Aborigine crisis: Some see 'no other way but jail'

June 28, 2011 - 10:00 AM
Australia Aboriginal Prisoners

Fabian Brown, an Aborigine with a long criminal record, stands outside an Aboriginal land administration building decorated with indigenous art in his home town of Tennant Creek in central Australia, Friday, June 24, 2011. Brown, known among Aborigines by his tribal name Jabangardi, is usually jobless, addicted to alcohol and has been in and out of prison since he was 17 for crimes of violence and theft. (AP Photo)

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Fabian Brown, known among Aborigines by his tribal name Jabangardi, is usually jobless, addicted to alcohol and has been in and out of prison since he was 17.

His story is all too common among Aborigines in Australia's Outback. A parliamentary report last week called the situation a national crisis, noting the imprisonment rate for indigenous Australians has soared 66 percent in the past decade.

The report underscores how little progress Australia has made — despite more than 40 years of targeted federal policies — in lifting up a section of its population that is beset by crime, poor health, domestic violence and alcoholism while living on the fringes of society.

At the time of white settlement in 1788, the Aborigine population was estimated to be as high as 1 million. Their numbers crashed dramatically because of new diseases, brutal treatment from colonists, the loss of traditional lands as well as social and cultural disintegration.

Aborigines now number 517,000, or 2.3 percent of the country's 22.6 million people. Yet, about 25 percent of Australia's adult prison population is Aboriginal, according to the report.

It found that Aboriginal children account for 59 percent of inmates in Australian juvenile detention centers and are 28 times more likely than other Australian children to be detained.

"Some think that there's no other way but jail," Brown said in a telephone interview from his hometown of Tennant Creek in the central Australian desert.

Brown, 43, who has served time for violent crimes and theft, has managed to stay out of prison for the last two years. He sometimes works as a court interpreter for the many indigenous defendants who can't speak English.

"Some think they're powerful and they can do anything," he said. "Teenage boys, girls — they don't worry about getting into trouble."

He said he knows of adolescent Aboriginal boys who regard a stint in a juvenile detention center as a rite of passage to manhood.

Some Aborigines prefer their regimented lives in prison to their squalid existence in often chaotic indigenous camps on the fringes of Tennant Creek, he said.

Desert temperatures drop to freezing overnight and many indigenous inmates get sick in prison, Brown said. "It's cold and there is no warm clothing," he said.

Brown acknowledges alcohol is a common thread in his own criminal history, yet he continues to drink. He stays out of trouble these days by being more careful whom he drinks with.

"Alcohol is usually a factor. Most of the middle-aged boys I know have been to jail," said Brown of his dying gold mining town where more than a third of the 3,000 townsfolk are Outback Aborigines like him.

Tennant Creek attempted to curb rampant alcohol abuse a decade ago by closing all liquor stores on the day that Aborigines received their welfare checks. Aboriginal families could then spend money on food and bills on so-called "Thirsty Thursday" before the drinking resumed on Friday.

Thirsty Thursday no longer exists because of bureaucratic changes that allow welfare recipients to choose their pay days.

The parliamentary report adds to the litany of well-documented but grim statistics about Aborigines: They die a decade younger than other Australians, have far higher rates of disease, live on incomes one-third lower than others, have a literacy rate far lower than other ethnic groups, and endure an unemployment rate of 16 percent while fewer than 5 percent of other Australians are looking for work.

"We must act now before we lose another generation to the criminal justice system," said Mick Gooda, a government-appointed Aboriginal social justice commissioner.

The 346-page parliamentary report by a committee of seven government and opposition lawmakers specializing in indigenous issues makes 40 recommendations to attack underlying causes for young Aborigines getting in trouble with police such as high unemployment, low education and alcoholism.

It found that alcohol set many Aborigines on a course toward prison even before they were born — one in 40 Aborigines is estimated to suffer from brain damage, known as fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, as a result of their mothers drinking alcohol while pregnant, it said.

Such children have difficulty concentrating and are prone to behavioral problems. Most teenagers who suffer the disorder get in trouble with police, the report said.

It recommended the government recognize the disorder as a registered disability, opening it up to government funding.

The report also found that 70 percent of Outback Aboriginal adults are at least partially deaf. As children, they suffer more middle ear diseases than other Australians because of unsanitary living conditions and a lack of medical care. This deafness has negative consequences for their school attendance and their experiences with police, courts and detention centers, the report said.

Attorney General Robert McClelland said the "alarming statistics" would redouble his efforts with state governments to find alternatives to jail, particularly for less serious offenses such as failure to pay fines and unlicensed driving.

But Paul Wilson, a Bond University professor of criminology and forensic psychology, doubts there will be much change because political parties compete with each other to show they are tough on crime, resulting in a higher number of arrests.

"There's not much sympathy for criminals whether they be indigenous or non-Aboriginal offenders," Wilson said.