Australia needs its own Black Lives Matter movement to solve its huge Indigenous incarceration problem

The exterior of Don Dale youth detention centre in Darwin, Australia.
The exterior of Don Dale youth detention centre in Darwin, Australia.
Image: EPA/Neda Vanovac
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On July 25, Australian current affairs program Four Corners aired a report focusing on the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre, a former maximum-security prison repurposed to house underage offenders in Australia’s remote Northern Territory (NT). In this region, Indigenous Australians make up 30% of the total population but represent a staggering 86% of the prison population—and 97% of those in juvenile detention. The episode, titled “Australia’s Shame,” revealed adult Don Dale guards frequently terrorize and assault inmates as young as 11.

One boy, 14-year-old Dylan Voller, was shown being beaten by guards, repeatedly stripped naked in his cell, and strapped to a chair with mechanical restraints and a spit hood over his head for almost two hours. In other footage, Don Dale guards could be heard laughing as they tear-gassed a boy, with one guard encouraging his colleagues to let the boy come closer so he could “pulverize the little fucker”.

But what’s really horrific about the Don Dale revelations is that they aren’t revelations at all. Rights groups such as Amnesty International and the Law Council of Australia have been urging the NT government to act on the allegations since they first came to light in a report by NT children’s commissioner Colleen Gwynne, which was sent to the government in August 2015. A month later, Gwynne went public with further claims that Don Dale guards forced children to fight each other and eat animal faeces in exchange for junk food. But lawmakers—and the wider public—remained indifferent until graphic proof of that abuse was shoved under their noses.

The Four Corners episode is one of the first times in recent memory that localized outrage over the disproportionate abuse of Indigenous Australians has spilled over into the public sphere, both nationally and internationally. That it has taken this long to spark controversy is a matter of national shame: Australia’s record of racialized incarceration, deaths in custody, and maltreatment of Indigenous people in the justice system is a long and shameful one, and recent trends in populist, tough-on-crime lawmaking are only making things worse.

Indigenous Australians are among the most incarcerated people in the world, making up only 3% of the overall population of Australia but constituting 28% of the prison population and 54% of those in juvenile detention. While African Americans in the US are almost 6 times more likely to be incarcerated than whites, in Australia, Indigenous people are 13 times more likely to be jailed than non-Indigenous—double the rate of 25 years agoAustralia jails black men at a higher per-capita rate than late Apartheid-era South Africa. And in areas with significant Indigenous populations such as the Northern Territory (NT), Western Australia, and South Australia, the phenomenon is even worse.

The Four Corners report on Don Dale was met with widespread (if belated) public horror and condemnation, but the political response has been decidedly less emphatic. John Elferink was forced to resign his post as NT corrections minister, although he confusingly still retains the offices of attorney general, minister for justice, and minister for children and families. Any hopes that Elferink would receive more than a slap on the wrist were dispelled when his superior, NT chief minister Adam Giles, shortly after said Elferink should be “applauded” for his handling of the corrections system. Giles has also accused Four Corners of airing the program in an attempt to rig the upcoming NT election.

The response from the federal government was similarly inadequate. The morning after “Australia’s Shame” aired, prime minister Malcolm Turnbull announced a royal commission (a wide-ranging public inquiry) into the NT’s youth detention regime, but resisted calls to extend its scope nationwide. This is despite abundant evidence that the juvenile detention systems in other parts of Australia abuse and mistreat their young inmates—even this week, Amnesty International released footage of guards in a Queensland youth detention center stripping children and threatening them with dogs. Meanwhile, indigenous affairs minister Nigel Scullion said he was “unaware” of what had transpired inside Don Dale until the Four Corners program aired, as the allegations had not “piqued his interest.”

Australia’s politicians have every reason not to look too closely at what happened inside Don Dale, given that they created the conditions that led to it in the first place.

Australia’s justice system is largely administered by state and territory governments (territories are a region granted more-limited self-governing powers than the nation’s states). These governments are gripped by the same tough-on-crime mania that saw incarceration rates in the US skyrocket starting in the 1970s. While there’s belated recognition among US lawmakers (even Republican ones) that tough-on-crime policies do far more social and financial harm than good, Australian legislators are just getting started.

In 2010, NT chief minister Giles bragged of how he would like to “build a big concrete hole and put all the bad criminals in there,” even if it meant “break[ing] every United Nations convention on the rights of the prisoner.” In May, Giles’s government explicitly legalized the use of the mechanical chair and spit hood restraints on children as young as 10. Last year they also introduced “paperless arrests,” which allow NT police to detain people for up to four hours for minor offences without keeping records.

Unsurprisingly, these kinds of measures have lead to an explosion in the number of Indigenous people behind bars in recent years, especially those incarcerated for minor crimes and misdemeanors. These issues are compounded by severe overcrowding as prisons across the country attempt to cope with record numbers of inmates. Rather than explore other options, many state governments have responded to this crisis by spending billions building more jails and ramping up the number of private prisons.

The Australian governments’ eagerness to use the justice system as an instrument of punishment for political capital isn’t just targeting Indigenous people—it’s killing them, too. In 1991, another royal commission investigated the deaths of 99 Indigenous people in custody from 1980 to 1989. The commission found that the leading cause of Indigenous deaths in custody was the disproportionate rate at which Aboriginal people were being arrested, detained, and jailed.

Based on those findings, the royal commission handed down 339 recommendations designed to halt and reverse Indigenous over-representation, such as avoiding the imposition of jail terms for minor offenses and requiring police to use imprisonment only as a last resort. Of these recommendations, the vast majority have been almost completely ignored by state and federal governments. In the 25 years since the royal commission released its findings, another 365 black deaths in custody have been recorded.

Many of those post-1991 deaths could have been easily avoided if state governments had adopted the commission’s recommendations. In August 2014, 22-year-old Ms Dhu (whose first name has not been published for cultural reasons) died of sepsis while in police custody in Western Australia’s remote north region after being arrested over unpaid fines. During an inquest into her death, Dhu’s boyfriend, who was in the cell next to hers, alleged that officers laughed at her as she choked on her own vomit on the floor of her cell. In May 2015, 59-year-old Kumanjayi Langdon died in a Darwin “watch house” (a place where persons under temporary arrest are kept) after three hours in police custody under the paperless arrest system. And recently, on Aug. 12, 36-year-old Ms Maher died in a holding cell in the state of New South Wales.

Despite this pattern of preventable deaths, sustained public pressure to overhaul the criminal justice system in Australia remains largely absent. While America’s Black Lives Matter movement has gained significant media attention and forced concessions from presidential candidates in an election year, the work of Indigenous activists in Australia takes place in a far more indifferent and hostile environment. And their voice is nowhere near as loud.

Part of that has to do with simple demographics; Australia is a far smaller and more racially homogenous society than the United States, and many Indigenous communities are in remote areas routinely overlooked or ignored by the east-coast Australian media. The bald fact is that many Australians simply don’t care enough about the issue to press for ongoing, tangible change from lawmakers.

Even racialized breaches of justice that break through to the wider public consciousness fail to spark a hunger for change among white voters. In 2004, a 17-year-old Indigenous boy named TJ Hickey died in the inner-Sydney suburb of Redfern after being followed down an alleyway by a police car. He fell from his bicycle and became impaled on a fence post.

Rather than examining the facts of Hickey’s death, the public eye focused on an ensuing protest in Redfern that left 40 police officers injured. Media reports demonized Hickey as being “enmeshed in the netherworld of “The Block” in Redfern”, which is a historic center of Indigenous politics and activism in Sydney, and claimed police in the district were constantly under threat “from hordes of Aborigines [sic]”. Hickey’s family are still seeking a new inquest more than 12 years after his death.

Then there’s the case of Mulrunji Doomadgee, a 36-year-old man who died in a police watch house on Queensland’s Palm Island in 2014 with massive internal injuries. In what some first hoped would be a step forward, senior sergeant Chris Hurley was charged with causing Mulrunji’s death and put on trial. This was only the second time in Australian history that a police officer had been charged with an Indigenous death in custody.

But that unfortunately wasn’t the whole story. As recounted extensively in The Tall Man, an award-winning documentary by journalist Chloe Hooper exploring Mulrunji’s death and its aftermath, Hurley’s trial was dogged by social and institutional racism, evidence of police collusion and cover-ups, and adverse political influence exerted on the case by authorities. Queensland’s Crime and Misconduct Commission found that the investigation into Mulrunji’s death “failed the people of Palm Island, the broader Indigenous community, and the public generally”, and that the conduct of police “damaged public confidence in the integrity of the Queensland Police Service and its members”.

Yet that’s not what the Australian people initially saw. Buoyed by a wave of public support, the Queensland Police Union marched in the streets and threatened to strike if the charges against Hurley weren’t dropped.

Eventually, Hurley was not only acquitted, but also received a promotion. Several other officers involved in the case were also awarded commendations for bravery by Queensland Police. Last year Hurley, was suspended from duty for firing his weapon at a moving car, and in February he was accused of assaulting a policewoman.

And so goes the cycle of racialized injustice in Australia. A particularly heinous example of state violence against Indigenous people is brought to light; the nation is horrified for days or weeks while authorities defer and distract until media attention moves on; and then the cycle begins again, with the underlying causes still in place and no one held accountable.

The tone and scale of the reaction to the Don Dale scandal might be a sign that public sentiment is beginning to shift. But similar controversies have come and gone with little in the way of substantive change. When prime minister Turnbull’s new royal commission eventually hands down its findings on Don Dale—a process which could take years—public attention may very well have waned. Because of this lack of interest, Australia’s shame may go untreated for a long time.