Aboriginal people have been overrepresented in the incarceration system since the confederation; as old as the state itself. Remnants of Australia’s colonial past lay across Western Australia, from Rottnest Island on the southern coast—the final resting place of thousands of Aboriginal people who were imprisoned there from across the state—to the Boab Nut trees that were used to imprison Aboriginal inmates in Derby.
The 2017 census found Western Australian Aboriginals account for 37 per cent of the incarcerated adults in prisons, which is the highest in the nation. Being born Indigenous makes you 20 times more likely than a non-Aboriginal person to go to prison. This is the highest rate of incarcerated Indigenous people in the world.
These figures were widely distributed when a new report was released on the injustice of the incarceration system in Australia. They were then discussed on a nation-wide basis through news media, but the collective conscious forgot soon after.
Social Reinvestment Western Australia was a campaign founded in 2013 following the Banksia Hill Riots at Western Australia’s only youth detention centre. With over $400,000 worth of damage to prison facilities, the riots were covered by all major media outlets across the country.
Following the riot, Aboriginal leaders across Perth, afraid of seeing another generation in prison, formed the SRWA to reform the justice system in Western Australia. Sophie Stewart has worked as a campaign manager since 2016 and gathered 30 partner organisations, including Amnesty International, across the state in support of the program.
The SRWA’s approach to prison reform was founded and developed by the Texan government in the States, who saw a reduction of over 10,000 inmates in five years.
Stewart spoke enthusiastically about the campaign’s four-part program which focuses on reinvesting money from the justice system to divert youth at risk instead, creating culturally safe and effective programs, and rehabilitating and reintegrating offenders.
“We need to advocate for law reforms so people who aren’t a danger to the community, like poor single mothers who haven’t paid their fines, don’t need to be in prison,” says Stewart.
“SRWA wants to see a face of justice that doesn’t see generation upon generation of Aboriginal people being incarcerated,” Stewart said, “and we want to see healthy families, safer communities and smart justice, and that’s kind of what social reinvestment is all about.”
The problem does not just lie within the prison system. State legislation has been criticised for upholding legislative loopholes which unintentionally target Indigenous people. Perth’s fine default laws met international criticism after the death of Ms Dhu in 2016, who died in custody after not receiving appropriate medical treatment. Her crime? Only $3622 in overdue fines. Laws, like the imprisonment for fine default, have a punitive effect on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
Systemic violence is complex, and to resolve it would require massive cultural change. If a child is born in a lower socio-economic area, which increases the chance of lower educational and health outcomes, ultimately leading to an increased likelihood that child will be incarcerated, what is the appropriate response?
“One in twelve kids in Banksia Hill are from Armadale, so we know it’s a high-risk area … where there are people living in poverty there are social issues which puts the children in this community at a greater risk. So, we can follow that data and that evidence and then bring in evidence-based practice.”
Following the data means reinvesting money spent in prisons into education, health and housing to help families who may need the extra support within the Armadale area.
A study found that children aged six to 14 that have: had a parent who has been abused or neglected, or been supported by benefits; has a mother with no educational qualifications; or has had a parent who has had community or custodial sentence are eight times more likely to be in contact with youth Justices before 18. By finding the root of the problem of the generational imprisonment of Aboriginal people can be addressed effectively.
Often, when we neglect problems they fester and worsen. In the end, we are left to pick up the pieces and try again, a little bit wiser. SRWA acknowledges that creating long-lasting change in the intergenerational imprisonment of Indigenous people in this state requires a calculated response which considers past mistakes and future possibilities. With investment from the whole community, this intergenerational trauma of imprisonment can be healed collectively.