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Aboriginal deaths in custody: 434 have died since 1991, new data shows

Australia’s record on Aboriginal deaths in custody is a driving force behind protests due to go ahead this weekend in Australian cities, as people turn out to march in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement globally.

Today, Guardian Australia has published an update to Deaths Inside, our database of all Indigenous deaths in custody from 2008 to now.

We found there have been at least 434 deaths since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody ended in 1991.

Our most recent analysis, based on today’s figures, shows:

  • Agencies such as police watch-houses, prisons and hospitals failed to follow all of their own procedures in 41% of cases where Indigenous people died.
  • The proportion of Indigenous deaths where medical care was required at some point, but not given, was 38%.
  • Mental health or cognitive impairment was a factor in 42% of all deaths in custody. But Indigenous people with a diagnosed mental health condition or cognitive impairment, such as a brain injury or foetal alcohol syndrome disorder, received the care they needed in just 51% of cases.
  • Indigenous women were less likely to have received all appropriate medical care prior to their death compared with men, and authorities were less likely to have followed all their own procedures in cases where an Indigenous woman died in custody.

In 2018, Guardian Australia’s reporting team collected and analysed all available coronial data and other sources to build this searchable database. The aim was to make the information as accessible as possible, and monitor systemic issues such as the provision of appropriate medical care.

A year later, in August 2019, we updated it again. On several measures, we found things had grown worse.

On Monday, the family of David Dungay Jr, who say the 26-year-old Dunghutti man died in similar circumstances to George Floyd, expressed solidarity with protesters on the streets of major US cities following the death of the unarmed black man. At the same time, the prime minister, Scott Morrison, told a Sydney radio station he was glad such things didn’t happen here.

“As upsetting and terrible that the murder that took place – and it is shocking, that also just made me cringe – I just think to myself how wonderful a country is Australia,” he said.

“There’s no need to import things happening in other countries here to Australia. Australia is not the United States.”

On Thursday, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) released data showing the daily average number of Indigenous people in prison had risen 5% from the second half of last year, from 12,322 to 12,902. The proportion of Indigenous people who were in prison on remand – meaning they had not been convicted or sentenced – had gone up. This is concerning because we found that more than half of the Indigenous people who have died in custody since 2008 had not been convicted of a crime.

Of all states and territories, the ABS said, Indigenous imprisonment rates were highest in Western Australia.

At least seven Aboriginal people have died in police and prison custody, and yet more previously unreported deaths have come to light. Two of those deaths were police shootings, both resulting in murder charges currently before the courts.

In South Australia, we learned of one family who have been waiting more than five years for the results of a coronial inquest into the death of their loved one, a 68-year-old man who died in Yatala labour prison in April 2015.

The inquest into the death of Wayne Fella Morrison, a Kokatha, Wirangu and Wiradjuri man who died in the same prison in 2016, has been delayed for two years because 18 prison employees claimed legal privilege against answering self-incriminating questions.

We focused on Indigenous deaths because Indigenous people are disproportionately represented at all levels of the justice system. Just 2.8% of the Australian population identifies as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, but Indigenous adults are 15 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-Indigenous Australians, and juveniles are 26 times more likely to be incarcerated. The fastest-growing prison population is Indigenous women.

Over-policing and incarceration rates mean that while non-Indigenous people die in custody at a slightly higher rate than Indigenous people, the chance that an Indigenous person living in Australia will die in custody, or lose a family member in that way, is significantly higher.

In the case of Tanya Day, a Yorta Yorta woman who was put in a police cell, officers told the coronial inquest they were acting out of concern for her welfare, yet only one officer considered – then dismissed – seeking medical treatment. The coroner, Caitlin English, noted: “Ms Day’s death was clearly preventable had she not been arrested and taken into custody.”

The information in this database is from published coronial findings. Where an inquest is yet to be held or unfinished, the information is drawn from media reports, press statements by police or justice departments, and occasionally interviews with families. We have endeavoured to link to primary sources wherever possible.

We also collected five years of data from 2010 to 2015 on the deaths in custody of non-Indigenous people to see how the trends we observed in Indigenous deaths in custody compared to broader trends.

“The fact is that the royal commission released almost three decades ago said that to stop Aboriginal deaths in custody we must stop putting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in prison,” the Change the Record co-chair and CEO of the National Aboriginal legal service (Natsils), Cheryl Axleby, said.

“Overwhelmingly state and territory governments have failed to take the necessary steps to do this.”

Repealing punitive bail laws and decriminalising public drunkenness are overdue legal reforms, Axleby said.

Both Natsils and Amnesty have called for an end to the “practice of police investigating police”.

“There needs to be an independent body that investigates these incidents and a fundamental overhaul of our approach to justice in this country,” Amnesty’s Indigenous rights adviser, Rodney Dillon, said.

Labor’s Linda Burney said it was unacceptable that Indigenous people remain overrepresented in the justice and out-of-home care systems, and is calling for the government to respond to the Australian Law Reform Commission’s Pathways to Justice report.

“Given the scale at which Indigenous Australians are incarcerated, the government cannot afford to rule anything out,” Burney said.  “The most critical aspect of all this is to reduce the interactions of Indigenous Australians with the justice system, which is placing our people at great risk of harm.”

The federal Indigenous affairs minister, Ken Wyatt, said he was working with the Coalition of Aboriginal and Islander peak organisations on “more ambitious” incarceration and detention targets, in a refreshed Closing the Gap agreement at the end of July.

Wyatt said the responsibility for reducing deaths in custody was shared with the states, which have responsibility for police and jails.

“I have seen what can be done when we come together and work constructively to achieve our goals,” he said. “I would ask that everyone continues to treat each other with respect and tolerance.”


*Original Source from The Guardian: “Aboriginal deaths in custody: 434 have died since 1991, new data shows”

*Guardian Graphic