Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Indigenous incarceration under scrutiny

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders make up almost 25 per cent of Australia's prison population, on the most recent figures. This is nearly double the rate identified as a concern by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody more than two decades ago.

The figures, from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, show Indigenous Australians are 13 times more likely to be in jail as others.

Steve Larkin from the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies says the Indigenous prison population has grown in the decades since the Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody, but that no-one knows exactly why.

"What we're concerned about is having an impact on reducing the rate of recidivism and getting people who might be incarcerated who are re-offending, who are continually ending up back in prison, we want them out of there," Mr Larkin said.

Now the report by the Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, the Cooperative Research Centre for Aboriginal Health and the Public Health Association has outlined some ways to achieve those goals.

More research is needed, they say, to track what options and services people are offered before they go to jail and when they are in prison.

Mr Larkin says they want an audit of health services in jails and of services for prisoners after release.

"We want to look at what are the social determinants of offending behaviour and why people reoffend, what opportunities are provided to people within the prison environment to ensure that they are able to achieve and sustain a good state of health," he said.

Drug use

One Indigenous offender who has made his way out of a mire of drug abuse and imprisonment is 26-year-old John Van Den Dungen.

He was the Young Australian of the Year for the ACT last year, earning the honour after setting up a support service for Aboriginal drug users.

But that was after he spent two months' in the Goulburn Correctional Centre.

"Started smoking pot at an early age, about 12, and started drinking around that age as well, ended up in the illicit drug use scene at about 16, 17, obviously to support my habit, started doing time," he said.

Mr Van Den Dungen says it was hard to get medical attention in jail, but easy to get drugs.

"No, there's no problems about getting drugs in jail, there was a lot of pot in there, a lot of gear comes through there, a lot of amphetamines," he said.

The CEO of the Public Health Association, Michael Moore, says efforts to address drug use in jails have so far failed.

"Huge efforts have been made to stop [the] use of drugs in prison. They've not been successful," he said.

"All that happens is that they become much more dangerous.

"And what we have to do is try and understand, and that's what this research is about, trying to understand why it is that these people have wound up in prison instead of in treatment, what it is we need to do to try and ensure first of all a reduction in harm associated with their own drug use but also for the broader community, the reduction in the spread of HIV, hepatitis C and other blood-borne viruses."

Medical attention

From Mr Van Den Dungen's experience behind bars, drugs were not the only health issue.

He says doctors visited only rarely.

"Physical health problems, wounds that weren't tended to, just not being able to see the doctor and fellows who would cut themselves. A lot of mental issues," he said.

The three groups that have joined forces to highlight the need for more research now need researchers to take over and find out how prisoner health and support services can be improved for Indigenous people.

Mr Moore says he already knows what one of the main problems is - the Federal Government's policy on Medicare in prisons.

"We would think that one of the issues coming out of the research would be presenting a case for [the] Government to extend Medicare to all its Australian citizens and most of us would think that probably is already the case," he said.

"But it should be extended to people in prison as part of a whole process.

"There is research going on at the moment. What we're interested in doing is making sure that it's prioritised and appropriately funded so that when governments make health decisions about prisoners, decisions about whether people go to prison or not, that they do so in the understanding of good evidence."


Indigenous population hits 500,000
Population mark: An ANU expert says the Indigenous population is back to 1788 levels. New figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics say Australia's Indigenous population has reached 500,000, or 2.5 per cent of the total population.

No comments: