One little considered factor in the substantial over representation of Aboriginal people in the criminal justice system is the widespread hearing loss among Aboriginal adults that is a result of endemic childhood ear disease. There is minimal awareness that hearing loss is common among Aboriginal adults. Usually any difficulties in communication during criminal justice processes is ascribed solely to cultural or linguistic differences as opposed to hearing loss. In fact, early onset hearing loss frequently contributes to people’s limited language acquisition, exacerbates the effects of cultural differences, as well as acting directly to obstruct and distort communication.
This investigation initially tested the hearing status of 44 Aboriginal inmates within the Darwin Correctional Centre (‘DCC’). Further testing was then conducted with 90 inmates within the Alice Springs Correctional Centre (‘ASCC’). In both locations inmates also completed a verbally administered questionnaire, which elicited comments on experiences of any hearing problems. Inmates tested within the Darwin facility were some of those who had volunteered to have their hearing tested. Because of concerns that the high prevalence of hearing loss found among these inmates may be due to some type of selection bias, at the Alice Springs correctional facility there was a focus on testing whole groups of inmates within various sections of the prison. This resulted in a larger and more representative sample of inmates being tested, with similar results to those gained at the Darwin prison.
Overall 94 per cent of Aboriginal inmates were found to have significant hearing loss. Further testing was carried out with 15 non-Aboriginal inmates at Darwin Prison who volunteered to have their hearing tested. None of the non-Aboriginal inmates tested had a significant hearing loss although past studies have generally found a higher prevalence of hearing loss among non-Aboriginal inmates than in the general community.
The scale, impact and implications of hearing loss among Aboriginal inmates in the NT points to Aboriginal hearing loss being an important issue for criminal justice systems. Hopefully in the near future innovative staff that seek to address this issue will be supported by progressive corrections agencies, research bodies and governments, so as to grasp the opportunities outlined above. What would be better is for criminal justice organisations and state and territory governments to take a proactive role in addressing this important and long neglected issue.