Amnesty condemns Aborigine treatment

AMNESTY International yesterday delivered a damning report on prison conditions for Aborigines in Australia, where it said some blacks were subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment in violation of international standards.

Two years after an Australian Royal Commission inquiry into Aboriginal deaths in custody recommended sweeping changes to the treatment of Aborigines by police and the law, Amnesty concludes that black Australians are still being incarcerated in 'grossly disproportionate numbers' and that the criminal justice system remains weighted against them.

Although the Australian government has embarked on a 10- year process of 'national reconciliation' with black Australians, Amnesty's report will embarrass Canberra, already under fire from Aborigines, lawyers and welfare groups in Australia over delays in acting on the Royal Commission's proposed reforms.

The Royal Commission investigated deaths in police custody of 99 Aborigines between 1980 and 1989. The Amnesty report was based on a visit to Australia last year by three of its officials.

The Amnesty team welcomed last year's response by Australia's federal and state governments to the Royal Commission's inquiry, in which they committed themselves to wide-ranging social and legal reforms concerning the status of Aborigines. Amnesty described this as a 'serious commitment . . . to addressing the discrimination faced by Aboriginal people in Australia'.

Yet, despite the Royal Commission's disclosure that Aborigines are arrested at 29 times the rate of other Australians, numbers of Aborigines imprisoned have actually increased since the Royal Commission began its inquiry in 1988. The most alarming rise has been in New South Wales, the most populous state, where Aboriginal prisoners increased by 80 per cent. In Victoria, the rise was 75 per cent and in Western Australia 24 per cent.

Amnesty concluded that Aborigines were still much more likely than non-Aborigines to be imprisoned for minor offences such as drunkenness. Although drunkenness has been decriminalised in most of Australia, police resort to other measures to detain blacks. Amnesty says: 'This is exacerbated by discriminatory social practices such as dress regulations which conspire to place severe restrictions on Aboriginal peoples' access to licensed hotels, bars, pubs and even theatres.'

Among the 24 Australian prisons it inspected, Amnesty singled out one in Alice Springs where it said conditions could well be judged unacceptable according to international standards. In Alice Springs, the second largest town in the Northern Territory, Aborigines outnumber non-Aborigines in prison by eight to one.

The Amnesty team described their visit to the prison: 'It was hot and, despite the open eaves, smelled strongly of sweat and urine . . . Prisoners are confined to their dormitories for 16 hours a day. During these periods, the prisoners are obliged to use toilet facilities within their caged sub-divisions with little or no privacy.'

Some prison administrators told Amnesty such conditions were 'eminently suitable' for Aborigines because they preferred to sleep communally, but that non- Aboriginal prisoners would not be able to cope with such conditions.

The Amnesty report concluded: 'Whatever may be the validity of these assertions, Amnesty International is concerned that such cultural suppositions should not be used as an excuse to provide grossly inadequate, overcrowded or degrading communal accommodation specifically for Aboriginal people.'