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NAAJA calls out prison conditions as trigger for Alice Springs facility riot

Callan Morse -

The Northern Australia Aboriginal Justice Agency says the "mass incarceration of Aboriginal people in over-crowded, hot prisons" contributed to a recent riot in an Alice Springs facility.

The riot broke out at the Alice Springs Correctional Centre late on Sunday evening after 27 inmates set mattresses alight and broke down doors in a dormitory facility.

National Indigenous Times understands Aboriginal inmates were involved in the riot.

Two inmates and an officer were taken to hospital to treat minor injuries following the incident.

Northern Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) acting chief executive, Darryl Pearce, said the riot showed there is an urgent need to divert people from prison with new programs and changes to the bail laws.

"The justice system is broken in the NT and the underlying social problems are getting worse ... and rehabilitation just isn't possible in crowded, 40-degree prisons without adequate programs, air-conditioning or facilities," Mr. Pearce said.

"Laws and policies in the NT have a discriminatory impact on Aboriginal people and the bail laws need to be changed, to give courts more discretion to grant bail.

"Governments also need to make 'justice re-investments', to spend money on the underlying causes of offending and to support people with employment, education, health, and training. It's an evidence-based approach that reduces re-offending."

According to a 2022 report, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are significantly overrepresented in Northern Territory prisons, making up 85 per cent of the total prison population whilst accounting for 26 per cent of the Territory's overall population.

Additionally, both of the Northern Territory's major prisons are heavily populated, with Darwin's prison currently home to 1439 inmates, 391 more than design capacity and Alice Springs' prison currently detaining 680 inmates, 204 more than design capacity.

Mr Pearce said it was expensive to lock people up and it didn't make the community safer, nor did it address the on-going problems of poverty and despair.

He said 40 per cent of the Northern Territory's Indigenous prisoner population were on remand and waiting in prison for a trial, or to be sentenced.

"NAAJA calls on the NT Government to urgently convene a Justice Reinvestment Summit to prevent this mass incarceration of Aboriginal people; and to consider options like Community Courts, return-to-country programs and family support," Mr Pearce said.

In response to NAAJA's calls for intervention, Northern Territory Minister for Justice, Chansey Paech said the Northern Territory Government is addressing the disparity through the Aboriginal Justice Agreement (AJA) whilst agreeing that there is a "gross over-representation of Aboriginal people in NT prisons and youth detention centres".

"Our Government is supporting a new model of delivery towards reducing reoffending and imprisonment rates of Aboriginal Territorians; engaging and supporting Aboriginal leadership; and improving justice responses and services to Aboriginal Territorians," Minister Paech said.

"We are delivering necessary changes that support healthy, responsible, safe and resilient communities such as a range of law reforms, community courts, law and justice groups, alternatives to custody programs, and supported bail accommodation.

"Our Government ensures that Aboriginal Territorians are involved in the governance, oversight and operation of the AJA."

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