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Advocates call for greater focus on Indigenous people with disability in detention


18 February 2021 at 5:09 pm
Luke Michael
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are 14 times more likely to be imprisoned than the non-Indigenous population 


Luke Michael | 18 February 2021 at 5:09 pm


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Advocates call for greater focus on Indigenous people with disability in detention
18 February 2021 at 5:09 pm

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are 14 times more likely to be imprisoned than the non-Indigenous population 

The disability royal commission needs a dedicated First Nations hearing to investigate the overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the criminal justice system, Indigenous leaders say.

A public hearing is currently underway examining the experiences of people with cognitive disability in the criminal justice system, and the plight of First Nations people with disability has been highlighted.

The commission heard that an Indigenous woman with an intellectual disability was regularly kept in isolation for 23 hours a day at a forensic hospital where she lived after exiting prison.

First Peoples Disability Network Australia (FPDN) CEO Damian Griffis told Pro Bono News that it was not a surprise to hear this was occurring to Indigenous people with disability.  

“This is not an uncommon story, sadly, and it’s one that needs to be exposed,” Griffis said.

“But more generally, the fact that First Nations people find themselves in that situation of being isolated up to 23 hours a day is deeply disturbing and an egregious violation of human rights.”

FPDN is calling for the royal commission to establish a dedicated hearing to investigate the overrepresentation and indefinite detention of First Nations people with disability in the criminal justice system.

The group believes there is a lack of data and understanding around the prevalence of First Nations people with disability in the system, and without action this overrepresentation will likely continue.

Griffis said “for too long this has been an issue that’s been overlooked”.

“The latest data suggests that First Nations people are 14 times more likely to be imprisoned, and a third of those people are reporting some form of disability, but we [think] this is being underreported,” he said.

“So we definitely need to establish once and for all what the prevalence is in relation to First Nations people with disability in prisons. 

“This is one of the most serious human rights related issues in Australia today.”

Griffis said the commission needs to understand the life trajectory that sees First Nations people with disability often unsupported with their disability from a very young age.                       

He said young First Nations people with disability may get in trouble and expelled at school because not enough attention is paid to their disability, which could then lead to juvenile detention and adult prison.

“This is quite a common story and it’s a failure of the system to meet the disability-related needs of young First Nations people with disability,” he said.

“But then we need to urgently analyse the here and now – what is happening for First Nations people with disability when they’re in prison… and also what happens when they leave prison.

“We also need to analyse and hear the stories of First Nations people with disability in their interactions with the police.”

FPDN is calling for the royal commission to examine institutionalised forms of discrimination that underpin the criminal justice system and the barriers First Nations people face when accessing disability supports across the criminal justice system.

It said the inquiry must also acknowledge the need for intersectional, quantitative data on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disability in detention. 

Griffis said this investigation must come alongside immediate investment in disability advocacy and especially First Nations disability advocates who specialise in justice matters.

“Disability advocacy is chronically underfunded and this means there’s sometimes a lack of access to [criminal justice support], because many disability advocacy services are overwhelmed by their day-to-day advocacy work,” he said. 

“Being able to access Australians with disability in prison systems becomes a very difficult thing to do when you’re juggling a number of priorities.”


Luke Michael  |  Journalist  |  @luke_michael96

Luke Michael is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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