An Independent Inquiry into Systemic Racism at the AMC

Thank you, Madam Speaker.

I am pleased to bring this motion before the Assembly this morning. I do so on behalf of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Canberrans who have specifically asked this of me. I am honoured to be trusted to speak in this place on behalf of them – to raise their concerns and to bring their petition to this government.

I first want to acknowledge some ACT Government commitments. These commitments are important, Madam Speaker, because, when it comes to Indigenous incarceration rates, the ACT is performing very poorly. The latest Prisoners in Australia Report shows that Canberra had the nation’s highest overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in prison: 21.3 times greater than for non-Indigenous people using crude rates, 19 times greater using age-standardised rates.[1] The 2020 report from the Productivity Commission, which looks at average daily numbers but uses older data, reveals similar figures. The crude imprisonment rate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the ACT across 2018–19 was 18.93 times greater than for non-Indigenous people – just slightly behind Western Australia.[2] And when the crude data are adjusted according to age-standardised rates, the ACT has the worst ratio of overrepresentation in the nation, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people one-third more likely to be locked up than in Australia as a whole.[3]

I therefore welcome the government’s 2019 commitment to provide $1.35 million in justice reinvestment funding to help address Indigenous incarceration rates in the ACT.[4] Justice reinvestment, as defined by the Australian Law Reform Commission, ‘involves the redirection of resources from the criminal justice system into local communities that have a high concentration of incarceration’.[5] Done right, this approach addresses the causes of offending, both reducing the rate and creating savings. Locking people up is not just expensive but very often damaging. Spending on justice reinvestment measures is therefore good for budgets but, far more importantly, good for families, people and communities. ‘As Change the Record, a coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, human rights and community organisations, said in their Blueprint for Change … : “invest in communities not prisons”’.[6] To be effective, a justice reinvestment approach must be done with care and wisdom, but I sincerely hope, Madam Speaker, that the ACT Government will succeed at this endeavour for everyone’s sake.

I likewise support the government’s promise, announced in August last year, to commission a review of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander overrepresentation in the territory’s incarceration rates.[7] I am keen to see this review go forward and, hopefully, help lead to good outcomes. I was also happy to read over the weekend that the Chief Minister has agreed that more ambitious targets for reducing the rate of Indigenous incarceration and recidivism in the ACT need to be on the agenda.[8] The government’s goal of a mere five-per-cent reduction by 2028 is simply not good enough.[9] So now we need the government to be proactive with this agenda and not just talk.

But the rate at which they and their kin are locked up is not the only issue for First Nations people in Canberra, Madam Speaker. As I have listened to those who have spoken with me, it has become clear that the actual experience of incarceration is a concern as well. An incident that was reported in the media a year ago provides a glimpse into some of what has contributed to these worries. This incident, which I choose not to discuss in detail, involved a drawing of a hangman game on a whiteboard in a staff-only area of the prison, with the hanged figure labelled with the name of an Indigenous detainee. This incident was of course roundly condemned by all involved, but it certainly emphasises the vulnerabilities that can be experienced by those who, deprived of many of their freedoms, may find themselves dependent on those who do not respect them.

But this motion is not about the racist actions of any one individual or group of individuals. Interactions between people that ‘communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults’ can be labelled as ‘interpersonal racism’.[10] Such occurrences are relatively easy to recognise and reject. In contrast, the subject of this motion is institutional or systemic racism, which can be defined as the ‘sometimes unconscious and unintentional embedding of practices, polices or processes within systems or institutions that maintain and reproduce avoidable and unfair inequalities’.[11] Essential to the concept of institutional racism is a focus on the outcomes of activities and processes rather than on the intentions and attitudes of any individual involved.[12] The best, most decent and most fair people may operate within systems that nonetheless contribute to avoidable inequalities.

This is specifically the kind of racism that the Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs recently acknowledged almost certainly exists in the territory’s prison. To quote her: ‘There is systemic racism right across our community, and I think it would be naïve to think any part of the ACT Government is the one place where systemic racism doesn’t exist’. The minister is right; this kind of racism is certainly common. But as I mentioned above, a prison is no ordinary place: it is a place where detainees are placed in an unnatural state of dependence and therefore vulnerability. And this inevitably amplifies any incidence of institutional racism. In other words, if we are going to put forth efforts to stamp out systemic racism, Madam Speaker, a place of incarceration should be one of the very first places where we start – especially when one group of people, already carrying the multigenerational trauma of displacement and dispossession, make up such a large cohort of those affected.

It is for this reason that Standard 57 of the ‘Healthy Prisons Review’ insists that ‘the distinct cultural rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander detainees, also protected in the Human Rights Act 2004 (ACT), [must be] met’.[13] As noted by the report on the Australian Human Rights Commission’s inquiry into Indigenous deaths in custody, these rights include, for example, recognising ‘the special kinship and family obligations of Aboriginal prisoners and [giving] favourable consideration to requests for permission to attend funeral services and burials and other occasions of very special family significance’.[14]

The appeal that has been specifically put to me, both by Ngunnawal and other First Nations people, is for an independent, external inquiry. As a Victorian inquiry found, Indigenous Australians often have a ‘lack of confidence in justice and related institutions’.[15] This certainly appears to be the case here in the ACT. For example, the ‘Healthy Prison Review’ notes that 43 per cent of detainees at the AMC ‘reported that their needs as an Indigenous person were “rarely” or “never” met’, and fully 20 per cent of staff felt that the AMC does not respect or recognise the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.[16] Beyond this, Madam Speaker, are the people who have shared their personal experiences and the stories of their kin with me. They have made it clear that they have lost confidence in the system and that something needs to happen to regain their trust.

Consequently, all those who have approached me have insisted that an inquiry must be truly independent and external to the government. Anything less in their eyes will be insufficient to help restore their trust in an institution that affects people they know and care about.

My motion calls for this independent inquiry to develop advice and recommendations, the implementation of which can then be tracked by this Assembly. It is my strong belief, Madam Speaker, that this is the right, fair and respectful thing to do. We owe it to the territory’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to listen to those who have raised these concerns and to take this action. I commend this motion to the Assembly. Thank you.

[1] Australian Bureau of Statistics, ‘Prisoners in Australia, 2020’, Table 17. [2] Productivity Commission, ‘Report on Government Services 2020: Correction Services’, Table 8A.6. [3] Ibid. [4] 2019/$1.35m-in-justice-reinvestment-funding-to-help-address-indigenous-incarceration-rates. [5] Australian Law Reform Commission, ‘Pathways to Justice – An Inquiry into the Incarceration Rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples’, 2017, p. 125. [6] Ibid., p. 135. [7] [8] [9] Ibid. [10] Government of Western Australia, Aboriginal Health Policy Directorate, ‘Understanding Institutionalised Racism’, 2017, p. 2. [11] Ibid. [12] Harry Blagg et al., ‘Systemic Racism as a Factor in the Over-representation of Aboriginal People in the Victorian Criminal Justice System’, Sept. 2005, p. 7. [13] ACT Inspector of Correction Services, ‘Healthy Prison Review of the Alexander Maconochie Centre 2019’, p. 90. [14] Australian Human Rights Commission, Indigenous Deaths in Custody, chapter 8 ‘Custodial Conditions’, recommendation 171. [15] Ibid., p. 6. [16] ‘Healthy Prison Review’, p. 90.

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