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Police And Correctional Services Continue To Deny Racism, But Aboriginal People Are Still Dying

In March, four Aboriginal people died in custody.

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On March 2, a 35-year-old Aboriginal man died at the Longbay Correctional Centre prison hospital in Sydney. Three days later, a 44-year-old Indigenous woman died at Silverwater Correctional Facility. Another two days went by and, on March 7, another man died in Ravenhall Correctional Centre in Melbourne. The following week, a 37-year-old Barkindji man died after being pursued by police in Broken Hill — it was March 18.

That’s four Aboriginal deaths in one month.

In 1991, the deaths of 99 Aboriginal people between 1980 and 1989 in police or prison custody resulted in the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC).

Since the Royal Commission, in which 339 recommendations were made, the Aboriginal Legal Service (NSW/ACT) have reported that over 500 Aboriginal people have died in police or corrective custody.

The report’s recommendations included imprisonment being made a last resort for Aboriginal people, access to adequate medical assistance in prisons, access to appropriate housing and infrastructure particularly in remote communities, decriminalising public drunkenness, the recruitment of more Indigenous people in the criminal justice sector, and more informed drug and alcohol education — amongst others.

Some of these recommendations have never been acted on, and too many Aboriginal deaths can be attributed to this as a result.

When Junkee asked NSW Corrective Services about the growing number of Aboriginal deaths in custody since the RCIADIC, a spokeswoman said, “People die in custody each year from natural causes, old age, and, less commonly, by suicide or as a result of violence or misadventure. Corrective Services NSW makes great effort to prevent deaths in custody and has accepted and acted on nearly all recommendations of past inquiries and inquests.”

The death penalty is not a part of the Australian legal system, and no one should be dying preventable deaths, regardless of their heritage.

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have a low likelihood of dying in custody and are far less likely to die by suicide than non-Aboriginal inmates. In 2020, 34 people died in custody in NSW and four of them were Aboriginal people. There have been nine deaths in custody this year, two of which were Aboriginal people,” the spokeswoman said.

The question to non-Indigenous people in this country is: Do you find any of these numbers acceptable? Are you okay that your people are also dying as a result of our so-called justice system? The death penalty is not a part of the Australian legal system, and no one should be dying preventable deaths, regardless of their heritage.

People Are Still Dying

Martin Hodgson is a senior advocate for the Foreign Prisoner Support Service. He’s worked extensively on human rights cases around the world — largely death penalty cases everywhere from the US to Iran.

“I would honestly say the vast majority of Aboriginal deaths in custody are preventable for the basic reason that most of those people should never have been in custody in the first place,” Hodgson told Junkee.

“We’ve had a Royal Commission 30 years ago, huge issues have been identified, solutions were found, and they weren’t ever implemented. It’s no wonder that these deaths continue to happen at an alarming rate when those responsible for enacting change just sit on their hands.”

Hodgson highlighted the absurd reality that no prosecutions had been made in the hundreds of Aboriginal deaths in custody cases — ever. “There is no justice because penalties aren’t being handed down against police and corrective services officers. They are held to a different standard to everybody else. If any average citizen of Australia killed an Aboriginal person the way the police and corrective services do, we would have seen someone found guilty of murder by now, someone found guilty of manslaughter,” said Hodgson.

“You can’t simply have 500 people die in 30 years when there is a duty of care by those who are supposedly guarding them and have no one held responsible for their deaths. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aren’t just simply tripping over and dying in custody or dying of natural causes. In many instances we’ve seen violence, whether it be the use of a firearm, or the use of a lethal injection with sedatives, like in the case of David Dungay. We’ve seen criminal negligence in an enormous number of cases. We also find the issue of denying someone’s freedom, like that of Rebecca Maher or Aunty Tanya Day.”

Remembering Their Stories

26-year-old David Dungay died in Sydney’s Longbay Prison in 2015 after being injected with the powerful sedative, midazolam. Reports said Dungay complained of not being able to breath, to which corrective services staff allegedly responded, “If you can talk you can breathe”.

Reports said Dungay was held face down on a mattress when he was sedated. His face turned purple and he stopped breathing shortly after. Efforts to resuscitate David failed. The report also stated nursing staff were ordered to clean blood from the cell before Investigations into Dungay’s death had begun.

In July 2016, 36-year-old Wiradjuri woman Rebecca Maher lost her life in a cell at the Maitland Police station in NSW after being picked up for public intoxication. A coronial inquest found her death could have been prevented if police had conducted a proper body search. Reports confirmed police failed to search Maher due to an unfounded belief that she had HIV. Emergency Medicine expert, Dr John Vivien told the court that Maher “would have survived” if paramedics were called.

Yorta Yorta woman Tanya Day’s life was cut short in December 2017 after also being picked up for intoxication. Ms Day was taken into police custody after being found asleep on a train in Victoria. Reports show police failed to monitor Ms Day after they detained her. When the Victorian Coroner, Caitlin English delivered her findings in the inquest she said, “Ms Day’s death was clearly preventable had she not been arrested and taken into custody”.

“I find the decision to define her as unruly and to call for police rather than pursue other options has been influenced by her Aboriginality.”

The Day’s family lawyer argued that racism was a factor in the death of the loving mother of four. The inquest would be the first to consider whether systemic racism by authorities contributed to Ms Day’s death.

English said monitoring of Ms Day “did not meet” Victoria Police Manual guidelines and was “completely inadequate” stating, “I find the decision to define her as unruly and to call for police rather than pursue other options has been influenced by her Aboriginality”.

The Dhadjowa Foundation

It has been four years since the tragic death of Tanya Day, and Victorian Parliament have passed a bill to see public intoxication treated as a health matter, instead of a criminal matter.

Tanya Day’s daughter Apryl has been a strong advocate for Aboriginal Deaths in Custody since losing her mum. When asked about the changes to the law Apryl told Junkee, “They abolished public drunkenness, but that was 30 years after it had been recommended. Our uncle had already passed away from that law. If it had have implemented back in the ‘90s when they had first suggested it, our mum still could have been here today”.

Apryl Day with her mum, Tanya. (Supplied.)

Apryl founded the Dhadjowa Foundation to help support others who have faced similar struggles. Apryl said the charity is to provide strategic, coordinated and culturally appropriate support for Aboriginal families who have lost loved ones in custody.

Dhadjowa means “sunshine” in Yorta Yorta language – the foundation’s name is a loving tribute to the way her mum’s spirit lit up a room, and a way to shine a blazing light on the injustices of Black deaths in custody. Donations can be made to the foundation here.

Denying Systemic Racism

When asked whether the growing number of Aboriginal deaths was of concern to the police, or if racial profiling exists within the force, a spokesperson for NSW Police Force (NSWPF) told Junkee: “Since the implementation of the first Aboriginal Strategic Direction (ASD) in 1992, the NSW Police Force has driven change and improved outcomes for Aboriginal communities and the ongoing relationship with law enforcement. Through consultation, we have empowered Aboriginal communities to determine how policing services should be delivered with a focus on improving safety and reducing crime in those communities.”

“Domestic violence, child abuse, and over-representation in the justice system continue to be a challenge. The answer to reducing the levels of Aboriginal people in custody lies less in the criminal justice system than in the conditions of life that result in Aboriginal people being incarcerated for serious criminal offences. Researchers have observed that systemic racism is not part of the criminal justice system or the NSW Police Force,” said the NSW Police spokesperson.

Finding The Truth

“I’m a little bit tired of morning teas being held, flags being waved, expensive Aboriginal art being displayed in offices, and the broader community thinking that absolves them of any responsibility. The reality is, if the broader community, politicians, those in power and even just your day to day person actually cared, 500 Aboriginal people would not be dead in 30 years at the hands of a government institution,” Hodgson told Junkee.

(Supplied by Dylan Crawford.)

“People need to listen to the Aboriginal community who have made it clear the police are not welcome in their communities. The Police have proved they are incapable of having positive interactions with Aboriginal people and until this is changed, they will not be welcomed by the Aboriginal community,” said Hodgson.

“We’re in the middle of a pandemic. We’ve also just seen NSW’s worst floods for generations. And yet the pandemic and those floods have killed far less people than police and corrections have killed, just in the last 30 years when it comes to Aboriginal people,” he said. “We expect bold action when it comes to natural disasters. We expect bold action when it comes pandemics. The number one pandemic facing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is the police — the violence of corrective services, and the violence of the state.”

Hodgson concluded, “It’s quite a simple message, and I will say it anywhere: The police need to keep their fucking hands to themselves! Far too often when they place their hands on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, those people end up dead, and for no good reason. If they can’t stop killing people, 500 in 30 years. They have to be told, like a bully in the schoolyard to keep their hands to themselves. And anyone who finds that language challenging, I find the death of 500 people challenging.”

Thirty years since the Royal Commission, the Aboriginal prison population has more than doubled and we’ve just seen four more deaths in just one month. The reactions have been huge. They always are. But the Aboriginal community want action — because we’re sick of reacting to the preventable deaths of our people.

(Feature Image: Dylan Crawford)


Jennetta Quinn-Bates is a proud Barkindji woman who is passionate about her culture and highlighting Aboriginal stories. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram.