Corrective Services Minister Margaret Quirk today applauded one of Western Australia’s most successful initiatives to reduce the number of Aboriginal deaths in custody.
“The Aboriginal Visitors Scheme (AVS) celebrates its 20th anniversary of operation today,” Ms Quirk said.
“That is 20 years of being instrumental in providing much-needed and accessible support and raising awareness of issues surrounding the incarceration of indigenous people and in reducing self-harm and suicide rates for this largely disadvantaged sector of our community.
“The excellent work carried out by participants in the AVS comes in the face of the sad reality that WA’s prison population has an unacceptably high level of Aboriginal incarceration.
“Indigenous people comprise only a few per cent of the overall population in WA, yet make up 43 per cent of the of the prison population.
“This situation is untenable and most certainly a crying shame.”
The Minister said that for a society to continue along such a path with little or no redress to the shameful statistic of indigenous imprisonment rates was worse than negligent.
“It is to accept systemic racism in the justice system as the norm,” she said.
“I, for one, find it difficult to tolerate such a situation without doing what I can to change it.
“Systemic racism is not the fault of any individual. Nor is it by design. It is simply the manifestation of a system that is broken and it is fortunate that we have some initiatives in place, such as the AVS, to lessen the impact of this sad situation.
“I congratulate those involved in the AVS and salute the great efforts they have made, and continue to make, on behalf of those they help.”
Ms Quirk said the scheme, which operated in all prisons and detention centres across WA, as well as several police lockups, was the result of many years of hard work and dedication.
“Its success is based largely on trust; over time, the visitors have worked hard to earn the trust not only of prisoners, their families and communities, but also of the police and prison staff,” she said.
“In turn, the visitors have been able to ease the despair felt by many Aboriginal detainees - especially those jailed hundreds of kilometres from their homes and families.
“I have no doubt that lives have been saved and many more lives made bearable due to the dedication and skills of visitors involved in the AVS.”
The Minister said the AVS had been in operation since 1988. The scheme had pioneered counselling techniques for Aboriginal people, promoting a greater understanding of the needs of Aboriginal people in custody.
The AVS was introduced as a pilot program in Kalgoorlie in July 1988, following concerns about the increasing number of Aboriginal deaths in custody.
Administered initially by the Aboriginal Affairs Planning Authority (and now the Department of Corrective Services), the AVS has retained its autonomy and confidentiality in providing an independent support service for indigenous people in custody.
“Its independence means the scheme’s focus is maintained directly on its objectives, with excellent results,” Ms Quirk said.
“As well as having a direct impact on the lives of detainees, the scheme has also enabled direct feedback to several Government departments.
“Such feedback is central for ongoing quality improvement in our prisons, detention centres and lock-ups.
“It has also helped develop strong partnerships between the Department of Corrective Services, the Police and the Department of Indigenous Affairs.
“The scheme today is recognised Australia-wide as an effective means of reducing Aboriginal deaths and self-harm in custody.”
Currently, the Department of Corrective Services has 45 visitors in the scheme who carry out a total of 3,550 visits each year acting as negotiators, communicators and counsellors and contributing more than 11,150 hours annually.
Prisoners and detainees can phone the AVS direct, 24-hours a day, seven days a week, to talk about their concerns or request a visit.
The scheme ensures the conditions and treatment of Aboriginal people improves and educates the community about the needs of Aboriginal detainees.
Minister's office - 9213 7000