Tuesday, 16 June 2020
COVID-19: Indigenous Australians
In this time of heightened awareness of and focus on First Nations people's issues and particularly the justice system, Change the Record's release of its report called Critical condition: the impact of COVID-19 policies, policing and prisons on First Nations communities is very timely. This is an important and, as I said, timely contribution on the issues that affect First Nations people, and it highlights how First Nations people are disproportionately affected by the more punitive policy approaches and responses to COVID-19.
As has been Australia's shame for many decades, First Nations people are grossly overrepresented in both the adult and youth criminal justice systems. Places of detention are potential hotspots for the transmission of COVID-19 where social distancing is basically impossible. The policies that have been enacted in places of detention in response to COVID-19 pose a very significant risk to First Nations people. For example, Change the Record has received multiple reports of increased use of lockdowns, separation, isolation within corrective facilities, forced quarantining of incoming prisoners, including children and young people, and reduced access to education, family and legal visits.
Take the case of Daniel, a First Nations man being held on remand in Tasmania. Restrictions on legal visits, limited access to telephone calls and a failure by the prison to facilitate confidential legal meetings meant that Daniel's matter was unable to be resolved in court on the day it was listed for. As a result, Daniel is now spending more time in prison on remand.
The government needs to take a proactive and preventive approach in this COVID crisis, starting by releasing First Nations prisoners who are low risk, have chronic health conditions, are on remand, are elderly, or are children or young people. Many countries around the world have already released prisoners who have less than six months to serve, are on remand, are elderly or have chronic illnesses. Australia should follow these examples.
While the COVID-19 restrictions have been important, the burden of policing and punishment for breaching guidelines disproportionately falls on First Nations people. Look at the case of Tennant Creek, a town of around 3,000 people with approximately 50 per cent of the population identifying as First Nations. Of the 48 fines issued in the Northern Territory related to COVID restrictions, 15 were issued in Tennant Creek. Aboriginal legal services in the Northern Territory, South Australia and Western Australia have reported significant concerns about the issues of fines and overpolicing in border towns. Border town communities have been reporting higher levels of police presence, policing of borders and issuing of penalties. Due to a lack of affordable housing, it is difficult for First Nations communities to comply with directions on gatherings in public and private places.
I am aware of the consequences of police targeting First Nations people. A few months ago in my home state of Western Australia, members of the Noongar community in Perth were issued with move-on notices and fines, despite being homeless and having nowhere to go. In fact, their camping gear, their eskies and their sleeping bags were actually taken and put in a rubbish truck. The issuing of fines has long-term consequences for First Nations people, including further enforcement measures, imprisonment and entrenchment of poverty.
In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, Change the Record's report further exposes the discrimination and racism embedded within our justice system, especially during this crisis. I urge everyone, including politicians and policymakers, to take note of the information in Change the Record's report and make sure you put the recommendations into action. Now is the time to rebuild our justice system to focus on investing in communities, not prisons, to increase community safety and to prevent black deaths in custody.