NT prison laws will fail Aboriginal people

New laws to oversee the Northern Territory's prison system will not address the endemic over-imprisonment of Aboriginal people and fail to respect basic rights.

The North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) and the Human Rights Law Centre (HRLC), have called on the NT Government to amend the Correctional Services Bill to better protect the rights of prisoners. 

The NT has the highest incarceration rate in the country; with over 85 per cent of the adult prison population, and over 95 per cent of the youth prison population, being Aboriginal.

NAAJA’s Manager of Law and Justice Projects, Jared Sharp, said the Bill needs to have a greater focus on the rehabilitation and reintegration of offenders.

“What we don’t want to see is people returning to prison because they haven’t received culturally relevant programs that help rehabilitate people so they stop offending. This Bill is a timely opportunity for the Government to enshrine basic access to programs and services for prisoners and address the NT’s significant reoffending rates,” said Mr Sharp.

The HRLC’s senior lawyer, Ruth Barson, said there is no reason for the new laws not to protect the rights of prisoners. Other jurisdictions, such as Victoria, have clauses which explicitly state that prisoners have rights, such as to food, to see a doctor, and to practice their religion. 

“Ensuring that prisoners are treated fairly is part of effective rehabilitation. The laws should require the humane treatment of prisoners, and specify that prison services must be delivered in a way that respects diversity of culture, language and gender,” said Ms Barson.

Although the Bill provides some safeguards, parts of the Bill may not be compliant with Australia’s human rights obligations, such as the provisions that allow for strip searches, without there being a requirement that the search be conducted in the least restrictive way possible, and only in exceptional circumstances. Other provisions are also questionable, such as allowing medical treatment without the prisoner’s consent. 

Both NAAJA and the HRLC have recommended that the Bill have more safeguards; more independent review mechanisms; and that it should address the reality that most of the prison population is Aboriginal, and therefore prison policies, procedures and laws should be culturally relevant. 

A copy of submission can be found here.