According to data just released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics the past year has seen a 4 per cent increase in the number of people placed in full-time custody in Australia’s prisons. The Northern Territory, which also has the highest rate of people experiencing homelessness per head of population, has the highest imprisonment rate (889 prisoners per 100,000 adult population), followed by Western Australia (263) and New South Wales (175).
The ABS goes on to report that:
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander males in custody increased 7 per cent and females 12 per cent from the March quarter 2012. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners represented 28 per cent of the total full-time prisoner population in the March quarter 2013. The total Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population aged 18 years and over at 30 June 2011 was 2 per cent of the Australian population.
Based on daily averages, the highest Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander imprisonment rate for the March quarter 2013 was recorded in Western Australia (4059 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners per 100,000 adult Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population), followed by the Northern Territory (2951) and South Australia (2620). The lowest Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander imprisonment rate was recorded in Tasmania (547), followed by the Australian Capital Territory (1339).
‘Prisons’, in the words of the American activist Angela Davis, ‘do not disappear problems; they disappear human beings.’ Prisons do not address the causes of poverty and inequality. They are not a solution to homelessness.
In his 2009 Social Justice Report, the then Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Dr Tom Calma called for an alternative to this increasing rate of imprisonment of members of the First Peoples:
Justice reinvestment is a localised criminal justice policy approach that diverts a portion of the funds for imprisonment to local communities where there is a high concentration of offenders. The money that would have been spent on imprisonment is reinvested in programs and services in communities where these issues are most acute in order to address the underlying causes of crime in those communities.
Justice reinvestment still retains prison as a measure for dangerous and serious offenders but actively shifts the culture away from imprisonment and starts providing community wide services that prevent offending. Justice reinvestment is not just about reforming the criminal justice system but trying to prevent people from getting there in the first place.
Justice reinvestment is a model that has as much in common with economics as social policy. Justice reinvestment asks the question: is imprisonment good value for money? The simple answer is that it is not. We are spending ever increasing amounts on imprisonment while at the same time, prisoners are not being rehabilitated, recidivism rates are high and return to prison rates are creating overcrowded prisons.
This is a responsible and responsive alternative not just for Indigenous Australians but for all who, by extension, experience varying degrees of marginalisation, poverty, internal colonisation and disempowerment.
After this year’s Budget I made the statement, in reference to the bipartisan refusal to lift the Newstart payment, that people experiencing unemployment had been deliberately humiliated by successive governments by virtue of the decision to keep their incomes so low.
Journalist Stephen Crittenden subsequently drew my attention to the beautiful statement by former Spanish Prime Minister Zapatero that ‘a decent society is one that does not humiliate its members’. Taking this further, the real test is what a given society does to those who are arguably not its members; in other words, to those whom it has either cast out and cast off or refused to admit and include in the first place.
An interesting dialectic is at play here, because these practices of systematic exclusion are really ‘best practice’ forms of historical and structural humiliation.
In the words of the prophet Isaiah: ‘What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor?’
It is time we looked at homelessness in this vein. It is time, as a society, that we named homelessness for what it is; not a manifestation of poor behaviour, poor choices, hard luck or blind economic forces but rather a systematic form of humiliation, a means, sometimes as part of a continuum with incarceration, of producing outcasts, of manufacturing shame, of marking and scarring people. Our mission should be simple: to stand against shame.
As Chilean poet and Nobel laureate, Pablo Neruda, put it:
Rise up with me against the organisation of misery
… stand up with me
… against the system that distributes hunger …
The shame that people are subjected to is deliberate and systematic because it can be avoided, prevented and replaced with an experience of respect and dignity.
It is done to people because they are members of the First Peoples or because they are living with a disability or are functionally illiterate or have been abused as children or as adults or are asylum seekers on Bridging Visas or are living in severely overcrowded conditions or are living with a mental illness or are unemployed and unskilled or are struggling to survive as a single parent or have been incarcerated on and off since they were children or have been separated from their culture and language and spiritual home, or anything else that you can imagine as being, according to the perverse logic of who is in and who is out, a cause for humiliation and shame.
Humiliation begets disempowerment. Or rage. We can condemn and humiliate people for not being able to get up the steps or we can build a ramp.
What would our economy look like if the people pushed to the margins were listened to instead of being pathologised and criminalised? What would the law, which is a reflection of economic and social realities, look like?
Could it be that we would be building more social housing instead of more prisons? Could it be that the First Peoples of Australia would be running our universities instead of filling our jails? Could it be that the St Vincent de Paul Society and other charities would be needed only to fight loneliness instead of homelessness?
St Vincent de Paul Society is holding its annual CEO Sleepout across the nation’s capitals this week. We continue to be magnificently supported by the Australian community in our fight against homelessness.
We are specifically calling this year for both sides of politics to embrace a bipartisan support for the 2008 White Paper target to halve homelessness by 2020 and to offer a place to call home for all who are sleeping rough. At this stage we are yet to have this commitment endorsed by the Opposition.
The steps towards halving homelessness, let alone eliminating it, must include a guarantee of the basic human right to housing; a strong investment in education, especially focussing on students from disadvantaged backgrounds; and pathways to secure and sustainable employment, including an adequate, rather than impoverishing, income support system for those who are outside the labour market.
The theologian Karl Barth wrote: ‘God always takes his stand unconditionally and passionately on this side and on this side alone: against the lofty and on behalf of the lowly.’ The poet Audre Lorde says ‘our visions begin with our desires’. What is God if not this burning desire for justice for all who are humiliated by the history of dispossession; a vision that has what it takes to set fire to our hearts?
This article by the Chief Executive of the St Vincent de Paul Society, Dr John Falzon, was first published on the Eureka Street news website on June 15.