Tony Smith. Our dubious talent as jailers

In 2004 I was a patient in the cardiac unit of RPAH Sydney. I had mysterious heart inflammation which turned out to be due to a rare auto-immune condition known as Churg-Strauss Syndrome, a form of vasculitis that raises the eosinophils in the blood to life threatening levels. In the next bed was an Indigenous man from Dubbo. Because of the way names were written with surname first, the card over the bed read “Lord, Stanley”.

I teased Lord Stan a little but he was there for a serious procedure – a triple bypass – and soon went nervously into an intensive care room. This week we acquired a new television set. The old one had lasted since 1986, so we reckoned we were just about due and the decision was forced on us by digitisation. So I broke with normal practice and watched some midday news bulletins. And there was Lord Stan. It was good to see him looking well after ten years. Obviously both the surgeons and the post-operative carers had done a good job with Stan and of course, his own attitude to rehabilitation was the main factor in his survival.

Unfortunately, Stan was on the news because his son, Stanley Lord Junior had died in prison in January. An inquiry into Stanley Junior’s death had recommended that there should be alternatives to imprisonment for non-violent offenders. Stanley had accumulated several driving offences. Stanley senior was understandably heart-broken and grief stricken yet again after these months.

Decades after a royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody, the report’s recommendations should have been implemented across all jurisdictions. The two huge issues are the state’s duty of care and the judicial system’s disproportionate imprisonment of Indigenous people. Lamenting our incarceration of asylum seekers who are innocent of any crime whatsoever, I was beginning to think that Australia had such a talent for locking people up out of sight and out of mind, that we actively looked for victims. I have more than one convict in my ancestry and assumed that we inherited this talent from Britain. The British empire enthusiastically exported its socio-economic problems – and of course Scottish, Irish and Welsh dissenters.

Recent events suggest however, that we are such appallingly bad jailers that we should really abdicate the field immediately. Apart from the news about Stanley’s death in prison, recently we saw the tragedy of a death of an asylum seeker Hamid Kehazaei from an infection acquired while in one of our remote camps. Even had he not acquired the infection in the camp, we assumed duty of care for this man when we placed him in detention.

It seems amazing that Prime Minister Abbott has not asked for the resignation of his Immigration Minister Scott Morrison. Morrison has direct responsibility for the welfare of asylum seekers and the failure of care stops at his desk. That he did not immediately resign on principle suggests a total lack of principle in both the Minister and in the Abbott Government.

Worse still perhaps are the implications of these cases for Australians generally. They, and the continual obfuscation around them suggest that compassion and humanity are quickly losing their grip amongst a people made to feel financially insecure for the sake of the rich and powerful. Generosity of spirit is becoming an alien attribute for Australians.

Both major parties, but especially the Coalition, claim to have a focus on priority on policy outcomes. There has always been some hypocrisy in the way these outcomes are measured, but there is little amiss with the ideal. Governments should be judged according to the results of their policies. This week, at both State and Federal levels, there are serious reasons for ‘outcomes’ focussed politicians to admit their failures. The deaths of Stanley Lord Junior and Hamid Kahazaei are derelictions of duty of the worst kind. Nothing short of ministerial resignations will restore faith in the processes surrounding our incarceration policies.

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