Cruel numbers

It is the numbers that are most appalling. The numbers that climb ever upwards. The numbers behind the deprivation, the bound limbs, the sack hoods, the tear gas, the little boys in cells, shivering and naked.

It is the number that says Aboriginal incarceration has increased by 88 per cent in the past decade. The number that says Indigenous children are 31 times more likely to be in prison than non-Indigenous children.

It is the number that says if you are an Aboriginal man in New South Wales and you have reached the age of 23, you have a more than three in four chance you will have been cautioned by police or convicted in a criminal court.

It’s the number that says if you are in prison in the Northern Territory, there is a more than nine in 10 chance you are black. It’s the number that says 16 per cent of Aboriginal people in prison are there because they did not pay fines.

People are broken in prison. They die in prison. Since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody reported 25 years ago, another 341 Indigenous people have died in lock-up.

This week, Australia was shocked by what it saw of the treatment of children in prisons, especially Aboriginal children. The public saw what politicians and policymakers have long known, in reports that sit ignored, in the lives of young people we have failed.

When a child is strapped shirtless to a chair, his head bowed in a spit hood, his neck and shoulders bound in restraints, he is just one terrible part of a system that is terribly broken. When a child is stripped naked by guards and left to cower in his cell, he is the tangible expression of a system that brutalises boys and girls as young as 10.

It is a system where Aboriginal people are disproportionately punished. Where mandatory sentencing bastardises the nuances of our judiciary. It is a system of punitive madness that can charge a 12-year-old boy eating a Freddo Frog with receiving stolen goods, as happened in Western Australia in 2009. It is a system that can send a person to jail for failing to pay parking tickets.

The letters patent for the royal commission announced by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull this week make clear that the inquiry into the mistreatment of youths in custody will focus on their experience inside prison.

The commission has been established to determine whether any law was broken when guards strapped a 17-year-old boy to a mechanical restraint for two hours, when they fired tear gas into cells, when they held another child in solitary confinement for 15 days.

Only one line of the letters patent is given to the “identification of early intervention options”. But surely this should be the commission’s overwhelming focus.

If we are to change the dreadful numbers that spell out the truth of incarceration in this country – incarceration that is racist, that is destructive, that is too often senseless – a royal commission must have its focus outside prisons. The great tragedy of the treatment of children in jail is that they are there at all. The commission must deal with this fact, and the absurd numbers that flow from it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 30, 2016 as "Cruel numbers".

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