Why Are So Many Indigenous People Dying In Custody?

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Content Warning: This article contains discussion of suicide, and deaths in custody.

Latoya Rule: “My brother Wayne Fella Morrison died in custody in 2016 on September 26 and he died in Yatala Labour Prison on Guarna land in Adelaide.”  

Wayne Fella Morrison is just one of the more than 440 Indigenous people who have died in Australia’s prison system in the last three decades.  

Indigenous people are locked up at a horrifying rate, and the trauma that causes to Indigenous communities is immeasurable. 

In 1991, the final report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody outlined 339 recommendations to try and stop Indigenous people dying behind bars.  

But despite decades of outrage, before and after that Royal Commission, little has been done to improve the situation.  

In fact, in many cases, the picture today is looking worse than ever before 

In the decade leading up to the Royal Commission 99 Indigenous men and women died in custody and, in the years since, over 470 more Indigenous people have lost their lives behind bars. 

The Royal Commission found that Indigenous people in custody weren’t dying at rate any different to non-Indigenous prisoners.  

What set Indigenous people apart was the sheer rate at which they were being put behind bars to begin with.  

In 1991, when the Royal Commission report was published, Indigenous people were eight times more likely to be imprisoned than non-Indigenous people.  

By the early 2010s they were 15 times more likely, and that rate has just kept climbing.  

Right now, over a quarter of Australia’s adult prisoners are Indigenous. Outside of prisons, Indigenous adults only make up 2% of the population.   

Megan KrakouerNational Suicide Prevention & Trauma Recovery Project: It’s devastating, it’s ridiculous, there’s a lack of political will where not all the recommendations are being implemented. That’s costing lives. There’s a lot of hurt, there’s a lot of pain  We have 12,00 brothers and sisters that are incarcerated. 12,00. That is really high.”   

The Royal Commission report recommended sweeping changes to systems like sentencing, medical care in prison, and treatment of prisoners.  

Perhaps most importantly, the report wrote that, “imprisonment should be utilised only as a sanction of last resort”. 

But the majority of these recommendations have not happened yet 

Stricter sentencing policies and targeted policing have contributed to this increase in the number of prison sentences.  

State politicians looking to collect votes can always capitalise on a ‘tough on crime’ stance, despite the fact that the Australian crime rate is actually dropping.   

These stances have resulted in policies like mandatory sentencing, where laws outline minimum sentences for crimes and remove a judge’s ability to take individual people’s situations into account.   

Ultimately, it’s been Indigenous people who have borne the brunt of those harsher penalties, and Indigenous deaths in custody has remained a contentious problem that many advocates feel the government has largely ignored.  

Megan Krakouer“There’s been nobody who’s been held accountable [for] of the death of a loved one because of a system failure. The system, what I’m seeing is highly discriminatory, is highly racist and is still having a profound impact on our people today.” 

The shocking rate of Indigenous imprisonment means that today, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are 10 times more likely to die in custody than non-Indigenous people.  

Wayne Fella Morrison was 29-years-old when he died.  

He was in prison waiting to appear in front of a magistrate’s court via video link, and he was pretty confident he was going to be released into home detention.  

But Wayne wasn’t released into home detention. In fact, he never even made his appearance in court.  

Latoya Rule: He was involved in an alleged altercation between himself and multiple correctional officers. 

They restrained him by his wrists and his ankles. He had a spit hood put over his face. He was carried face down into the back of a transport van, a prison transport van … and three minutes later, he was pulled out … unconscious … And then in the intensive care unit, he passed away two days later where we had to turn off his life support machine.”  

The final report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody recommended that police and prison officers needed regular training in how they used restraints, like the ones that lead to Morrison’s death 

It’s unclear how much these processes are still being used but some Indigenous prisoners are still reporting excessive force and unnecessary restraints 

But there are other processes in prisons that can make Indigenous people vulnerable, including the way that prisoners are stripped of the medical care that all Australians can access outside of those walls.  

When people enter prison in Australia, they no longer have access to medical care that other Australians rely on like every day like Medicare, the National Disability Insurance Scheme or the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.  

No Medicare means no access to things like the Mental Health Care Plan and suicides are huge issue.  

Advocates call this a health discrimination crisis because of the way that Indigenous people are disproportionately affected by this gap in care.  

The prison system is failing Indigenous people and it’s costing them their lives. So, what needs to happen here?  

In a report published last year, the state ombudsman said that he had “serious criticisms” of the South Australian Department for Corrective Services following Wayne Fella Morrison’s death 

The ombudsman found that the state’s prisons department failed to properly categorise Morrison as an “at-risk prisoner” before his death in September of 2016, and then failed to properly notify his family when he was sent to hospital.  

Latoya Rule: “It wasn’t actually the police who informed us directly that Wayne was even in intensive care. We were lied to immediately, told that he was not at the hospital. We called every hospital in South Australia to see where he was  in the court, waiting for him to appear by video link … Nobody like from our family, or our community could actually go and find him despite him now being brain dead on life support. 

He was a chef and he was a fisherman, so he used to fish the ocean quite a bit. And that’s where we scattered his ashes, which was really sacred to us.”  

The ombudsman ordered the department to apologise to Morrison’s family for how they were treated in the hours before his death, but that apology hasn’t happened yet.  

Morrison’s family now also want to see a national ban on spit hoods used in prisons to stop these cases of asphyxiation from ever happening again, but there’s a lot more that could change beyond that. 

The most effective way to prevent deaths in prison would be to lower the rate of Indigenous imprisonment to begin with.  

Last year the Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, announced some new aims to the Closing the Gap agreement that included reducing the Indigenous prison population.  

The goal is now to move 30% of young Indigenous prisoners out of detention, and 15% of adults out of prison, by 2031.  

It’s a historic change to the Closing the Gap target but some people are sceptical and believe that in order to achieve those targets, there’s going to have to be some radical transformations in both the prison system and social support.  

Megan Krakouer: “We have brothers and sisters going into prison without a home, and they’re coming out still without a home. How do you actually fix that? How does that person have some form of normality if they’ve got no stability? This is not rocket science. 

Advocates are calling for governments to start investing seriously in community-led programs that empower Indigenous people and stop them from getting caught up in the prison system.  

Where they’ve been established, these programs have been remarkably successful. 

But they also want Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to actually be in control of developing policies for their own communities, including people who have been in the prison system themselves and have recognised its problems firsthand.  

Cheryl AxelbyCo-Chair, Change the Record: “They know what the priorities are. Not what the government said is priorities, but what the community says. 

The overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the justice system reflects not only failures and bias within that system but also, more broadly, the disadvantage Indigenous people face in our communities 

It’s a complex problem, but effective solutions have been proposed time and time again by Indigenous communities themselves, by the people who have been directly affected by a racist system.    

What’s missing now is only the political will to listen to these voices and put their solutions into action.