The Over-Representation Of Indigenous Peoples In Prisons Today


While there are numerous problems in the western prison systems of today, one issue stands out above all, and this is the over-representation of indigenous peoples in prisons. This report will focus only on the indigenous peoples of three countries: the New Zealand Maori, the Indigenous Canadians, and the Australian Aboriginals; however it must be remembered that this is a problem in every country where there exists an indigenous race.

For the sake of completeness, a brief and concise history is needed. New Zealand, Australia and Canada were colonised by the British and remain part of the Commonwealth today. However, when the first British settlers came over there were Indigenous people in all three of these countries. In New Zealand and Canada, attempts were made to the Indigenous people to trade goods for land. These were held to be unfair trades which took advantage of the Indigenous people. Recently, it has been held that both countries owe a fiduciary duty to the Indigenous for these deals. Unfortunately, the Aboriginals in Australia were not as lucky, and have battled to keep their culture alive through assimilation attempts from the Australian government. In the three countries, attempts to assimilate the Indigenous people to the British way of life, and to stamp out the rich culture of these people were made. Fortunately, the Indigenous people prevailed, although not without losses.

The statistics for this area are eye opening. New Zealand Corrections Department showed 50.9% of the prison population in March 2017 were Maori. In Canada, the Prison Watchdog showed that over a quarter of inmates were indigenous people at 25.4%. Finally, the Australian Bureau of Statistics has made out that 27% of the prison population is made up by inmates who identify as Aboriginal. But these are just raw numbers, how do they relate to the population as a whole of these countries? Aboriginals in Australia make up 3% of the total population; while in Canada they make up 4.3%. Maori in New Zealand makes up 14.6% of the total population. As such, these numbers are tiny in the general scheme of things. How is it that 3-4% of the total population makes up over a quarter of the prison population, and how does 14.6% of Maori in the total population make up over half of the prison population?

It would be a difficult feat to look at these statistics and deny that there was a problem. But the question to be asked is, why does this problem exist? Is there bias, or racism evident in the police sector? Or are there other sociological causes such as poverty, or the environment that these cultures grew up in?

Amnesty International Secretary General Salil Shetty, has likened the situation in Australia with racial prejudice. He states that an entire generation will be lost if the incarceration rate for Aboriginals remains at what it is, and that the Aboriginals should have more input in identifying methods to decrease the high youth incarceration rate. To expand, Secretary General Salil Shetty stated that “essentially the view that the Aboriginal community cannot manage their own affairs is a highly discriminatory approach.” Australia has attracted criticism from Amnesty International and other human rights groups over their treatment of the Aboriginals over time, and this is no different.

Similarly, the Office of the Correctional Investigation for Canada has stated that cultural and racial prejudice are to blame for the high incarceration rate, as well as systematic discrimination, economic and social disadvantage, and factors that can arise from these disadvantages such as substance abuse and violence. However, unlike Australia, the Canadian government has recognized this history of prejudice, bias and racism. The Supreme Court stated that in sentencing, and in correctional decisions, Aboriginal social history considerations must be taken into consideration. These can include a lack of education, poverty, exposure to Aboriginal street gangs, and effects of the dislocation and dispossession of Aboriginal peoples.

In New Zealand, Maori make up over half of the prison population. This is one of the highest representations in western society. The New Zealand Corrections Department accepts that there is bias evident in the early, discretionary stages of arrest, however, to quantify this bias would be “highly problematic” as there are a range of factors to influence decisions. The Department of Corrections state that representation in prison populations is due to an individual’s “life experiences and circumstances, regardless of ethnicity,” so do Maori experience an abundance of adverse life experiences and circumstances? In the past, Maori have been affected by policy decisions which have increased the likelihood of experiencing these adverse life experiences. This can lead to an ongoing cycle of poverty, lack of education and exposure to gangs – all things which the Supreme Court of Canada identified to affect Indigenous Canadians. In New Zealand legislation, there are various provisions, which require the decision makers to take account of the offender’s culture or provisions which enable the offending or dispute to be resolved outside of the Court system, in a way more appropriate to Maori culture which would likely have a greater deterrent effect on the offender.

The problem most certainly exists, and we know the reasons why. Why then, are there still so many incarcerated indigenous peoples? The recognition of Indigenous rights in most countries is relatively recent, and in New Zealand and Canada the courts and governments have attempted to find ways to deal with offenders in order to stop them from reoffending, or to prevent indigenous peoples, and in particular young indigenous peoples from offending in the first place. With a hard stance against racism and bias, and recognition of the different cultural values, there is hope that the over-representation of indigenous peoples in prison populations will decrease. This will not happen without first recognizing that there is a problem and starting the conversation – the wrongs that were committed during colonization and after, do not have to define our countries in the present.

Letitia Smith

Letitia is in her fourth year of study, working towards a Bachelor of Laws and a Bachelor of Criminal Justice.
Letitia Smith