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Systematic Racism & Indigenous Incarceration

Written by Molly Lancett

Note: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are advised that this post will contain content discussing deceased persons.


The UON CCJS Blog respectfully acknowledges the traditional custodians: the Awabakal and Worimi people, and on whose traditional land the Callaghan campus is located.

What is systematic racism?

It is vital to first understand what systematic racism is. Systematic racism is, simply put, when practices, policies and attitudes within institutions cause unfair treatment to particular groups. It is similar to casual/everyday racism, as it does not usually target one group, but rewards some cultures over others. The most common form of this is institutional racism, which is where racism is established as the normal behavior within a society or organisation, an example being the police force.

What are the facts?

Over-representation is a consistent problem, and it's only increasing. The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC) in 1991 found that the Aboriginal population was in fact over-represented within police custody. They stated that ‘Aboriginal people are in gross disproportionate numbers, compared with non-Aboriginal people, in both police and prison custody and it is this fact that provides the immediate explanation for the disturbing number of Aboriginal deaths in custody’. Since the aforementioned Royal Commission, the number of Indigenous people in prison has actually doubled, and between 2006-2016 alone, it has increased by 41%. The gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous imprisonment rates has also widened throughout that period. So roughly, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults are responsible for around 2% of the population within Australia, but they make up 27% of the prison population. Shockingly, In 2015, a total of 23 indigenous Australians died in custody in Australia. This was the highest number of deaths in a single year between 2008 and April 2021.

The case of David Dungay:

Global protests about the police killing of African American man George Floyd have renewed the focus on the systemic mistreatment of Aboriginal people, and rightly so. Similarly to George Flloyd, David Dungay, the Dunghutti man from Kempsey, died in Sydney’s Long Bay jail on 29 December 2015. Guards rushed to his cell to stop him from eating biscuits due to his diabetes, they then dragged him to another cell, held him face down and had him injected with a sedative. Before he died he said a staggering twelve times that he could not breathe. Another story of excessive force from the police begging the question that, if this was a white man, would the treatment have been the same? Shockingly, in November 2019, the coroner found none of the guards involved should face disciplinary action and their "conduct was limited by systemic efficiencies in training."

How can you help?

Activist and academic Angela Davis stated, “In a racist society it is not enough to be non-racist. We must be anti-racist.” ASU Professor Eleanor Seaton believes that white people can aid in three ways:

  1. Educate themselves on racism.

  2. Truthfully interrogate their own racial experiences, including white privilege and the fact that they have unearned privilege due to their race or ethnicity while others have unearned disadvantage due to their race or ethnicity.

  3. Become anti-racist and work to eradicate racism in their respective schools, jobs, neighborhoods and networks.

It is no longer socially acceptable to not involve yourself, if you stay silent, you are apart of the problem.


Aboriginal Health and Medical Research Council of New South Wales - Call 02 9212 4777


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