–An overview of the context for this presentation is the findings of the 1987-1991 Australian Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.
–The Commission’s Report was prompted by activism from the Committee to Defend Black Rights, who found one aboriginal person died in police custody or jail every 11 days from 1980-1987 (Anthony 2016).
–Institutional racism, procedural incompetence and cover-ups prevalent amongst police; E.G., the 1987 death of Lloyd James Boney, found dead 90 minutes after a violent arrest. Police officers were not separated during the investigation; no probing or testing of the police officer’s defensive evidence occurred (Indigenous Law Resources, N.D).
–Despite the report drawing clear links between wider discrimination and deaths in custody—observing that often Aborigines were more likely to die in custody because they are more likely to be arrested and charged with carceral sentences—little has changed since its publication.
–Many of the structural forms of discrimination remain strong or have intensified. E.G., the reports recommendation for better duty of care and attention to indigenous Aborigines has not materialised. Of note for this introduction is that the rates of Aboriginal deaths in custody have actually increased since the report (Anthony 2016).
–It should be noted that the report did not claim officers were murdering Aborigines; rather, there was institutionalised neglect of duty of care for vulnerable prisoners.
–This presentation wants to examine the nature of the link between wider societal racial discrimination and the high arrest and incarceration rates of members of the Aboriginal community.
First the state of racial discrimination against indigenous Aboriginal populations should be examined.
Brief history: Australia is embedded in history of colonialism. European British settlers engaged in ethnic cleansing of Aboriginal population upon arrival. Historically Aborigines have been deprived of rights, including housing/property rights, right to vote, etc. As noted by Weston (2018), the long-term effects of racism on social minority communities has lasting effects both on individual psychologies and social structures.
Problem of formal rights: Although Aborigines are accorded formally equal rights today, this does not translate straightforwardly into equal treatment, or equal access to a defence of those rights (Brown 1995, p. 96-135). In other words—legal institutions simply saying that indigenous peoples have rights is a very different thing to indigenous peoples possessing and using those rights to their full effect. Returning to the deaths in custody example of Lloyd Boney, this man may have had abstract rights under the law (hence the Commission Report which started shortly after his death), but these rights were neglected in the moment when it mattered—when police officers needed to exhibit a duty of care to him.
Ture ; Hamilton’s (1967, p. 1) distinction of types of racism is useful here: individual/overt racism (personal abuse, attacks, violence, impoliteness and “microaggressions” such as using slurs) contrasts with institutional/covert racism, which is subtler and to do with how social structures perpetuate conditions which result in highly unequal outcomes. E.G: individual racism is killing someone because of their race; institutional racism is letting them die because of it. In Hamilton & Ture’s (1967, p. 20-21) words: ‘When white terrorists bomb a black church and kill five black children, that is an act of individual racism, widely deplored by most segments of the society. But when in that same city, five hundred black babies die each year because of the lack of proper food, shelter and medical facilities, and thousands more are destroyed and maimed physically, emotionally and intellectually because of conditions of poverty and discrimination in the black community, that is a function of institutional racism’.
We cannot understand discrimination-imprisonment link without a concept like institutional racism which distinguishes it from individual acts of racialised violence.
Concrete Problems: Studies show that Aborigines suffer widespread structural access issues to healthcare and social welfare alongside problems of rights (Wilson 2016, p. 187) ( Ziersch et al 2011, p. 1045). For example, services provided for indigenous Australians have been “mainstreamed” since the 90s, which removes ability of state to provide tailored care specific to Aboriginal needs. The state of racial discrimination is further gradated by geographically impoverished areas. Northern Territory is Australia’s poorest territory, has one of the highest indigenous populations and an overwhelmingly high rate of indigenous incarceration.
As noted previously one of the key mediums through which discrimination is translated into high imprisonment rates is poverty. The short version is that discrimination (both individual and institutional kinds) reduces opportunities available to indigenous populations (Bushnell 2017, p. 25). For instance, employers have been shown to be more likely to interview candidates with “whiter” sounding names (Tojo & Wheeler 2018). There are few comprehensive studies yet on this issue when mapped to white vs. Aboriginal candidates but it is not much of a leap to assume this logic holds in the Australian context. The Discrimination-poverty link is also shown in how services which do not account for cultural differences of indigenous people (or, indeed, may simply disregard them due to some staff seeing them as “lesser)—e.g., healthcare and education—are more likely to fail indigenous people (Wilson 2016, p. 187). This can lead to more widespread health problems and lower educational attainment which generates lower opportunities to escape poverty. And of course, as mentioned above is the longstanding legacy of the violence inflicted on indigenous populations by colonial powers, whose “after effects” are still felt today, meaning indigenous peoples are more likely to start life in the bottom rung of social classes and will be provided fewer opportunities for social mobility (Weston 2018).
While criminality cannot be entirely collapsed into opportunity impoverishment, a lack of meaningful ways to a) make money and b) make meaning has been linked by criminology theorists to a tendency to engage in criminal behaviours. If culturally legitimated means of gaining social status are taken away from people, they tend to use culturally deviant means to achieve that same status. Similarly, if positive cultural scripts for identity and self-worth are taken from individuals (which they arguably are in cases of structural and longstanding racialised discrimination), then such people are more likely to write their own “scripts” of behaviour which lie outside dominant and legitimised notions of living “right” (Young 1999, p. 387-393). This shows how discrimination can lead to more observable forms of criminality amongst indigenous populations
So far the “bottom up” links between discrimination and imprisonment have been explored—IE why being a member of a marginalised community may lead to more observable forms of criminality (observable criminality, furthermore, should be distinguished from crime rates generally; the argument that Aborigines simply commit more crime is spurious at best). However, the onus is arguably just as much on the “top down” factors such as institutionalised racism from Australia’s police. A key issue here is organisational culture which fosters an overly zealous and macho atmosphere amongst police forces which can generate more confrontational and aggressive styles of policing. This in turn can lead to higher arrests of indigenous people owing to conscious and unconscious racism combined with these aggressive and masculinised tendencies (Chan 2004, p. 334). For instance, if officers are allowed to act with discretion and apply the law as they see fit, and if they link their police work to a self-image of a dominating masculine identity type, this gives them the opportunity to exploit their power in line with racial biases against indigenous people (seeing them as nuisances and threats) which they may not even be aware of. It is this combination of unconscious bias and macho culture which leads to cases like Lloyd Boneys death.
So far, we’ve analysed broadly how racial discrimination against indigenous Aborigines, through poverty and the prejudices of the police force, leads to increased rates of incarceration. Now it’s worth examining some further concepts and questions which can help to contextualise these links and better explain why the racial marginalisation of Aboriginal peoples creates higher rates of imprisonment.
Cohen’s (1972, p. 9-11) concept of a deviancy amplification spiral is a sociological explanation of how relationships between marginalised communities and law-and-order organisations can break down through media framing of crime. It describes how some instances of crime from a marginal community can be seized upon by media organisations wishing to frame these acts as indicative of a “cultural problem”, which leads to public outcry such that police forces are encouraged to police the marginal communities more closely. As with any community, if police are sent more frequently to look for crime they will find it, which leads to more arrests, more news stories etc., and by extension a widening gulf in community relations between the marginalised community and the police force (Anthony 2011, p. 91-93). This generates longstanding histories of distrust between indigenous communities and the police, which in turn helps to explain why police may be more aggressive in arresting Aboriginal people. The media aspect—how the media generates moral panics which capture the imaginations of white social actors—may also explain why Aboriginal people are sentenced more harshly by judges.
Secondly is the question of what kinds of crime indigenous people are imprisoned for: many reports indicate that the types of crimes for which many Aborigines are arrested and imprisoned for are petty or minor (drug offences being a large proportion) (Barclay et al 2007, p. 142-153). This links back to the observable crime point mentioned earlier. Poverty is often linked to greater opportunistic crimes conducted for immediate short-term material gain; it stands to reason that these petty crimes make up a significant portion of the “criminality” amongst indigenous populations. The problems arise when these infractions that arguable should not have led to prison sentences result in incarceration due to the prejudices and lack of patience amongst both police forces and judges.
A third question of interest is to ask what factors make Aboriginal prisoners more vulnerable—both to abuses and neglect within the prison system and to recidivism more generally. The poor health effects and impoverishment caused by lifelong experiences of discrimination may lead to a higher proportion of Aboriginal prisoners being, for instance, alcoholics or possessing psychological disorders. This makes such prisoners more vulnerable and arguably contributes to why the prison system fails to discourage recidivistic behaviours. One telling statistic is indeed the recidivism rates, with indigenous males being 1.5 times more likely to be reincarcerated compared to non-indigenous males, and with indigenous women’s recidivism being 67% compared to the 36% recidivism rate of non-indigenous women (PWC 2017, p. 22).
To conclude, this presentation has attempted to provide a comprehensive understanding of what is meant by systemic and institutional racism. Often these words are used to explain high imprisonment rates of marginalised ethnicities without providing the substance of what this means in practice. Ultimately it has been shown that racial discrimination is at the root of sentencing and imprisonment disparities between Aboriginal and white Australians through two key indicators:
1. “The Bottom Up”; the way in which historical discrimination has impoverished communities, and contemporary discrimination in healthcare, education and welfare restricts means to escape this impoverishment explains why Aboriginal communities may be viewed as committing more observable crimes. It has been argued that depriving such communities of ways to make both meaning and money is a key reason for their status as groups of interest to police forces.2. “The Top Down”; it has been argued that the organisational culture of the police combines in unhelpful ways with extant social prejudices to create unequal treatment for Aboriginal peoples, which leads to their higher rates of arrest. A possible explanation for higher rates of sentencing includes deviancy amplification spirals creating mediatized moral panics about Aboriginal crime, and the issue of recidivism due to improper and poorly tailored care (and restricted opportunities once out of prison) reducing leniency from judges. A damning fact is that almost three decades since the Royal Commission’s report into deaths in custody, not much has substantially changed regarding the conditions faced by Aboriginal communities and prisoners. It is arguable following the findings of this presentation that substantial change can only come through a complete reorganisation of Australia’s police and penal systems such that they more closely reflect values of equality and social justice—as it is clear that the current ‘gradual’ type reforms are not delivering.
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