Recent figures indicate that 28 percent of inmates in Australian prisons are Aboriginal, despite Indigenous people making up just 3 percent of the national population.
Aunty Kerrie Doyle, Associate Professor of Indigenous Health at RMIT, believes this significant over-representation is due to the ostracism faced by many Indigenous people, both in general society and in non-Indigenous social groups.
Doyle – a renowned expert in Indigenous and mental health – argues that ostracism is a well-known precursor to feelings of depression and, in turn, anger; and that deviant behavior can almost invariably be traced back to these emotional states.
Doyle adds that, unless something is done to tackle the ongoing social exclusion of Aboriginal people in prisons and in general society, depression, anger and the resultant deviant or criminal behavior will perpetuate – keeping Indigenous offenders in a ‘revolving door’ cycle of incarceration and reoffending.
“What we are seeing is that Indigenous people are being kept at a ‘campfire distance’ from society and social groups”, says Doyle. “By that I mean that they are close enough to ‘hang around’ the mob but not quite close enough to be included. This instills powerful feelings of low self-worth and depression. In most cases of depression, anger is the last emotion to dissolve and so these individuals remain predisposed to deviancy once released back into society”.
Doyle believes that there is a lot of good will in the non-Aboriginal community, but argues that there is still a significant way to go before Aboriginal people are truly assimilated into mainstream society and treated as equals. “People think that Indigenous people have been assimilated, but this is a misconception”, she says. “Many Aboriginal people still feel as though they are second-rate citizens. This is further enforced by the social dynamics they encounter when incarcerated in predominantly non-Indigenous prisons”.
Doyle says that an additional difficulty is the stigma associated with certain offences, particularly sex and child-related offences. “The community can be really unforgiving about these type of offences, which poses an even greater challenge in terms of reintegrating offenders back into society”, she says.
Associate Professor Doyle believes that active interventions and a fresh approach are needed to foster community inclusion among Indigenous offenders and will outline her recommendations at the Correctional Services Healthcare Summit – to be held 13-14 September 2018 in Melbourne.