, we do this by actively seeking to partner with Aboriginal agencies as is reflected in our partnership with Ungooroo Aboriginal Corporation in the Upper Hunter where we partner to provide services to the local community in Singleton and Muswellbrook.
One of the keys to reducing the disproportionally high rates of indigenous people involved in the criminal justice system is to get to a place of social and economic inclusion that not only provides practical solutions like access to safe clean affordable housing, secure employment and access to services, but also address the underlying issues and attitudes of racism in our communities. To do this effectively we need a whole-of-community approach that sees adults role-modelling appropriate language and behaviours to our children as well as having honest conversations that help the up-and-coming generation understand the impact of European settlement on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and how that correlates to disadvantage in society today.
Part of CatholicCare’s response to addressing the issues of social and economic disadvantage is the employment of cultural planners who support and train foster carers in the development of cultural plans and culturally appropriate practices for Aboriginal children and young people in care. In addition to this we have an Aboriginal Reference Group, which advises our leadership team and staff about the development of culturally appropriate policy and practice.
Australia always has been and always will be Aboriginal land. The call to action for each of us is to build meaningful relationships with Aboriginal people based on deep levels of respect and understanding so we can listen and learn what it is that we can do to make a difference in our communities to ensure an inclusive, kinder and more just society for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.