The Cost of Incarceration

Prison Fellowship State Manager, Ian Townsend, is currently completing a Masters of Aboriginal Studies. Here he provides insight to the cost of Aboriginal imprisonment…

In the last 5 years the number of people in South Australian prisons has grown from 2,000 to just over 3000, 23% of these people are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.

Although our prisons are full and overflowing (our official capacity is only 2148) crime rates have not been the driving force behind the growth of Australia’s imprisonment rate. There has been no spike in crime, which could attribute such a significant increase in incarceration. Nor have increased incarceration rates led to any drop in the crime rate. Rather, the steady increase in imprisonment rates has been the result of legislative and policy changes implemented under the catch-cry of being “tough on crime” (National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services 2013).

This is not unique to South Australia. Increased incarceration has been a response throughout the Western world, and an unforeseen consequence has been that socially disadvantaged people such as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander folk have found themselves filling our prisons. Recent modelling has shown that Aboriginal incarceration is currently costing the Australian economy $7.9 billion per year, and that cost is rising. If nothing is done to address these disproportionately high rates of Aboriginal incarceration, the cost will rise to $9.7 billion per year in 2020, and $19.8 billion per year by 2040 (Price Waterhouse Coopers 2017). Closing the gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal rates of incarceration would generate savings to the economy of $18.9 billion per year in 2040 (Price Waterhouse Coopers 2017).

Aboriginal inmates are impacted greatly when put in prisons, and their health and well-being is put at risk. Many Aboriginal inmates suffer from substance abuse or intra- and inter-family violence but there are specific issues such as acculturation stress and deculturation that are a major concern. Aboriginal inmates often suffer long term health issues due to the extreme distances from family members. Given that in South Australia there is only one women’s prison, some women can be thousands of kilometres from relations with no opportunities for visitors or meeting people who understand their culture.

What are we to do?

Prison Fellowship Australia is in a unique situation where we can customise and develop existing Prison Fellowship programs to be more culturally appropriate, and with the ability to provide staff and volunteers who have a greater understanding of colonisation and the impact that it still has on Aboriginal people today.

For folk who may have poor English, we provide the Simplified English Version of the Gospel of Mark. This is a translation of the book of Mark supplied free of charge from the Bible League, which can be used so that Aboriginal inmates can have a better understanding of the Gospel.  

We also train our staff and volunteers with regard to the language they use when working with Aboriginal inmates, and how words such as Aborigines, half-caste and even the celebration of Australia Day can cause offence to Aboriginal people. Some Aboriginal inmates will experience the loss of a loved one during their time in prison, which adds the feeling of isolation. Prison Fellowship can be that extra support during this period, often referred to as “Sorry Business”, and just by praying with the inmate during this a period of bereavement can be beneficial.

If you are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, or are passionate about sharing the Gospel with love to these people groups, contact your local State office to join a team.

The cost of incarceration