Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Prisoners in Australia

Posted: March 18, 2024


Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are considered to be the earliest inhabitants of the modern day Australia (Horton and Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, 1994). According to the Federal Government, a person is considered to be an Aboriginal if he is of Aboriginal descent; identifies as an Aboriginal person and the society in which he or she lives in accepts him or her as an Aboriginal. They have a distinct history, culture, traditions and identity. The arrival and settlement of other dominant people in the original territories of the Aboriginal people posed a real danger to their land, culture and some of their legal rights. Aboriginal people in Australia enjoy lower standards of life, health, housing, education and employment as compared to other non – indigenous groups of people. Despite this challenge, they still enjoy the same level of benefits with other groups and do not get extra funding from the state because they are indigenous. Additionally, they are over – represented in the country’s criminal system. In jails, they undergo miserable lives and quite a number of them end up dying there. Colonialism and resulting social and economic marginalization are key issues pertaining to the indigenous people over representation in Australian prisons. Colonialists grabbed huge tracts of land from the locals, violently engaged with them, provided them with little education and subjected the low living standards including continuously oppressing them.



Indigenous Australians are overrepresented in the criminal justice system. Despite comprising less than five percent of the population, indigenous people in Australia make over twenty five percent of all prisoners in Australia. Many prisons are overcrowded and it is estimated that by the year 2020, nearly half of all the prisoners will be the indigenous people. The rate of indigenous imprisonment is highest in Western Australian and is far much higher than black imprisonment in Apartheid South Africa or that of African Americans imprisonment in the United States of America. Some of the factors leading to this crisis can be discussed as follows.

            Social disorganization theory which explains ecological differences in levels of crime due to cultural and structural factors across different societies can be used to explain the factors. Aboriginals have faced a myriad of social and economic challenges since time immemorial. Colonization led to the material dispossession of ancestral land among and oppression to the indigenous people. Colonization led to the destruction of the indigenous society due to loss of culture and economic livelihood. Hard economic times made them engage in crime. This social disorganization weakens social integrations with their neighbors leading to minimal social interactions. Many of them were frustrated engaged in alcohol as a means of escape and solace.  Alcohol abuse always leads to violence, suicidal tendencies and other offences which attract jail terms. Moreover, there is a close relationship between alcohol abuse and child neglect among the Aboriginal people. This leads to increase in juvenile crime and as a result a number of indigenous children are arrested and imprisoned by the authorities.

            A report into the Aboriginal deaths in custody indicates that a bias in the Australian criminal justice system is also to blame for the high number of Aboriginal prisoners. This can be attributed to social and cultural anomie in which the society in general fails to provide the required support to the Aboriginal people so as to fully integrate them in the wider society. They have continuously discriminated them and treated them as second class citizens. The report pointed out a number of weaknesses on the country’s criminal justice systems which has an institutional bias against the indigenous people. The authorities were found to be biased while dealing with Aboriginal suspects (Hays, 2011). State security agencies showed general unwillingness to employ other tactics other than arresting Aboriginal offenders. The justice system additionally failed to establish community based correctional facilities which would act as alternatives to prisons in an effort to decongest the already overcrowded prisons .Aboriginal suspects were also not given adequate funding to access legal aid during prosecution. When lawyers are provided, they have little time with Aboriginal clients hence they do not provide a strong defense in a court of law. Furthermore, stringent punishments were given to Aboriginal offenders by the country’s judicial system. In many instances, Aboriginals are more likely to be denied bail than the general population hence a vast majority of them end up in jails. The political and the administrative system is seems to be for tougher penalties for the Aboriginal people. Police officers are more likely to arrest an indigenous person than the rest of the society. They tend to act racist and violently while dealing with Aboriginals. Some community members and the police have an attitude that Aboriginals are criminals and therefore will not hesitate to arrest them even over petty crimes.

            Aboriginal people are the most disadvantaged group of people in Australia. Historical injustices ranging from marginalization, racism and colonization have led to high levels of unemployment, limited business opportunities, limited job prospects and low income among the indigenous people (Fee and Russell, 2007). As a result, poverty levels are high, majority of the population depends on government social welfare programs, literacy levels are low, and there is low home ownership and lower life expectancy among others. The young generation posses low post school qualifications which reduces their chances of securing jobs both in the private and the public sectors. Due to the above challenges, the social and economic well being is adversely affected.  According to the social strain theory which states that societal pressures may force people to engage in crime so as to meet societal standards, some of them tend to engage in criminal activities leading to high number of prisoners (Agnew, 2006).

            A considerable population of the indigenous population suffers from mental disorders which are related to their social economic challenges. They suffer from anxiety, depression and substance misuse disorders (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2015). The affected people engage in crime due to frustrations and neglect. The situation is even worse among the Aboriginal inmates who have limited access to proper health care. The problems remain untreated and may continue affecting them even after their release from prison placing them at a higher risk of repeating the crimes again.

Violence among the indigenous people is higher than that among other communities. Human rights groups report higher incidences of child abuse, neglect and sexual abuse among the Aboriginals. Most of the cases go unreported due to fear of the authorities, denial among the affected children and general pressure from the society. There is also a feeling that children who have been subjected to inhuman treatment might be taken away by the authorities. Any form of violence attracts a stiff sentence from the courts leading to disproportionately higher number of Aboriginal prisoners.

                        Cultural and barriers also play a big role towards the imprisonment of the Aboriginal people. Due to low literacy levels, some of them are sentenced without fully understanding the court procedures. Despite undergoing all these discrimination, majority of them cannot run away from Australia since they have a cultural attachment with their land. Courts seem not to take into account the psychological trauma of child offenders especially those who come from backgrounds of domestic violence. Children from the stolen generation are also more likely to be arrested than their peers. Stolen Generations represent indigenous children forcibly taken away from their parents by the government while they were young between 1910 and 1970 and taken to institutions or fostered out to white families. The main reason was to protect them from the hard living conditions as the government felt they would die given their sharp decline immediately after colonization. However, the government wanted to assimilate them in the white society and slowly eliminate the indigenous society. In these institutions, they were abused, neglected and taught to reject their cultural heritage. Any resistance was severely punished. They were trained to become domestic servants and laborers for the settlers. Upon release, majority failed to trace their roots and could not engage in meaningful economic activity. They engaged in crime and are more likely to come to the attention of the police. Due to hard economic conditions, some of the released prisoners repeat the crimes again and are sent back to prison. Christian missionaries viewed Aboriginal culture as inferior. They wanted to civilize them and introduce Christianity. The effects were loss of the indigenous culture and traditions as a sizeable number of the indigenous people embraced Christianity.

            Some of the Aboriginal people find themselves in jails after committing petty offences (Australian Medical Association, 2006). Unlicensed driving among the youth tops the list. The young drivers face the challenges of getting adequate trainers or simply fail to understand the traffic tests. There is a culture of neglect on the indigenous people since colonial times. Authorities are known to lock up people who fail to pay little fines like the parking fees. Aboriginals who live in remote areas may fail to receive court mails in time hence missing court dates. Others simply do not attend court hearings due to ill health and courts normally are very inflexible especially when it comes to changing hearing dates. As a result, arrest warrants are issued and many of them end up in jails.


Indigenous people undergo a lot of challenges in Australia. The social and economic problems as a result of colonization make them engage in criminal activities, hence the majority of them end up in jails. Self determination of the indigenous people is required so as to give people the democratic freedoms of deciding what they want (Hudson, 2013). They should be free to pursue their economic, social and cultural development. Additionally, their views should be incorporated in the criminal justice framework. Historical injustices should be corrected and strategies should be put in place to alleviate the social and economic well being of the indigenous people (Cuneen and McDonald, 1996).