Indigenous Australians make up just over one-quarter (26 per cent) of Australia’s prison population (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2011), despite the fact that Indigenous Australians comprise around 2.5 per cent of Australia’s entire adult population (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2011c). Over the past 20 years, Indigenous Australians have continued to fill our country’s prisons at alarmingly disproportionate rates. The issues experienced by Indigenous offenders are significant and complex. The strong links between harmful substance use and Indigenous incarceration highlight an urgent need for government to address this disturbing problem.
For Indigenous Australians, the United Nations’ impetus for countries to address equal rights for Indigenous people, and the Australian Government’s 2008 commitment to close the 17-year gap in life expectancy within a generation, provide welcome signs that Indigenous health equality is not only considered a basic right, but is also officially recognised as being achievable.
The National Indigenous Drug and Alcohol Committee (NIDAC) welcomes the Australian Government’s commitment, through the Council of Australian Governments (COAG), to improve the social and/or structural determinants of Indigenous health. However, with the disproportionately large number of Indigenous Australians in our correctional systems, the social and health adversity incurred by their incarceration cannot be ignored.
The trauma and suffering that Indigenous people have experienced over generations have contributed to their burden of disease, harmful substance use and incarceration. Sadly, many Indigenous Australians in prison are themselves victims of harmful substance use or violent crime. Indigenous Australians have an indisputable right to access appropriate treatment and rehabilitation to address these underlying issues.
Now more than ever, there is an urgent need to reduce recidivism and the intergenerational effects of Indigenous incarceration by developing a national program that not only uniformly tackles the over- representation of Indigenous persons and health inequalities in our correctional system but is also responsive to strengthening the health and cultural wellbeing of Indigenous Australians. It is imperative that these targets be embedded in all State, Territory and Australian Government policies and programs.
Prisoner health is an important priority and NIDAC is determined to see young Indigenous people provided with opportunities away from a life of harmful substance use and crime. Hopefully through the recommendations of this paper the future of Indigenous families and their children may be secured within a nutritive and safe environment