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Issue #1914      May 11, 2020

INDIGENOUS INCARCERATION

THE CONTINUATION OF A RACIST LEGACY

29th April 2020 marked the 250th anniversary of the so-called “discovery” of Australia by Captain Cook and the Endeavor as they arrived in what was to be called “Botany Bay,” but was then and now country belonging to the Dharawal nation and the Eora nation. Captain Cook’s arrival marked the beginning of white settlement which came ready-made and prepped for wealth extraction with European industry, capitalism, military, race ideologies, and lessons learnt from colonisation in the Americas.

To mark this year’s 250th anniversary, the Australian government gave $6.7 million to the Australian National Maritime Museum (a small chunk of a $48.7 million package to celebrate the oh-so-admirable achievements of Cook) to create an Endeavor replica to circumnavigate Australia (something that the original Endeavor never actually did). Aboriginal activist groups geared up to protest the event and demand the funds be redirected to the community as reparations. The Endeavor replica project was scrapped, not out of respect and truth-telling, but because of COVID-19.

On the anniversary, while various posts and articles popped up around social media acknowledging the significance of the date, the Deputy Chief Health Officer of Victoria saw it as an opportunity to make some deeply racist statements on her personal Twitter account comparing COVID-19 to white settlement. On one hand, we have a virus, that while it is dangerous and has interrupted our lives, it is a single event that we will eventually overcome. White settlement is not an event. It is a continuous ideology that requires the ongoing displacement and oppression of traditional owners. Although methods might have changed over the past 250 years, the outcome remains the same: genocide.

Methods that we see today are ecological destruction, removing children from their families, juvenile detention, genetic testing, medical racism, poverty, incarceration, and Black deaths in custody. These acts, sanctioned by the state, correspond with the definition of genocide from the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

Let’s take a look at the current response to COVID-19 by the government in Aboriginal communities. Firstly, we have a video posted by @DRMGNOW on his Instagram on the 29th March. In this video, we have a member of the Molly Spring community in Western Australia, speaking about how her rural community is not prepared to handle the virus. Rather than receiving medical supplies from the government – masks, sanitiser, soap, disinfectant, etc. – the Molly Spring community got body bags. What message does this send to the Molly Spring community?

The Molly Spring community isn’t the only Indigenous community to be sent body bags. In the US the Seattle Indian Health Board asked in mid-March for tests and medical supplies, but instead, they received body bags three weeks later. Even in 2009, Health Canada sent First Nations people body bags during the swine flu outbreak. These governments are not preparing to protect Indigenous peoples’ health; they are preparing for Indigenous deaths.

Now, let’s take a look at homelessness. On 11th April, NITV reported on what rough sleepers in Perth are currently experiencing. NITV reporter, Rangi Hirini, watched a group of about ten Aboriginal rough sleepers have their camp site broken up by WA police, and told to pack up their things and move at least 500 metres from the site or face arrest. These people were moved on by the police, with nowhere to go, no safety nets, no stable housing, with the intent to essentially just break up their semi-permanent campsite in the city. The WA Police Commissioner’s excuse was that we can’t have a big group congregate like that, yet the only solution was to move the group on, waiting for the situation to repeat itself again. Approximately a month ago, the WA government launched a trial project to house twenty-eight out of approximately 1,000 rough sleepers in Perth in the Pan Pacific hotel to flatten the curve of coronavirus spread. As of 7th May, the “Hotels with Heart” program was abandoned, rather than scaled up to also provide temporary accommodation for women escaping domestic violence.

A few other cities had similar programs, such as the Victorian government’s plan to provide temporary housing to 200 rough sleepers affected by COVID-19. To fully grasp the situation, let’s look at some data from the 2016 census. The responses to COVID-19 and homelessness by state governments were to temporarily house only a few hundred out of 116,427 homeless people in Australia. This half-assed attempt is genocidal when Indigenous people, who only make up 2.8 per cent of the population, represent 22 per cent of rough sleepers.

Finally, another hot-bed for a cluster breakout of COVID-19 infections are prisons. In America, we are already seeing this happen in which one prison in New York has an infection rate six times higher than the rest of the city. Leading factors to an outbreak in prisons are overcrowding, inadequate health services, and lack of social distancing between prison staff, and prisoners. Debbie Kilroy, the founder of the organisation Sisters Inside, has been tirelessly reminding us that all it takes is one carrier amongst the prison staff before the virus sweeps through the prison. She has also been reminding us of the difference between isolating at home versus isolating in prison, the latter being a deeply traumatic experience. It is well known that isolation cells are a form of torture.

Debbie Kilroy mentions in an NITV article that some prisons in Queensland have a lack of hygiene products and that some people have even to buy their own soap while in jail. She mentions how overcrowding is a reality for Queensland prisons, where some prisons have fifty cells but seventy-five people imprisoned and cells that are so overcrowded that some men have to sleep on the floor.

Overcrowding is a reality as well in Victoria. A report from March this year showed that fifty-two per cent of the incarcerated population of Ravenhall Correctional Centre is on remand. Of the 1,316 people released from Ravenhall in 2019, only eighteen of them spent more than a year in the prison. Ravenhall has become so crowded that the private operator of the facility, GEO Group, has been given the green light to install bunk beds in cells that were designed for a single person. This fifty-two per cent of prisoners in Ravenhall could easily be given bail and released from the prison to prevent a devastating COVID-19 outbreak that could, as Debbie Kilroy states, turn a minor crime into a death sentence.

The campaign #CleanOutPrisons has been started by various abolitionist activists such as Debbie Kilroy, Indigenous legal services, and Indigenous activists. The campaign asks supporters to send soap to prisons and take a selfie using the hashtag. This campaign accompanies letters, statements and media releases from legal services.

For example, one organisation Aborignal Legal Services NSW/ACT released a statement signed by various families who either have family members in prison or have experienced an Aboriginal death in custody within their family. The statement demands that all First Nations people are released from prison, for COVID-19 police powers not to target First Nations communities and proper medical care and support for First Nations people re-entering the community.

The hesitation to release prisoners or to house rough sleepers during COVID-19 could be simply summed up with perhaps the government’s concern about the economic ramifications post COVID-19.

It seems like the government just wants to wait it out, hoping that the curve will be flat enough to justify never having to respond to these questions.

We cannot accept the undervaluing of Indigenous lives by the government not providing adequate medical supplies or accommodation that demonstrates the genocidal nature of settler governments.

Australian historian Patrick Wolfe points out that colonisers did not “set out to create racial doctrine” to divide white and black, but “set out to create wealth”.

So, this question that our government keeps running into over the past 250 years – “what do we do with Indigenous people” – will always be marked by the most economically viable option as long as it exists: the bare minimum.

Next article – A GUAM CASE STUDY

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