This article discusses themes of racism, trauma, violence and death.
2020 was an unforgettable year. Not just because of COVID-19. For many First Nations people and communities the Black Lives Matter movement has catapulted the mass incarceration and deaths of our people at the hand of the State into the spotlight for the wider community.
The death of George Floyd in May 2020, and the movement that rose to meet him across the world, resonated with Blak Australia. Here over 440 First Nations people have died at the hands of the State since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody nearly thirty years ago. Not one single individual has ever been held criminally accountable for any of these 440 deaths of our mob.
“Not one single individual has ever been held criminally accountable for any of these 440 deaths of our mob.”
The recommendations from the Royal Commission have not yet been fully implemented, and the reports keep coming.
In March 2018, the Australian Law Reform Commission report, Pathways to Justice – Inquiry into the Incarceration Rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, was tabled in Parliament. The report found that First Nations men are 14.7 times more likely to be imprisoned than non-First Nations men. First Nations women are 21.2 times more likely to be imprisoned than non-First Nations women.
The Black Lives Matter Movement created solidarity for Blak Australia at a crucial time. COVID-19 has given the wider community a glimpse into the lives of justice-involved people and communities – isolation, poor mental health, over-policing of communities, criminalisation of COVID-specific offences, limited access to social support networks, restriction on movements, and disadvantage through loss of income.
But the crisis is not new. Australia’s affiliation with prisons and punishment dates back to the First Fleet where Australia as we know it was founded as a penal colony. The first Police Force in NSW was drawn from the best behaved convicts. The love of prisons and punishment has not changed — what shifted was the focus of our penal colony to First Nations children, people, and communities.
First Nations people, families, and communities have been fighting for justice since colonisation. Fighting against the systemic and structural racism that takes Blak life.
We established Deadly Connections Community & Justice Services Limited in 2018. It was a direct community response to the mass incarceration and entrenched involvement of First Nations people, families, and communities in the child protection and justice systems.
As First Nations people, we recognised the intersection of trauma, disadvantage, and system involvement of First Nations peoples, families, and communities. Our services and programs are designed by the community, for the community, where culture, healing, and self-determination are at the centre of all we do.
Keenan Mundine (one author of this piece) spent half of his life behind bars, in both juvenile and adult custody. He lost both of his parents at a young age. He was removed from his older Brothers and his community in ‘The Block’, in Redfern. He was left with unresolved trauma and ongoing disadvantage.
Keenan turned his life around, despite the structural racism in his way. His transition and readjustment from prison has been far from easy. With very little support to address his complex trauma and no culturally responsive services to assist him with navigating his journey, Keenan was left to figure it out himself along with every other First Nations person who is released from gaol on any given day.
First Nations incarceration isn’t inevitable. It is driven by complex, intergenerational trauma and disadvantage – stemming from colonisation, ongoing racism, state-sanctioned violence, and the systematic removal of First Nations children from their families.
Defining First Nations people as ‘bad’ or inherently criminal makes it easier for the wider community to ignore the mass incarceration and unnecessary deaths of our people.
Incarcerating our way out of social problems does not make communities safer. Safety is sold to us as a product at the detriment of our First Nations people.
“Safety is sold to us as a product at the detriment of our First Nations people.”
What has become apparent during COVID-19 is that our communities are not any less safe with a reduction in prison numbers. Court operations have adapted and we are seeing fewer people being sent to prison and no increase in rates of crime.
COVID-19 presents a real risk if it gets into prisons here. With limited options to implement social distancing and other health recommendations, gaols could easily become another Ruby Princess.
Deadly Connections has been advocating for the release of prisoners in an effort to reduce the risk of a prison COVID-19 outbreak. Our recommendations have included the release of non-violent prisoners, those with compromised immune systems or respiratory illnesses, prisoners over 70, and those with a parole date within the next three months. Despite our advocacy and the release of prisoners from around the world, we are yet to see any releases in NSW.
During COVID-19, a time when most organisations had to slow down and modify work environments, we established an office space, increased our staff/volunteer numbers, implemented key program models, protested and campaigned for systemic and structural change, and developed a community access point to increase the level of support, services and programs to our communities – particularly for system-impacted mob.
Any solutions that are developed for the First Nations community will not work without the leadership of First Nations people.
“Any solutions that are developed for the First Nations community will not work without the leadership of First Nations people.”
First Nations people have the solutions to the challenges our communities face. However, we lack the resources. Donations over the peak of the Black Lives Matter movement have assisted us in implementing much needed programs and support.
Since #BLM is no longer trending, we have noticed a significant decline in donations. Deadly Connections is not provided with ongoing Government funding, we rely on donations to continue to provide our services and programs.
What can you do to disrupt these systems of harm and destruction? Now is the time to deepen your commitment to eliminating systemic and structural racism.
You can take immediate action by donating funds/resources to First Nations led organisations, protesting, and amplifying Blak voices — particularly those with lived experience of prison. Engage in difficult conversations with your loved ones, follow First Nations-led media, volunteer your time to First Nations organisations committed to making space for healing and structural change.
All of us have an important role to play in disrupting and dismantling the systems of state sanctioned violence, oppression, and marginalisation. If we don’t, we’ll remember 2020 as the year we had the chance and didn’t take it.
If not you, then who? If not now, then when?
Read Alison Whittaker feature piece, Black Lives Matter Redux: The Enduring Injustice of First Nations Deaths in Custody.
Read Latoya Aroha Rule’s feature piece, We Need a National Ban on Spit Hoods.