Indigenous and social service advocates are angry and disappointed that a proposed investigation into systemic racism at the Alexander Maconochie Centre will not take place. Instead, Minister for Corrections Mick Gentleman replaced the Canberra Liberals motion – made on behalf of Indigenous Canberrans – with an amendment to continue a review into the ACT’s high Indigenous incarceration rates. (See our earlier story.)
“I’m furious, to be quite honest,” Julie Tongs OAM, chief executive officer of Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health and Community Service, said.
“But I’m not surprised that the motion was watered down. This Labor-Green Government are progressive on selective issues. Unfortunately, Aboriginal disadvantage isn’t one of them.
“It reinforces the belief across the Aboriginal community that their issues and concerns are not a priority with this so-called progressive government.”
Ms Tongs called the amendment “a cover-up”, and called for Mr Gentleman to resign.
“Mr Gentleman, unlike his colleague Rachel Stephen-Smith, may very well say he doesn’t think racism exists in the prison. Mr Gentleman has taken a leaf out of Eddie Maguire’s book, who didn’t think racism existed in the Collingwood Football Club. Can we expect that Mr Gentleman will resign just like Eddie did if he’s proven to be wrong?”
Following allegations in January that an Aboriginal woman detainee – a rape survivor – was strip-searched in full view of male prisoners, Ms Tongs wrote to Mr Gentleman, calling for a full inquiry into “the egregious, heartless, and totally unacceptable treatment which [the woman] has suffered while in your care and under your control”.
Mr Gentleman said at the time that he took allegations of racism at the AMC seriously, and would co-operate with the Human Rights Commission’s investigation. Mr Gentleman had also met with Ms Tongs and asked her to work with him to improve ACT Corrective Services.
But he did not support Ms Tongs’ assertion there was a culture of racism at the AMC. He defended the prison staff in the Legislative Assembly this week: “I am confident that these dedicated officers are devoted to improving inequality.”
Ms Tongs disagreed. The AMC was “a bloodbath”, she said. Over the last five years, the prison has made headlines for a spate of deaths, beatings, and humiliations. In addition to the strip-searching allegations, an Indigenous man – victim of a bashing that left him in a coma for a week – died of a drug overdose in 2016; Aboriginal inmates have been assaulted, and relatives were not notified; and staff have played ‘Hangman’ with the names of Aboriginal prisoners.
“It’s disgusting – absolutely disgusting,” Ms Tongs said. “And these people are still allowed to turn up to work. What is that?”
Canberra’s Indigenous population did not have confidence in the criminal justice system, she believed. “An Aboriginal person in Canberra is 19.4 times likelier to go to prison than a non-Aboriginal person,” Ms Tongs said. “Why would any Aboriginal person have any faith in the ACT justice system?
“We shouldn’t be locking people up and throwing the key away – and that’s what it’s like out there. No prison’s a good prison; we should be building mental health facilities and drug and alcohol rehab, and not jails – but it is what we’ve got and it needs to change.”
Indigenous overrepresentation and the inquiry into AMC were separate issues, Ms Tongs argued.
“The review of overrepresentation is about the reasons Aboriginal people are sent to prison at a rate of 5 times higher than non-Aboriginal people. It has nothing to do with racism in the AMC; the review hasn’t started, and will drag on for years.”
ACTCOSS chief executive Dr Emma Campbell agreed the AMC racism inquiry was necessary, expressing her disappointment that the motion was unsuccessful.
“We need to understand whether issues of racism are impacting the experience of Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander people when they’re in the AMC, and whether that’s leading to higher levels of recidivism and the high rate of incarceration.”
The Government may have stopped the amendment – but Ms Tongs was undaunted. She was adamant there needs to be an urgent inquiry into institutional racism and into the management and culture at the prison.
“At the end of the day, I’m not going to stop. Now that woman was brave enough to come out with her allegations, I am sure there will be others that will follow. Hopefully, this will get momentum, and hopefully, things will change.”
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