Following the recent tragic death of a young Aboriginal man in the Unit 18 youth detention facility at Perth's Casuarina Prison, the Queensland Aboriginal and Islander Health Council (QAIHC) emphasises the urgent need for prison system reform to improve the health, well-being and safety of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, especially in Queensland.
QAIHC is calling for immediate action to address the lack of cultural safety faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth in custody in Queensland, stressing that without immediate action to address systemic racism within the criminal justice system, similar tragedies will continue to occur.
QAIHC is encouraged by recent remarks by Health and Aged Care Minister Mark Butler at the NACCHO Members Conference in Perth, where he committed his department to reviewing access and cultural appropriateness of healthcare to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in custody.
However, QAIHC warns that a review without the input and involvement of Australia’s Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (ACCHO) sector would be incomplete and ineffective. QAIHC calls on the Department of Health and Aged Care to partner with NACCHO in this review.
QAIHC welcomes the Minister’s commitment to exploring how Australia’s ACCHO sector can be better integrated with the criminal justice system to support the delivery of culturally safe healthcare to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in custody nationally. However, in the meantime, QAIHC suggests the Albanese government works with all state and territory health and corrections ministers to explore how to rapidly facilitate access to Medicare for healthcare being delivered to all people in custody throughout Australia.
Queensland is undertaking significant and rapid legislative reform in passing restrictive youth crime laws. These laws override Queensland's Human Rights Act and make the breach of bail an offense for children.
As a result, it is anticipated that more children will be detained and for longer periods. These changes are expected to pose significant challenges in meeting Target 11 of the National Agreement on Closing the Gap, which is to reduce the rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people (10-17 years) in detention by at least 30% by 2031. This indicates the need for urgent, community driven measures to prevent children encountering the criminal justice system.
The statistics are alarming, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people constituting approximately one third of Queensland's prison population, making them the most imprisoned group globally. Children aged 10 to 13 in custody (who are already too young to be in custody) are disproportionately Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander.
Prioritising the physical, mental, social, emotional, neurodevelopmental, and spiritual health and well-being of inmates while in custody is crucial for narrowing the health gap and reducing overrepresentation in the justice system.
This necessitates active involvement of ACCHOs, who are best-placed to provide culturally-centred holistic care to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, so that funding must be urgently directed to the sector to facilitate partnerships in this area.
The Federal Government's willingness to engage in comprehensive prison system reform underscores the importance of Queensland's leadership in these discussions.
QAIHC advocates for a system that offers young individuals involved in the criminal justice system the culturally safe care and support needed for successful reintegration into their communities, breaking the cycle of incarceration.
“To reduce the flow of young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander individuals entering the criminal justice system, lower the rate of repeat offenders, and most crucially, eliminate deaths in custody, we urge both the Federal and Queensland Governments to take immediate action to review the state of healthcare in prisons.”
“ACCHOs understand the unique needs, challenges, and solutions our communities require, and it is critical that the ACCHO sector is involved in a review and in the ongoing delivery of healthcare to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in custody.”
“We must increase access to culturally safe, effective, and relevant care and support within the justice system, in alignment with the National Agreement on Closing the Gap.”
“Implementing Medicare in prison health services is another important step toward better inmate well-being as well as effective referral pathways back into the community to ensure ongoing support.”