Sydney, Australia - The indigenous people of Australia constitute only 2.5 percent of the country's total population, however, 27 percent of those in prison across the country are of Aboriginal heritage.

The rate of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander incarceration is now 18 times higher than that of non-indigenous Australians.

Last month, the Law Council of Australia declared the rate of indigenous imprisonment, which has grown by more than 50 percent in the last decade, a "national emergency"

But for many indigenous people, this crisis in the relationship between their communities and the criminal justice system is nothing new.

Police profile Aboriginal people and target Aboriginal kids from a very young age. They are harassed, abused, physically and morally, by the police and it hardens them up.

- Ray Jackson, Wiradjuri elder

Targeted from childhood

Wiradjuri elder Ray Jackson, who has been raising awareness on the issue of incarceration for two-and-half-decades, told Al Jazeera the relationship between police and indigenous people has always been one fraught with racism.

Aboriginal children are 31 times more likely to be in prison than non-indigenous children, Jackson said. "There's something totally wrong with a system that comes up with those numbers. We're on a treadmill to nowhere at this point in time.

"Police profile Aboriginal people and target Aboriginal kids from a very young age. They are harassed, abused, physically and morally, by the police and it hardens them up. It's a self-fulfilling prophesy by police, that Aboriginal people are all criminals," he said.

Criminologist Chris Cunneen told Al Jazeera while the imprisonment rates for all Australians have been rising, the drastically higher increase for indigenous people reflected ongoing social and economic marginalisation.

Indigenous people are more heavily policed and let off less under discretionary powers, he said. The increases were not reflective of higher crime rates but harsher sentencing, bail laws, and a move away from alternative sentencing measures.

He is a strong advocate for justice reinvestment programmes, which he said have been successful overseas. 

"There needs to be a greater focus on not just getting indigenous people out of the system but not bringing them into it in the first place. We need to look at spending taxpayers money on housing, education and employment to increase life opportunities in poor communities, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal," he said.

No break for women

For indigenous women, prison rates grew by 18 percent in the last year alone.

Women's prison rights advocate Vickie Roach [Jarni Blakkarly]

Women's prison rights advocate Vickie Roach, who is from the Yuin Aboriginal nation, has been in and out of prisons for much of her life, mostly for drug offences and fraud. As a member of the Stolen Generation, she was forcibly removed from her family by the state at two years of age.

"It takes a long time to get out of being institutionalised," she told Al Jazeera. "You get used to just obeying, being told what to do. There are days when you just sit there saying what should I do now."

She last got out of prison in 2008 after serving her longest sentence of five years. She had driven the getaway car of her abusive partner to help him escape after committing a robbery. During the police chase, the car crashed into another vehicle, seriously injuring the other driver.

Being a victim of domestic abuse was not taken into consideration at sentencing, and she now has a  "violent offender" record.     

"Even now, six years later, it feels like I just got out yesterday. I catch myself, I talk about prison all the time, it's the only experience I have to talk about in my life," Roach said.

"We need to be clear, when they talk about 'tough on crime' they mean 'tough on Aboriginal people'. Prison takes people away, locks them up. If anyone thinks there's any rehabilitation going on then they need to think again," she said.

Annie Nash, executive officer of Flatout, a non-government organisation that works with women coming out of prisons in Victoria state, told Al Jazeera the lack of housing and support women receive upon release contributed to the high levels of re-offending.  

"If you really want to address the rate of imprisonment for Aboriginal women, it's about looking at the criminal justice system but also the intersection Aboriginal women have with education, employment, what it means to have a criminal record and what that does to your chances in life," she said.

Life chances

Since 1992 for 340 indigenous people, contact with the criminal justice system has been a fatal one.

At a small community forum in Sydney last week, families gathered to share stories of relatives who had died in police and prison custody and their search for justice.

A Royal Commission in 1991 into indigenous deaths in custody found Aboriginals did not die at a higher rate, but that deaths were linked in general to the high incarceration rate. The commission made 339 recommendations, many on decreasing imprisonment rates for indigenous people, the vast majority of which were never fully implemented across the country.

Since the commission, only one police officer has faced a court for a role in any of the deaths and there have been no convictions.

Shaun Harris' niece Julieka Dhu died from medical complications while in custody [Jarni Blakkarly/Al Jazeera]

Shaun Harris is the uncle of 22-year-old Yamatji woman Julieka Dhu, who died from medical complications while in custody in Western Australia state in August this year. She was in jail for unpaid parking fines, and her family says she did not receive adequate medical treatment. 

Harris' hands shook as he slowly read a statement at the forum: "We need answers and we want justice and accountability for my beautiful niece, Julieka. She did not deserve what the system inflicted on her."

Charandev Singh has assisted families whose relatives have died while in custody since 1993. He told Al Jazeera that race-based imprisonment rates in Australia are "unprecedented" across the world.   

"The term 'mass-incarceration' is used to characterise the imprisonment of African American people in the United States, but incarceration of Aboriginal women and children, in particular, are 20 times that of a place which calls it 'mass incarceration'. So the only thing we can describe it as is 'hyper-incarceration' or 'carcerational-genocide'.

"It's important to remember that prisons are not a broken system, the policing system, in how it operates with Aboriginal people is not in any sense broken. It works and it will always continue to work as it's intended to, if things don't change," he said.

Follow Jarni Blakkarly on Twitter: @jarniblakkarly

Source: Al Jazeera