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Indigenous incarceration: an extension of the Protection Era

4 Nov 2021

Policies that continue to disproportionately inflict violence and disruption on First Nations people show we are still a penal colony

First Nations people and communities are the most legislated group within Australia. From the time the first fleet arrived, our mob has been controlled under the guise of protection. Australia was invaded and utilised as a penal colony, and we continue to be a penal colony to this day.

Policies of “protection” were enacted across Australia which demanded complete government control over all aspects of the lives of Aboriginal people including the removal of First Peoples from their homelands and Country on to missions and reserves. While Indigenous people were being controlled under the facade of protection, our mob were not yet intimately acquainted with criminal systems. Police played a key role in enforcing protection legislation. The policies and practices of protection, assimilation and child removal were deeply rooted in racist beliefs and left a legacy of grief, loss and trauma that continues to impact on First Nations people, families and communities today.

While the historical era of “protection” has dissipated, such controls have manifested in new forms through our legal systems. The racially driven and carceral nature of missions and reserves was gradually superseded by the institutional growth of the child protection, youth and adult “injustice” systems. Systems that continue to disproportionately inflict violence, disruption and devastation for First Nations people, families and communities.

Currently, First Nations people are 17 times more likely to be under child protection supervision than non-Aboriginal families and the numbers of Aboriginal children in out of home care is projected to double in size by 2028. Not only are First Nations people arrested at unacceptably high rates, we are imprisoned at the highest rate in the world.

Although First Nations adults consist of around 3% of the national population, our people constitute 27% of Australia’s national prison population. Disproportionate rates of imprisonment have continued to rise despite declining rates of crime.

While the primary drivers for mass incarceration are often external to the criminal legal system, where extreme levels of poverty, disadvantage and trauma contribute to the elevated levels of justice system involvement for First Nations people and communities, the system is also to blame. Structural racism and bias is evident at every facet of the legal system and disproportionately affects First Nations people. Every single step taken by a First Nations person through the criminal legal system is unjust. Aboriginal people are much more likely to be questioned by police, more likely to come to the attention of police, more likely to be arrested rather than proceeded against by summons. If arrested, we are more likely to be remanded in custody than given bail and more likely to plead guilty than go to trial, and if we go to trial, we are more likely to be convicted. If convicted, we are more likely to be imprisoned, and at the end of the term of imprisonment we are less likely to get parole.

Understanding and truth telling about the nexus between racism, structured segregation, government modes of control and regulation is critical to addressing the hyper incarceration of First Peoples of Australia in the current criminal legal system.

The culmination of lived and professional experience of my husband Keenan Mundine and me, coupled with the ineffectiveness of the current colonial systems that are in place and the ongoing harm and violence experienced by our communities, inspired us to establish an organisation that addresses the effects of systemic racism, trauma, disadvantage, and poverty on the mass incarceration and over-representation of First Nations people in the justice and child protection systems.

Deadly Connections was established to provide culturally safe advocacy, support, information, referrals and programs for First Nations people, families and communities. In Aboriginal English, “deadly” means excellent or really good. Deadly Connections focuses on promoting healing and justice by implementing alternative justice solutions that focus on transformative justice and community driven initiatives. Our work aims to positively disrupt the intergenerational disadvantage, grief, loss, and trauma of First Nations people by providing holistic and culturally responsive services.

Being a part of the UNHEARD campaign and documentary series now on Amazon Prime Video is a critical step in highlighting the needs for organisations like Deadly Connections, addressing racism, inequity and social justice issues, into the wider domain for the public to see and understand. By engaging in an initiative like this we can amplify our voices and the voices of other mob, to raise awareness and support for much needed changes to the system/s that continue to harm, oppress, marginalise and disenfranchise our people, families and communities.

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