No outcry against Canberra’s shameful ‘obscenity’

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“An Aboriginal person in Canberra is 19.4 times more likely to be sent to prison than a non-Aboriginal person. The highest rate ratio in Australia. Without argument, this is more than a disgrace – it is obscene,” writes columnist JON STANHOPE.

OVER the last eight years, the number of Aboriginal people sent to prison in Australia has increased by just over 50 per cent.

Jon Stanhope.

Without argument, this is a national disgrace.

Over the last eight years, the number of Aboriginal people sent to prison in Canberra has increased by 279 per cent. The highest rate of increase in Australia. 

Of the Aboriginal people currently in prison in Canberra, 90 per cent have served a prior sentence of imprisonment. It is the highest recidivism rate in Australia. 

An Aboriginal person in Canberra is 19.4 times more likely to be sent to prison than a non-Aboriginal person. The highest rate ratio in Australia.

Without argument, this is more than a disgrace – it is obscene.

It is an obscenity that we, as a community, have calmly taken in our stride. There have been none of the usual public indicators of concern let alone outrage; no letters to the editor or harrying calls to talkback radio. No ABC television special investigative report. No motion of censure or of no confidence moved in the Legislative Assembly. No public inquiry. No picket outside the prison, police stations or the courts. No mass rally or demonstration outside the Legislative Assembly. In fact, no rally or demonstration anywhere. 

The only reaction from Canberrans has, I fear, been a stifled yawn as we turn the pages of the paper or change the television channel to avoid the tedium of being confronted by the occasional short cryptic report touching on the reality of indigenous disadvantage in Canberra, our home.

It is an accepted political truism, as evident in the ACT as anywhere, that there are no votes in prison reform or in being seen to care about the welfare of people caught up in the criminal justice system. 

If anyone doubts that I invite them to reflect on our and the ACT government’s nonchalant indifference to the state of the Alexander Maconochie Centre and to the rate at which we in Canberra lock up Aboriginal people and ignore their needs.

I have recently been especially agitated about the state of the justice system in the ACT.

My agitation has been heightened by the insight I have from working in an Aboriginal community-controlled organisation, namely Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health and Community Service. 

I have, through my employment at Winnunga been privileged to work alongside its CEO, the indomitable Julie Tongs, an outstanding and fearless leader of the local Aboriginal community and have met and come to know clients with criminal records and a history of detention in the AMC.

As I have mentioned previously, one such person is Julianne Williams, who was the subject of the now infamous forceful strip search in front of men, both prison officers and inmates, in the AMC. I have known Julianne for a number of years and we have over time become friends.

I met her recently for a coffee and a chat. We talked about her ordeal in being forcibly strip searched as well as more broadly about the reality of detention in the AMC.

Julianne has written an open letter about her ordeal. This is part of what she wrote: 

“On arriving at the Crisis Support Unit, I was placed in a cell where everything can be seen. There were also five to seven men housed in the unit who can see everything that occurs. Whilst I was laying on the bed, four female officers, two male officers, two male nurses and five male detainees had a full view.

All officers and nurses enter my cell to strip me naked to check I had nothing on me – for my safety I’m told. The female officers were in full squad gear while the rest were there to watch. The intention was to remove all my clothing by cutting my clothes clean off. 

At this time I was menstruating heavily due to all the blood-thinning medication I take.

Here I ask you to remember that I am a rape victim. So you can only imagine the horror, the screams, the degrading feeling, the absolute fear and shame I was experiencing.”

The details of Julianne’s ordeal, while she was in the care and under the control of the ACT government and its officers, has been widely reported. 

No resident of the ACT, who takes an interest in local news, would not be aware of the salient details of the way she was treated. Julianne also lives with a range of very serious medical conditions, which were also revealed in media reports about her strip search.

In our recent conversation I asked Julianne whether she was surprised or disappointed by the apparent lack of local interest in or concern about the treatment which she endured at the hands of the ACT government, in our names. 

I told Julianne that I had not seen, since the media reported her treatment, a single letter to the editor, an editorial or opinion piece, any in-depth television exposure, calls for a rally in front of the Legislative Assembly or indeed anywhere, or any expression of anger or outrage at her treatment other than by me and Julie Tongs. 

I drew Julianne’s attention to the understandable anger in Canberra and across Australia and the massive outpouring of support which Brittany Higgins justifiably received following the appalling ordeal she had suffered, also in Canberra, and asked whether the contrasting responses to the two incidents had occurred to her and her reaction to that.

Julianne looked at me, smiled ruefully, and said: “Jon, I am an Aboriginal woman with a criminal record, do you seriously think anyone other than my people would care about anything that was done to me?”


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Jon Stanhope
Jon Stanhope was Chief Minister from 2001 to 2011 and represented Ginninderra for the Labor Party from 1998. He is the only Chief Minister to have governed with a majority in the Assembly.


  1. In Canberra, compassion is something one demonstrates every few years by voting for Labor or the Greens. That’s it.

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