‘Go tell the Spartans, passerby, that here, obedient to their laws, we lie.’ Molwn Labe
Australia has one of the worlds’ worst deaths in custody records – prison and police custodial – however this country’s social wealth is envied by most of the rest of the world. Therefore, how is it possible that Australia, with its social wealth, perpetrate the most horrific statistics in terms of custodial deaths, in terms of the rate of deaths and in terms of crude totals? How is it that the Aboriginal peoples of this nation are disproportionately borne with the brunt of deaths in custody and borne with disproportionately wild incarceration rates? Aboriginal incarceration rates are five times the rate when compared with apartheid South Africa, and West Australia’s Aboriginal incarceration rates are eight times the rate when compared with apartheid South Africa. In any other country these types of targeted incarceration and deaths in custody rates would have led to a civil war or en masse confrontations.
The United Nations’ mechanisms, the UN Periodic Review and the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination have slammed Australia’s maltreatment of Aboriginal peoples, and they have regularly forewarned a need for the Australian government to remedy these tragic and inexcusable wrongs. Instead we have gone the other way with the crude totals and rates rising and with Australia, between 1991 and 2011, doubling the total prison population, from 15,000 to 30,000 prisoners, and with the surge in prisoner numbers being borne by Aboriginal peoples with nearly 8,000 Aboriginal, 26% of the total Australian prisoner population – and with 84% of the Northern Territory’s prison population made up of Aboriginal peoples.
31% of the Northern Territory total population is Aboriginal. In Western Australia, a state which I describe the hotbed of racism in Australia, less than 3% of the total population are Aboriginal peoples, however 42% of the state’s total prisoner population is made up of Aboriginal peoples.
There are only 80,000 Aboriginal peoples in Western Australia, however 1 in 20 Aboriginal adult males will be spending tonight in one of the state’s 13 prisons, and 1 in 40 of all Aboriginal peoples will be spending the night in a Western Australian adult prison, and when we include youth detention, 1 in 25 Western Aboriginal peoples will be incarcerated tonight – this indicts the fact that Aboriginal peoples are in an uphill struggle, much is denied to them, born into conditions resultant of induced poverty, never a chance for many of them from the very beginning of life.
I have spent a life contemplating our unfolding human rights language and accepting the positive view that contextually we live in a better world than in years and centuries gone by, however that social justice in terms of inclusive social cohesion and equality are an incremental unfolding, generational.
Though I have seen one injustice after another, and snail-like and piecemeal changes in many long human rights struggles we are moving in the right direction, however because it is so painstakingly slow, we witness and endure the loss of one generation of peoples after another, and in Australia the loss of one generation of Aboriginal peoples after another.
I became involved in understanding and learning more about deaths in custody, after a friend, who I had long tried to help, took his life while serving a relatively short prison sentence in a West Australian prison in 1999. He was one of 494 suicides in prisons between 1980 to 2007. Australia has a worse prison suicide rate than Wales and England, actually twice their rate, and a worse prison suicide rate than Scotland.
Understanding Australian deaths in custody would evolve into an obsession with me, and my two Masters would both include studies on deaths in custody and lead to my further research through a PhD in Australian Deaths in Custody and to a soon to be released book – with the book’s aim of merely describing the shocking extensiveness of deaths in custody in Australia. If you want to understand a nation’s heart, its soul, and its identity then you look into the makeup of its prisons, day and night, and you will know the nation’s heart, soul and identity.
There are more non-Aboriginal deaths in custody than Aboriginal deaths. But the rate of Aboriginal deaths in custody is higher than in South Africa during the peak of apartheid.
It is important to definitively document the reality so we can find genuine remedies and save lives. However, in doing this we must not misrepresent the reasons for the statistics, and especially in terms of Aboriginal peoples who have endured for far too long more than enough high end trauma and who far too often, especially in contemporary times, statistics are used against them.
We cannot allow statistics to be bent in such a way, as often happens, so as to blame the victim as if the perpetrator. There are far too many reports by various government agencies, by various government funded organisations, and by various large not-for-profit organisations which produce report after report that lay various degrees of fault with the victim.
If a mantra is shoved down people’s throats often enough for long enough many begin to accept it even if deep down they don’t believe it – peoples’ identities are eroded to a point that the very identity becomes a liability – victims give up on waiting for some justice and instead accept much of the makeup of the perpetrator, all of a sudden acting as if they are to blame for their lot, for the conditions they have been born into, for the inter-generational imposts they endure.
In trying to achieve ways forward in highlighting the outrageous extensiveness of deaths in custody, and the many extreme incidents of deaths in custody, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, I spent a couple of years with the Deaths in Custody Watch Committee WA, and also made it one of the foci of the Human Rights Alliance, for which at this time I am the Alliance’s Convener however the highlighting of the extensiveness of deaths in custody which had not been realised by most of Australia, including many within state and federal governments, in terms of its extensiveness is only part of the way forward and once comprehensively acknowledged the rest of the way is in the need for various legislation that will ensure the culpability, liability, prosecution of those who contribute a hand to an unnatural death in custody, and to ensure the various legislation that will transform prisons from experiences which my studies and research argue that people leave the prison experience in a worse state than when they went in.
Finally we need various legislation that will ensure the full suite of funding for the duration of a generation to Australia’s Aboriginal peoples, the only peoples in Australia discriminated, abused and impoverished by apartheid practices for near two centuries, so as to refranchise them with infrastructure, equity, health, education and other social wealth – this is the solution to ending the impoverished suffering of most of Australia’s Aboriginal peoples which sees many of them living in third world conditions in one of the world’s richest nations.
The median wage of Australians is the world’s highest, and Australians are in the top 1% of the world’s income earners, despite hundreds of thousands of Aboriginal peoples living in utter abject poverty. If this isn’t discrimination and racism then I don’t know what is.
It can never be highlighted enough how extensive Australia’s deaths in custody record is, and this is important because once we move past the statistics and to the reasons for them there shall arise indictments of our governments, of our police and of our prisons. The Australian Institute of Criminology’s National Deaths in Custody Program said there were 601 deaths in custody in Australia from 2000 to 2007 alone. The same rates continue.
These 601 deaths in custody over eight years (an average of 75 deaths a year) compares badly with the horrific 1980-2000 tally: 1442 deaths in custody (an average of 72 deaths a year). The rate of deaths in custody is increasing.
The 2008 statistics revealed 86 deaths in custody, and therefore a rise on the average of 75 deaths a year for the period from 2000 to 2007. Though the Australian Institute of Criminology has not yet revealed the statistics for 2009 and 2010, I estimate, in accordance with my research, that since the beginning of 2009 to date there have been over 160 deaths in custody. This continues the rise in crude totals over the last several years, and therefore indicates that the average is rather at more than 80 deaths per year. I had estimated the 2008 total at no less than 80 a couple of years ago prior to the Australian Institute of Criminology’s 2008 data and analyses which were released in December 2010.
Twenty years after the Royal Commission report into Aboriginal deaths in custody was released, prison fatalities are still rising, inmates are still dying from causes that should not be the case – the lethal practices that the Royal Commission through its 339 recommendations sought to eliminate, continue.
According to the Australian Institute of Criminology, which is the body designated, as a result of the Commission’s recommendation, to compile national statistics on deaths in custody, the number of prison deaths nationwide since 2006 has risen. Even though the prison population doubled during the last two decades from 15,000 to 30,000 inmates, the prison population remained relatively stable since 2006. In the ten years to 2008, 471 people died in Australian prison custody. In comparison to the ten years to 1989, when the Commission was in full swing, the ten years to 2008 there was a near 50% increase in prison deaths.
Though the Australian Institute of Criminology has not revealed figures for 2009 and 2010 my own research indicates that the horrific trend of the last several years is continuing. The two states with the worst records nationwide in terms of prison custody deaths are NSW and Queensland, however in terms of Aboriginal deaths in prison custody, and in terms of proportion to non-Aboriginal deaths, the worst states are Western Australia and the Northern Territory. There have been 1,260 prison deaths in custody between 1980 to 2008, with NSW recording more than one third of these deaths within its jurisdiction. In the ten years to 2008 NSW recorded 161 prison deaths in custody. In the ten years to 1989 NSW recorded 106 deaths in prison custody. In the ten years to 2008 compared to the ten years to 1989 deaths in prison custody, in terms of crude totals, have increased by two hundred.
It is despicable that Australia has one of the world’s worst deaths in custody records – only countries such as the United States of America have worse records. The annual average of prison deaths is rising in terms of crude totals and averages. We cannot continue to accept rising averages, 71 in 1991, 78 till 2007, with 86 deaths in 2008. It is appalling that governments accept these rising statistics and do not adequately inquire into the reasons that lead to these high rates. I was quoted in other news media, “During the last two years there have been an additional 160 deaths in custody Australia-wide. 63% of all deaths in custody occur in prisons. The rise in prison deaths in custody is exemplified by a spate of deaths in the period between February 20 to April 4, 2010 when there were six prison deaths in Queensland, WA and NSW jails, plus a seventh death in NSW of an 18-year-old escapee shot to death. It is nonsense that such a provocatively high rate during such a brief stretch did not catch the attention of the nation’s parliamentarians and this high rate is left unexplored.”
The rate of death in privatised prisons is far higher than in government prisons which I argue should be seen as a serious concern because of the heavy drive towards privatisation nationwide and with prisons recently being privatised in NSW and Western Australia. People die in privatised prisons at three times the rate they die in government prisons. The statistics reveal 4.5 deaths per 1000 prisoners in privatised prisons in Australia, compared to 1.4 in government prisons. Nationwide the average is 1.9 per 1000 prisoners. A Senate Inquiry should be convened purely to explore these unbelievable disparate statistics. From a criminological perspective these statistics indict, or at least cast aspersions, in terms of the practices used in privatised prisons, including duty of care and the professional capacity of prison guards to flag medical attention. Privatisation’s profit motive is a factor. The conditions of a prison alone cannot suffice to adequately explain the disproportionate statistics between privatised and government prison deaths. An Inquiry could lead to practices being eliminated or outlawed and for substantive regulations to protect the welfare and rights of the inmates. It has often been the case that Coroners have imputed that a death in custody was the result of negligence and incompetence and that the death was therefore avoidable.
Many of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody recommendations were intended to eliminate incompetence and negligence however even though they were supported by parliament, that is 338 of the 339 recommendations, there was no mechanism set in place to ensure that all the relevant authorities incorporated these recommendations nor implicated the full weight of each recommendation.
The 339 recommendations are not the be-all solution, and they will not solve Aboriginal disparity and poverty, however they were a step in the right direction and every important step needs to be implemented, expeditiously and uncompromised so we can move on to the next step.
The Commission was the most extensive study and review in Australian history of Aboriginal people’s outrageously disproportionate incarceration rates, now at 14 times that of non-Aboriginal peoples, and of the disproportionate number of Aboriginal deaths in custody. The percentage of Aboriginal deaths in custody in relation to total deaths in custody from 1991 to 2000 was 18% and since 2000 to 2008 Aboriginal deaths in custody has risen to 21%.
The Royal Commission reviewed 99 Aboriginal deaths in custody between 1980 to May 1989, spending $40 million dollars in producing 110 reports, 10,000 pages and 339 recommendations. The major crux of the Commission’s findings and recommendations argued the need to reduce Aboriginal incarceration rates, which it believed underwrote the high number of Aboriginal deaths in custody. The Commission is correct in that Aboriginal incarceration rates needed to be lowered, however as if anathema, Aboriginal incarceration rates have skyrocketed, and various measures which I will acknowledge further on in this article will demonstrate various discriminations against Aboriginal peoples in police custody and as inmates in our nation’s prisons. Aboriginal peoples are the most jailed peoples in the world. Yet, racism and a meritocratic capitalism lays the blame on Aboriginal peoples as if imprisonment is an inherent trait that needs to be countered rather than realised as the result of inter-generational poverty, induced conditions, and of harsh judgments and prejudices towards them.
The Commission itself acknowledged that the underlying cause of Aboriginal deaths in custody is socio-economic, and so have the plethora of reports since. What has its origin in socio-economic issues can therefore be remedied and the real question is why the socio-economic issues have not been remedied, and why our governments are prepared to accept losing whole generations of Aboriginal youth.
How is it acceptable that the Australian government can accept that less than 3% of Australia’s population makes up 26% of Australia’s prison population? How is that 74% of Aboriginal inmates have had prior adult incarceration? How is it that the majority of Aboriginal adult inmates have been incarcerated as juveniles? How is that most of Australia’s juvenile prison population is Aboriginal, and in Western Australia 80% of the juvenile prison population is Aboriginal?
Aboriginal adults are incarcerated at 14 times the rate of non-Aboriginal adults however Aboriginal juveniles are incarcerated at 29 times the rate of non-Aboriginal youth and therefore clearly indict the view that Aboriginal youth are born into conditions where from the very beginning of life they don’t have much of a chance at life’s myriad bright prospects. We also need to understand and review the criminal justice system in terms of the possibility that it is discriminatory – sentences are longer for Aboriginal peoples and the opportunity for early parole is less likely for Aboriginal peoples. In terms of arrest rates in comparison to ‘caution’ rates, seven in ten non-Aboriginal juvenile offenders will receive a caution, however only three in ten Aboriginal juvenile offenders will receive a caution. If this is not discrimination then what is?
Despite the 338 recommendations that were accepted a 2009 Australian Indigenous Law Review study described that nationwide at best 50% of the recommendations had been to some extent implemented however the full weight of each recommendation had not been achieved by every relevant authority.
Victoria recorded the worst result with only 27% of the recommendations implemented according to the Law Review study. The Royal Commission had failed to ensure through-care policies and various legislation which could underwrite the through-care, ensuring and monitoring the implementation of the recommendations. We have not been able to move on from adequately prescribing this education into the national psyche and hence we are still caught up in struggling to induct this development into the nation’s form and content.
Nevertheless, the greatest failure of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was to essentially clear the police and prison officers of any grievous wrong doing, negligence, misconduct, liability and culpability. This was disgraceful and essentially destroyed a great chance to move forward, and to build the long overdue substantive trust exercises between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples, between ordinary Australians and our highest authorities and institutions.
There were some adverse comments and backhanders to police and prison officers however there were no findings or recommendations seeking to achieve culpability and liability, which are key to changing practices. There has never been a successful prosecutorial conviction of any of the handful of deaths in custody explored before the criminal justice system and it appears it will long continue to be the case. Hence it is fair to ask if the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody actually achieved anything, as police and prison officers, with police investigating incidents and therefore themselves, continue to languish far removed from justice in a culture of perceived favour dispensation, assumptions of investitures of faith in them, and hence reside within cultures of impunity.
The Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody was spawned by the premise that there were disproportionately more Aboriginal deaths in custody than non-Aboriginal deaths in custody, by some of the horrific Aboriginal deaths in custody where it was believed a foul hand had contributed, by the death of sixteen year Yindjibarndi John Pat in 1983.
In the end the Royal Commission argued that Aboriginal peoples did not die at higher rates than non-Aboriginal peoples and rather that the rate of Aboriginal deaths in custody is tied up with the horrific disproportionate incarceration rates of Aboriginal peoples. This too an extent is true in that Aboriginal inmates die in the numbers that they do because of their over representation in the prison population however I defy the Royal Commission and the Australian Institute of Criminology and argue against the sweeping statement that their high rates of incarceration alone account for the disproportionate custodial deaths of Aboriginal peoples. Indeed, one must study the numbers and understand that in some states Aboriginal peoples die at greater rates than non-Aboriginal inmates or police custody and that in certain custodial jurisdictions, state and territory and prison and police, Aboriginal people do die at greater rates and at younger ages than non-Aboriginal peoples, and that they are maltreated in ways that non-Aboriginal peoples may not be so readily maltreated. For the Royal Commission to impute that there is little foul play or the unlikelihood of an unnatural hand was very wrong, and was the piss weak way out, hoping that by amelioration they could deliver their messages, an educative approach, through the 339 recommendations.
I have interviewed prison guards and police officers, whom I cannot identify, and it is evident to me from these interviews and research that there exist assumptions by prison and police officers that lead and justify many overt, abusive and lethal practices. However, I have found that it is the police officers who are more likely to be violent, and especially to Aboriginal people in their custody. It does appear that compared to police officers, prison guards, in general, use minimal force or seek to restrain in the most difficult of circumstances and confrontations however police because oblige zero tolerance practices they resort to harsh treatment of those that may in anyway challenge their authority. Prisoners often arrive to prisons from police custody in a very bad state, bruised and battered, and one prison officer has described to me that he considers the behaviour of police officers as clearly overt, and that often they act in ways “…like gangsters.”
The Royal Commission did review a number of individual Aboriginal deaths in custody and in general devote up to 500 pages of script for each case, however they steered clear from indicting the police and prison officers and their institutions. If they had, and if people were held to account, and if there were sentences by admission or by judgment, both the criminal justice system and police and prison protocols would have changed to fully protect the rights of those who present themselves before the criminal justice system.
Most Aboriginal peoples believe there is no justice for them when there is an Aboriginal death in custody, be it police or prison custodial. I have spent much time involved in many Aboriginal deaths in custody, and I have witnessed the pain of family members and the harrowing anguish in that they have to swallow the belief that they are considered as third class citizens, and in the belief that non-Aboriginal people, the majority, do not care about them. However, I have studied the various phenomena which predicate deaths in custody in this country, and I cannot remove myself from the conclusion that even non-Aboriginal deaths in custody are not scrutinized, and their families are not entitled into any modicum of hope for any sliver of justice.
I have studied the phenomena of Immigration Deaths in Custody, which since 2000 now stand at near 40, and which are defined from the point of interception by the Australian Navy and therefore do not include for instance the SIEV X disaster, 353 people who drowned, 146 children, 142 women and 55 men when the Australian government guided by their racist Operation Relex arguably turned back humanity from seeking asylum on our shores. There has never been an adequate investigation of these near 40 deaths and we are forever limited to Coroners’ findings, usually open findings, which like prison and police custodial deaths in custody are rarely referred to or accepted by the criminal justice system.
The problem is that Coroner’s findings are not intertwined with the Departments of Public Prosecutors and therefore cannot guarantee the laying of criminal charges. We are witnessing the phenomena of Immigration Detention Centre deaths in custody where we have now endured six deaths in the last year, with five of them suicides, mostly of very young men, and these are the culmination of horrific conditions in Detention Centres, where thousands of self harms and attempted suicides are being committed each year. These Detention Centres have been described by psychiatrist Dr Patrick McGorrie, an Australian of the Year, as mental illness factories. In my experience they are not dissimilar to the Australian prison system which like Immigration detention neglects mental health care and welfare.
Once again we demonstrate the apothegms, prejudices, the heart and soul of our governments, which perceptually modify the views of many of Australia’s constituents – government has failed to intervene in order to remedy the abject and acute trauma evident nationwide that is induced upon our Asylum Seekers. Similarly, the same veils of racism and discrimination, the same meritocratic pomposity that disregards this humanity endemically underwrites the disregard of humanity in the Australian prison network, disregarding mental health, disregarding the best interests of inmates and dismissing any positive future role for them within society. The criminal justice system has not pursued any of the management and personnel of Detention Centres in terms of any culpability in reference to the horrific rise of self harms, suicide attempts and deaths in Immigration Detention Centres. This is endemic in the Australian political landscape, institutions such as the police, prisons and Immigration detention are protected as if with diplomatic immunity, which is unlawful and morally wrong. Only one inquiry after another by various tiers of government, just like our prisons and police, just like the Royal Commission, however just like the Royal Commission and the many reports since, they are not intertwined with the criminal justice system.
It is an abominable vacuum of humanity, hence inhumanity, which manoeuvres around the concept of holding public institutions to account, by exploration before the criminal justice system, as to whether there has been an unnatural hand in the deaths someone who had been incarcerated or on remand. We are inherently commanded to assume an investiture of faith in the servants of these institutions – be they police, prisons, immigration detention centres. Duty of care is far too often not understood in its entirety and is compromised to suit the inherent conditions we have allowed transpire in for instance our prisons.
This limited liability disadvantages the pursuit of equality and the unfolding of an equitable human rights language. Domestically, Australian governments act is if there is a separation of powers between themselves and the conduct and manner of our prisons, our police and immigration detention. However, internationally, our Australian governments intervene, and to the point of an international or diplomatic incident, often with a sense of moral outrage and judgment, where they seek to protect the rights and welfare of Australians overseas who are incarcerated or on remand in foreign prisons or before the judiciaries of our international neighbours.
Our governments, domestically, act is if there is a separation of powers in spheres of influence where there should not be, and which indeed are within their jurisdictions, for instance between government and our penal and custodial institutions, and is if there is a suspension of people’s rights once they are in the custody of the state, similar to the belief that people’s rights could be set aside as occurred with the Northern Territory Military Intervention when our government outrageously suspended the Racial Discrimination Act. In other words what they did was suspend peoples’ human rights so they could herd people as second class citizens and with the impertinence of impatience break their spirits and tame them. The same occurs with our penal institutions, Immigration Detention, and with the police’s prescribed premises of zero tolerance policies. However, in order to justify these actions and policies to the Australian people, collectively, inmates and detainees are demonised.
There has been a significant departure from policies, especially those of the 1980s, from the burgeoning notion of rehabilitation and of pro-socially supporting people to better futures. What appears to be the predominant rationale at this time is the need for various institutions and departments to cover their back, and the mindset rather than being about avoiding the maltreatment of inmates and those within their custody and rather than being about avoiding deaths in custody is instead focused on limiting liability and culpability in the event of allegations of maltreatment in the event of deaths in custody – it is as if it is accepted that there shall be maltreatment and abuse of people and that there shall be deaths in custody, and that it is easier to set in place a culture that covers ones back rather than a culture that seeks to eliminate discrimination, racism, bullying, abuse, maltreatment and the factors that contribute to deaths in custody.
Hence from a criminological perspective, and arguably anthropologically, there is an enshrining of conditions, and in lieu of what I have described above an enshrining of what many describe as systemic disadvantage, and which others describe as systemic discrimination. However, when governments do nothing or very little to intervene or act in ways as if demanding an investiture of faith by us in our institutions then the management of the police and our prisons has become politicised. This generates a huge amount of cynicism manifesting into distrust, arising in divisiveness and hence producing clandestine practices.
These institutions become preoccupied with their image, and to protect that image they fetter access and control, by containment, of dissemination. This has a pervasive effect within the whole of these institutions right down to every employee. Moving ahead in leaps and bounds this leads to medical attention not being flagged for inmates or for mental health disorders going untreated, and resultantly inmates are bullied and harassed, and for an acceptance by for instance prison officials who receive prisoners from police custody who appear battered that this is just part and parcel and hence the reporting of this is minimised even by the prison medics.
This silence, which can be argued as corroborating nepotism and favour dispensation, contributes to psychological breakdowns of inmates and who cry out to the world that there is something wrong with, and that no one is listening, by committing self harm, attempting suicide, and well there have been more than 500 suicides in police and prison custody since 1980.
The preoccupation with containing the political fallout from the abuse of prisoners or from a death in custody is a vicious cycle because it leads to a misrepresentation of the conditions of for instance penal institutions and of the reasons that give cause to deaths in custody.
The institutions in questions spend their time arguing their well meaning, their own predicaments, and in alleging that custodial situations, such as prisons, provide every opportunity however and they argue against any claim that an inmate at any time is for instance a ‘victim’. Programs that could be implemented do not occur. Instead, prisons and police insist on their well meaning and lay all responsibility to the victim, and hence significant sectors of society accept this face value. Nothing changes.
It is in this dichotomy between political self-interest and bona fide duty of care where the troubled souls who found themselves in custody lose their lives. However, deaths in custody is merely the culmination of much suffering – for each death in custody there are many near deaths in custody, and for each of them there are many more who are maltreated and neglected.
Political self interest is pervasively powerful that even inadvertently it manifests itself through legislation, because we do not look at the root causes and buy an investiture of faith in the criminal justice system and its institutions that we have moved from non-custodial options as a first resort to mandatory sentencing, we have moved to longer prison sentences – in one year alone prison sentences in WA increased by 118 days.
As a result, Aboriginal incarceration rates increased by 10 times more than that of non-Aboriginal peoples from 2000 to 2009, and hence for Aboriginal peoples their imprisonment rates increased by more than 50% from 1250 to 1900 prisoners per 100,000 people. In comparison, the rate for non-Aboriginal prisoners increased by a little more than 4%, from 130 to 135 non-Aboriginal peoples per 100,000. Prisons are full of society’s poorest and most vulnerable peoples and the criminal justice understands this – governments understand this – when introducing mandatory detention, when increasing prison sentences, they knew that they would be incarcerating more Aboriginal peoples than ever before, they knew that they would be compounding more authority and dysfunction into the lives of already heavily traumatised Aboriginal peoples in order to sweep many of them out of society for periods of time – this is racism and it is hostile to deny it.
Rather than work to overwhelm the abject poverty of these specific peoples, who have for too long been the only peoples in Australia, as a result or racism and apartheid, to be disenfranchised, generationally, from the right to accumulate infrastructure, equity and social wealth, they entrench the poverty and the fact that they must accept humbly downtrodden existences. This is racism. In Western Australia, Aboriginal peoples are incarcerated at 4,250 per 100,000.
I have been quoted elsewhere, “Our Aboriginal folk are incarcerated at the highest rates in the world of ‘original peoples’. Higher than American Indian descendants in the US and higher than Afro-Americans in the US. All this matters because the disproportionate incarceration rates are linked to disproportionate deaths in custody rates. Incarceration rates underwrite deaths in custody.” However, conditions also underwrite deaths in custody, and its politicisation underwrites deaths in custody.
The 99 Aboriginal deaths in custody from 1980 to May 1989, which led to the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, do not reveal the total numbers of Australian deaths in custody, nor do the 150 Aboriginal deaths in custody each decade since. They do not reveal the bottom-of-the-barrel, sub-standard custodial services of police or prisons.
Non-Aboriginal deaths in custody have blown out to unacceptable and inhumane levels. We have a scandal-in-waiting. A Royal Commission into Australian deaths in custody is urgently required.
Our Australian senators, 76 of them, are derelict in their constitutional duties because they have failed to call for and implement such a commission. They have failed to educate the Senate and the lower house of the horrific custodial death statistics.
It seems many politicians are inspired to act only when the community at large is aware of a horrific wrong. Our politicians need to oblige their moral duties and not be guided by the polls.
Of the 1442 deaths in all forms of custody from 1980-2000, there were 1367 males and 75 females. Two hundred and forty-eight were Aboriginal deaths — 18% of all deaths in custody. Of the 75 female deaths, the Aboriginal female deaths were 32%. These figures are closely related to incarceration rates. There are higher incarceration rates of Aboriginal people in terms of proportion of Aboriginal people to total population. So, systemic racism towards Aboriginal people does not directly cause their deaths in custody — deaths in custody are rather the result of substandard treatment towards prisoners, in addition to prejudices towards prisoners that the criminal justice system and broader society may have.
Discrimination happens against all prisoners — it’s not targeted only at Aboriginal people. But systemic racism can be argued as leading to the much higher Aboriginal incarceration rates. Rates of deaths in custody appear linked to incarceration rates, in terms of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. But an Aboriginal person is 15 times more likely to be locked up than a non-Aboriginal Australian.
In August 2010, in WA, 68% of incarcerated juveniles were Aboriginal, and 40% of the adult prison population was Aboriginal. Aboriginal people make up about 3% of the total population of WA. In 2011, the statistic may have reached as high as 80%.
In 1991, when the Royal Commission released its reports, there were 69 deaths in custody. Thirteen were Aboriginal. Ten years later, there were 87 deaths in custody, with 19 Aboriginal deaths in custody. In 1997, there were a record 105 deaths in custody, with 22 Aboriginal deaths in custody. For Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians, nothing has improved. The statistics have worsened.
There has been an Aboriginal death in custody somewhere in Australia every month of the past 18 months. For each Aboriginal death in custody, there are about eight to 10 non-Aboriginal deaths in custody.
How can Australia have more deaths in custody than those at the peak of apartheid South Africa, and one of the world’s worst records?
The time has come for us to have a good look at ourselves and find out what is going on. We need a Senate Inquiry, a Joint effort with researchers, academics, front liners, noteworthy Elders who will ensure any recommendations are carried out. The situation must be monitored and reported to the Senate. We cannot turn a blind eye. Our prisons are filled with the poorest among us. The middle and upper classes are not the majority of prisoners and generally serve less time for similar offences or for their predominantly white-collar crimes. We may be turning a blind eye because we have been taught to be harsh on the poor and on our Aboriginal brothers and sisters who suffered under Australia’s own
We must invest in services that help those incarcerated from among our poorest classes. We need to treat them fairly when judging and sentencing them. But foremost, we must improve the police and prison services, protocols, manuals, procedures and their supervision, handling and treatment of all prisoners. We need Australia to ensure that it is a just and civil society.
Any inquiry must break up into sub-inquiries and for an instance an independent investigation is needed to explain the sharp rise in the number of Australian prison deaths being attributed to “natural causes”.
I have long raised concern at the young ages of many of those dying, and especially of Aboriginal youth, and especially in police custody, and it is the premise of my PhD and several chapters in the book that I am writing on Australian deaths in custody. Deaths from natural causes have become a concern for me because they are now the most frequent cause of death in Australian prisons. They outnumber suicides which historically were the most frequent classification of prison deaths. Natural causes accounted for nearly 75% of prison deaths in 2008. Just as disturbing are the young ages of these prison deaths. Aboriginal prisoners die younger than non-Aboriginal prisoners, and the difference in some jurisdictions are thereabouts 20 years. They are presumably dying of ‘natural’ causes at ages when their health should generally be considered resilient. In the general population Aboriginal males die at 57 while non-Aboriginal males die at 81, however in prison Aboriginal males die on average at 38 years while non-Aboriginal males die at 53.
I have been quoted, “You can’t have people dying in significant numbers at these young ages — in their 20s, 30s, and so on — and deem them as natural causes. We would not, and do not, accept this elsewhere. We seek the cause of death and whatever may have contributed to premature deaths and, where possible, lay charges in pursuit of culpability and liability.” I have rejected the Australian Institute of Criminology’s claim that the rise in natural cause deaths is “probably linked to an ageing prison population and a prison population with more health problems than the general population”. These assumptions have not been validated. Furthermore, I have deep concerns about the attribution of the manner and cause of death and therefore about the classification of deaths in custody. I have been quoted, “There is nothing natural about a person dying of causes that basic medical intervention could prevent.
More than 50% of Aboriginal folk who die in prison are classified as natural cause deaths, but maybe what has occurred is that medical attention wasn’t flagged or their insulin dependency was not given proper care or they were maltreated or neglected.” There should be an independent inquiry and a review of natural cause deaths where family members have requested this, and in all the cases of young deaths, and especially of those less than thirty years of age. I have been quoted, “We do have a culture of turning a blind eye, favour dispensation and an acceptance of stressed prison health services … underwritten by a culture where reporting mechanisms and investigations by certain authorities do not scrub up.” The Australian Medical Association President Steve Hambleton has expressed his alarm at the ages of prison deaths. He has expressed his alarm at the age disparity of the prison deaths between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal and supports my call for an independent inquiry.
Statistics that one should be versed when trying to understand disparity and the discriminatory repressive conditions, and in line with much of what I have described should include the fact that 93% of the Australian prison population are males. Since 1980 more than 20% of deaths in custody have been of persons aged less than 25 years, and 41% of persons aged 25 years to 39 years.
Historically, a greater proportion of Aboriginal prisoners die in the younger age groups compared with non-Aboriginal prisoners. Over the 20 year period 1980 to 2000, each year hanging deaths generally outnumbered all other causes. However, from 2001 to 2008, hanging deaths have been outpaced by ‘natural’ cause deaths. Since 1980, 37% of deaths in custody have been by hanging, while ‘natural’ causes account for 51%. A greater percentage of Aboriginal prisoners die in custody of ‘natural’ causes than non-Aboriginal prisoners, 51% compared to 36%. Human desperation, and mental breakdown is depicted by the statistic that of the 340 hanging deaths in prison custody between 1990 to 2008 cell bars accounted for 39% of these deaths, 36% by other fittings inside the cell and shower fixtures accounted for 13%.
Australia’s prisons have a worse rate of suicide than do Welsh and English prisons. 71% of Aboriginal prisoners and 67% of non-Aboriginal prisoners who have died in custody since 1980 were sentenced at the time of their death. In 2008 there was a notable rise in the number of prison custody deaths of sentenced prisoners – this is in line with longer sentences and a harsher penal code. Private prisons have rates of death at three times the rate of government-run prisons. 34% of deaths in private prisons since 1990 were due to hanging. However, private prisons have a higher rate of deaths from ‘natural’ causes than do government-run prisons.
In terms of police custodial deaths, in 2008 Western Australia recorded the highest in the nation, with 11 deaths, 6 in Victoria, 5 in the Northern Territory, 4 in NSW, 4 in Queensland and two in South Australia. Why?
From 1980 to 2008 there have 779 police custodial deaths. 2008 recorded 32 police custody deaths, one of the highest totals since 1980, nationwide, and this was particularly so because of the high number of police custody deaths in WA. The rates of police custody deaths have increased in terms of crude totals and proportion to population since the 1980s, with 566 deaths from 1990 to 2008. Since 1990, 44% of the Aboriginal police custodial deaths were aged less than 25 years. One of the most shocking statistics is the median age of Aboriginal police custodial deaths – in WA, between 1990 to 2008, it is at 20 years of age, with 34 deaths.
109 Aboriginal police custodial deaths nationwide during that period at a median average age of 27 years. Western Australia recorded the most Aboriginal police custodial deaths, 34, a long way ahead of NSW at 21, followed by the Northern Territory at 19, followed by Queensland at 18 and South Australia at 10. However, 31% of the Northern Territory identifies as Aboriginal whereas in WA, the Aboriginal population is less than 80,000 people and less than 3% of the total state population. The Western Australian government should call for an inquiry into this disproportionate statistic and preferably a demarcated body such as the Australian Senate should inquire into Western Australia.
Certain objectives of any parliamentary inquiries must include the pursuit of demarcated inspectorates to investigate police – bodies that are far removed and independent of police and prisons and which will not report to police and prisons or to the relevant ministerial portfolio holders and rather to the whole of state governments, in public to the parliament. This in turn will remove imputations and aspersions against police and prisons, which many police and prison officers do despise.
If we do not move towards solutions we will continue to rely on the most negative and inhumane policies, which will be to impose more mandatory sentencing regimes, harsher sentences, and hence we will build more prisons – if we continue to go down this path we will double the number of Australian prisons by 2020, and triple the prison population, and record at least another 1,000 deaths in custody, of which more than 200 will be Aboriginal – police and prison custodial.
The answers do lie before us, they lie in Aboriginal advancement by Aboriginal peoples and the rest of us, those with adequate knowledge and front line experiences, can working alongside our Aboriginal brothers and sisters – and Aboriginal advancement by Aboriginal peoples will be expedited in the course of a generation if finally our government moves away from corporate greed and stereotypical prejudices and provides, unfettered, the full suite of funding to Aboriginal peoples to enfranchise themselves with the full suite of social health and wealth, and access to every opportunity that non-Aboriginal Australians have.
For those who are suffering at this time, the incarcerated, for them we must consider every support program, every education, every intervention such as ‘Justice Reinvestment’ and every foreseeable mercy, however for those to come we must rush and rely on prevention – we must provide from the very beginnings of their lives the conditions that non-Aboriginal Australians enjoy, we must ensure their full suite of rights. Anything less than the full suite of funding to redress the lives of Aboriginal peoples is sheer racism – we must unveil the racist layers of the Australian national identity, set aside hostile denials of our racism and move forward, bringing together Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples to a common humanity and the common good.
Otherwise, the type of prejudices and stereotypes that killed young John Pat in 1983 shall manifest in the many ways they do and in one way or another break and kill people. Harsh systems do not improve society, look at the USA, it incarcerates more people, proportion to population, and in total numbers than any other country on this planet – 2.8 million Americans are in prison, more than 1% of their total population, and 8 million are before the criminal justice system – 3%. Are Americans this bad? Or is America harsh on its people? Do we want this for Australia?
In 1983, 16 year old Yindjibarndi youth, John Pat lost his life after being brutally bashed by off-duty police officers outside the Victoria Hotel, and Roebourne became to WA what Birmingham was to Alabama. With 1 in 25 Aboriginal peoples incarcerated in WA prisons, Western Australia is the hotbed of racism in Australia, and it is up to state and federal governments to demonstrate the moral leadership long set aside in eliminating Aboriginal poverty, disparity, injustices, and in supporting the rights of Aboriginal peoples, and in supporting, rather than standing in the way, of Aboriginal advancement by Aboriginal peoples. When this occurs everything will change.
Related Media links
Western Australia reporter, The National Indigenous Times
Donnybrook-Bridgetown Mail correspondent
Online Editor, News Worldwide Today
Managing Consultant – Education, Training, Advocacy
Human Rights Practice – 0430 657 309
BA (Phil), BA (Med), BA (AIS),
G/Dip (Human Rights Ed), MHumRgts, MA (Social Justice)
Researcher in Australian Deaths in Custody
Consultant & Advocate, Human Rights Practice
Convener, Human Rights Alliance (WA) (Australia)
rran.org – Refugee Rights Actions Network
Ecological, Social Justice, Aboriginal Group (WA)
Bridgetown-Balingup Amnesty Group
“A theologian said that all will be well with me and all permitted to the degree that I obey the Council, and he added, ‘If the council were to declare that you have but one eye, despite the fact that you may have two, it is your duty to agree with the Council.’ I replied to him: ‘Even if the whole world were to affirm that, I, utilising whatever reason I may possess, could not acknowledge such a thing without a rejection of my conscience.'” (Karel Kosik, Czech philosopher and victim)
"When enough rise, change happens."