"Data released by Mick Gentleman reveals that since he became Corrections Minister women in the AMC are strip searched at the rate of roughly 30 a month, while under predecessor Shane Rattenbury it's closer to 50 a month," writes columnist JON STANHOPE.

RECENT revelations that Aboriginal women detained in the AMC are being strip searched at a far higher rate than non-Aboriginal women has elicited an interesting response from the ACT government.

Jon Stanhope.

The government response followed publication of data gleaned from an FOI request lodged by the Melbourne-based Human Rights Law Centre. What was revealed was that in the period from the beginning of October 2020 to the end of April 2021 of 208 strip searches carried out on women detained in the AMC almost 60 per cent involved Aboriginal women despite them constituting just over 40 per cent of the women detained in the prison. A disparity of this order raises, of course, an obvious and disturbing question.

Rather than address or seek to answer that question the government chose in its response to ignore concerns expressed publicly by Julie Tongs, CEO of Winnunga Nimmityjah, and other community leaders that the AMC strip-search data while odious of itself also raised the spectre of racial bias and instead released a different set of data to that provided by it to the Human Rights Law Centre. 

Notably, it released data covering the 12 months from October, 2019, as well as for May and June 2021. This shows that in the period from October, 2019, to June 30, 2021, there were a total of 796 strip searches carried out on female detainees in the AMC of which 408 or 51 per cent  were perpetrated on Aboriginal women while 388 or 49 per cent involved non-Aboriginal women.

It is moot to query why the government chose to do this. One explanation might be that it was keen to include, as it did, the data that reveals that on June 30 this year there were only 21 women detained in the AMC of whom 11 (or 52 per cent) were Aboriginal. 

However, the government did not, unfortunately, advise on the average number of Aboriginal women incarcerated in the AMC over that entire period so it is simply not possible to calculate the relative rates of strip searches of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal detainees.

It is also possible that the Minister for Corrections, Mr Mick Gentleman, was concerned that the first set of data released by ACT Corrective Services applied only to the seven months since he became Minister following last year’s election and that it reflected poorly on him. 

By extending the period back to include the whole of the last year of the eight-year term of his ministerial predecessor and ACT Greens leader, Mr Shane Rattenbury, he has illustrated that the strip-search regime under his leadership, while unarguably appalling, was not nearly as bad as that of Rattenbury's. 

What the data released by Mr Gentleman reveals is that since he became Minister women detained in the AMC are being strip searched at the rate of one a day or roughly 30 a month while under Mr Rattenbury, in the period that he was Minister for Corrections and happily building communities not prisons, an average of closer to 50 women a month were being stripped naked.

The government also advised that of the 796 occasions of women being stripped in that period (incidentally while being filmed) a total of only 12 or 0.015 per cent were found to have contraband on their persons. In other words, in 784 of the 796 strip searches no contraband was discovered and the consequent trauma, humiliation and degradation suffered by the women was unwarranted and unjustifiable.

What is also revealing about the data made available by the government is that as of June 30, 2021 (ie in the last few weeks) 52 per cent of the women detained in the AMC are Aboriginal. I understand that as of the last census 1.9 per cent of the ACT community identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.

It is notable that the 2020 Productivity Commission's "Report on Government Services" reveals that the rate ratio of indigenous incarceration in the ACT is the highest in Australia at 1 to 21.3. In other words, an Aboriginal person in the ACT is 21 times more likely to be imprisoned than a non-Aboriginal person.

Unfortunately, the Productivity Commission, as far as I have been able to determine, does not disaggregate the indigenous incarceration rate by gender. It was helpful, therefore, of the ACT government to publish the data I mention above, on the number of women incarcerated in the AMC, on June 30.

What the information reveals is that since Aboriginal women constitute just 1.9 per cent of the female population of the ACT and on June 30 comprised 52 per cent of the ACT prison population, that the crude incarceration rate of Aboriginal women in the ACT on that day (not adjusted for age) is 57 times higher than the rate for non-Aboriginal women. 

Confirming the scandalous over-representation of Aboriginal women in prison in the ACT, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported in December on the crude rate of imprisonment of women in all Australian states and territories in 2019-20. It reported that the crude rate of imprisonment of Aboriginal women in the ACT was 632.7 per 100,000, compared to a non-indigenous rate of 9.4. The ratio of the rate of Aboriginal to non-Aboriginal women incarcerated in the ACT is reported by the ABS as being 67.3, which is nearly three times higher than the next highest jurisdiction. The ratio in NSW is 18.5 and the average across all jurisdictions is 21.4.

 

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