Some Plain Speaking About Indigenous Deaths in Custody

I have often written about my dismay about indigenous disadvantage. Despite the fact that many indigenous people are prospering and contributing positively to Australian society, there is still a significant cohort experiencing undue hardship including domestic violence, poor educational outcomes, significant health issues and high levels of incarceration.

An emblematic issue for indigenous people has been deaths in custody. It has been thirty years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody handed down its final report. Many indigenous spokesmen and activists maintain that despite the Royal Commission nothing has really changed and inordinate numbers of indigenous people still die in custody.

Unfortunately this debate has been clouded by misinformation. The per capita rate of deaths among incarcerated indigenous people in custody has in fact been lower than the rate of deaths of those incarcerated from the general population. To put it bluntly, an incarcerated indigenous person is less likely to die than a non-indigenous person.

Moreover, activists have tried to prosecute a case that indigenous deaths in custody were exacerbated by ill-treatment of indigenous people by the police. However many indigenous deaths in custody result from natural causes because of the poor health of indigenous people often compromised by alcohol and drug abuse.

The fact the per capita deaths of indigenous people in custody are less than the population at large seems to be reluctantly becoming accepted by indigenous activists. This is not surprising because the statistics are pretty clear. As a result the activists have refocussed their attack to elevate indigenous victimhood.

So now the problem has become not the propensity of an indigenous person to die in custody but the high levels of incarceration of indigenous people compared with the population at large.

The two principal strategies proposed to counter this seem to be to:

  1. Be more lenient in prosecuting indigenous people for minor offences, and
  2. Develop more diversionary options for young indigenous people entering the criminal justice system.

The first option is an anathema to me. I believe that the law of the land should be applied in a non-discriminatory way. We must treat all people equally regardless of race.

There is merit in dealing more productively with indigenous youth (or indeed any youth) who are incarcerated. It would no doubt be preferable if they emerged from prison with more positive attitudes towards society. Otherwise, according to anecdotal evidence, they often emerge having learnt more criminal skills and attitudes which almost guarantees reoffending.

But all this ignores the elephant in the room. The root problem that results in indigenous people being disproportionately represented in the prison population is that they commit more crimes on average than the population at large.

Again we need to ensure that we don’t fall into the inappropriate use of racial stereotypes. Many indigenous people have assimilated seamlessly into our society and live law-abiding and productive lives. But a significant number have not. It is on these miscreants we need to concentrate our efforts if inroads into this seemingly intractable problem are to be made.

And when we look at the plethora of indigenous crime, particularly in the remote communities, the outstanding feature is that most of that crime is directed towards other indigenous people. So despite the protestations of victimhood emanating from colonisation and the “stolen generation” which they maintain were imposed on them by the historical actions of white oppressors, their violent responses are felt most by their own vulnerable women and children.

Being a citizen of Australia, wherever you live and whoever you are, confers benefits but also obligations. The benefits are many, but relevant to this problem are the welfare payments that are designed to help the disadvantaged. The obligations are to comply with the law. Some indigenous people seem bent on claiming the benefits without being constrained by the obligations. But this is not a particular trait of dysfunctional indigenous people, it is a trait frequently displayed by other citizens who through their abandonment of socially appropriate behaviour seek to take advantage of the largesse that a benevolent society provides. But indigenous people disproportionately break the law which leads to the lopsided statistics about indigenous incarceration.

Most of us learn what is socially appropriate from the early socialisation we receive in our family environment. This is reinforced by the tuition of our parents and the example of significant role models. Many of the indigenous offenders come from dysfunctional communities where there are few intact families and children are surrounded by many who have no respect for the law. That is the root problem that leads to inflated numbers of criminal offenders. Turning a blind eye to juvenile indigenous offenders or even doing something positive like providing more diversionary options for young offenders won’t have much effect if this root cause is not addressed.

I confess that I don’t have all the answers to this difficult question but because it is difficult doesn’t provide a justification to tiptoe around it. It must be confronted if we are ever to resolve the issue of indigenous dysfunction.

But I would like to make two final observations.

First, education is part of the solution. Statistics show that indigenous youth that complete secondary education have social outcomes little different from the societal norms. But I suppose this just reinforces the need for proper parental support because indigenous children are unlikely to persevere with schooling without such support.

I know how hard this is for some young people. I spent some time as the chair of the board of an indigenous school. I remember talking to a young lady who was the dux of the school. She told me how hard it was to concentrate on her studies. To begin with she and her family lived in a tent and the opportunity to study was curtailed by these living arrangements. What’s more, although her parents were proud of her achievements whenever she gained an award or some other accolade, her family urged her to go with them to the local pub to celebrate!

The Australian Indigenous Education Foundation seems to achieve good results by taking indigenous youth from their local communities and placing them in some of our more elite schools. The success of such interventions are twofold. Firstly the young people are given a good education. But just as importantly they are exposed to a culture that reinforces mainstream Australian values.

Secondly, in their misguided attempts to ensure that they don’t contribute to another “stolen generation” indigenous children who are removed from their families for their own safety are often placed back into those families or families of their kin by government authorities. In trying to preserve connections with often dubious notions of indigenous culture these children are thrown back into the scrap heap of family dysfunction from which they are unlikely to escape. Indigenous children are being sacrificed at the altar of indigenous culture (or some confected imitation of it) when there are many families who would be prepared to accept these children and offer them a more stable environment to nurture their proper development.

8 Replies to “Some Plain Speaking About Indigenous Deaths in Custody”

  1. Quite so Ted, not provocative at all, just straightforward stuff, all know its correct…. Jsu that some people don’t want truth, they want slogans and they want to blame the system, the government, the white people, the men the Church, the bosses, everyone else with they themselves the only purely clean ones …the list goes on of course, anti-establishment running riot…… As time goes by I find I’m agreeing every so often with you, a very disturbing trend…..Yours Jack

    1. Well we can’t have that Jack – your agreeing with me. I’d better write another essay on religion to give you something to disagree with!

  2. Well written as always Ted. You touched on the causation of indigenous deaths in custody, that being underlying health issues, but we must also consider other factors. How many die in custody by their own hand or that of another prisoner? How do the overall causes of death compare to the non-indigenous population? I think it is far too simplistic to treat each death in custody as yet another example of indifference by predominantly white authorities as the activists would argue. Stop committing criminal offences and therefore stop incarceration. Why is that so difficult to understand? Thanks for a good read.

  3. Ted this is an important topic well illuminated in former MP Gary Johns’ 2011 book “Aboriginal Self-Determination: the Whiteman’s Dream”. Johns examines in detail the three Aboriginal issues that are still touted today: stolen generation, Hindmarsh Island secret women’s business and deaths in custody. None has been proven: stolen generation cases have collapsed; Hindmarsh Island furore was based on lies by Aboriginal women and the deaths in custody RC knew within weeks that more whites died in custody that aborigines, yet the RC continued for three years. Johns believes that the focus on these three issues, however baseless, has held back Aboriginal development by creating victimhood now cultivated by activists.
    What never comes out in the issue of aboriginal incarceration is the incidence of FASD (foetal alcohol syndrome disorder) and its life long impact on learning and behaviours leading to incarceration. In addition, there is inadequate early nutrition that results in poor brain growth during 1-18 months, never to be regained. A teacher in several remote communities says FASD rate can be as much as 25%. The Don Dale riots are likely FASD affected youth. A couple of nephews have been attacked with knives and screwdrivers in their own home by aboriginal youth fridging (stealing alcohol from fridges) yet offences are passed over in deference to the aboriginality of offenders.
    While there is a long way to go to achieve parity with “whites”, rarely do we hear how far aborigines have come. For instance, at the turn of the 19th into the 20th century, infant mortality, morbidity and life span was common between blacks and whites. Since then, whites have been better disposed to take advantages of education, health and sanitation to create the “gap” . Aborigines are still living about two decades longer than they were then.

  4. Ted,
    You are correct, and your argument is well established, but people do not want to hear difficult truths, feel good emotion is much easier for the self righteous.

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