It’s Been 30 Years Since The Royal Commission, And Young Indigenous People Keep Dying In Custody

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. 13 core recommendations made at the time were dedicated to breaking the cycle for young Indigenous people in the criminal justice system. 

Deaths In Custody

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Over 20 young Indigenous lives have been lost in custody across Australia since 2011.

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

A sweep of a database tracking every recent known death in custody by the Guardian shows that in the last decade, 23 Indigenous people aged 25-years-and-under have passed away either in prison or in the process of apprehension. 

Their causes of death include police pursuits, inadequate medical attention, overdoses, and self harm. Most were preventable.

One of the leading causes of Indigenous youth death in custody this decade involved police chases.

There is no trust by many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of police, and police do not show they deserve or want trust of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people,” says Wiradjuri woman and Associate Professor, Megan Williams.

“It is ridiculous they do high speed chases rather than use community networks to find people. That’s a decisive brutality, part of their training and their culture.”

“There’s an over-scrutiny by police on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people. It’s the driving around watching, following, stereotyping, disrespect.”

“Anniversaries of deaths of young people in police custody are a reminder of their violence. It’s their violent, unnecessary, handling of children and young people who have far less power, or no power. It’s a lack of skills to do better, be an adult and treat children with respect,” Williams says.

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. 13 core recommendations made at the time were dedicated to breaking the cycle for young Indigenous people in the criminal justice system. 

They were focused on better legal representation, amended legislation, more support networks, and minimising arrests of Indigenous youth where possible.

The Royal Commission was meant to prevent further loss of life, but in the decades since, there has been widespread criticism that only 64 percent of the 339 original recommendations have been implemented so far. This year alone, there has been five deaths in custody in a space of four weeks.

“The criminal justice system needs to be reimagined or abolished altogether,” Wakka Wakka and South Sea Islander social worker, Kevin Yow Yeh, told Junkee.

“The current system is overly punitive, especially towards young people with developing brains whom out of necessity have to rely on adults to provide care and protection, and is generally not conducive to supporting young Indigenous people to create positive change.”

Yow Yeh believes public conversations around Indigenous youth incarceration neglect important underlying or contributing factors, and instead zero in on the individual’s actions.

He says vital factors such as poverty, racism, homelessness, family relationship breakdowns, over-surveillance as well as the continual impact of colonisation are continually overlooked.

“I don’t believe young Indigenous people’s mental health can be appropriately supported within the criminal justice system,” Yow Yeh says. “The system was never designed to do this.”

On top of preventing further loss of life in the criminal justice system, more needs to be done to minimise youth Indigenous incarceration numbers.

The age of criminal responsibility is still 10-years-old despite international pressure on Australia to raise the age to at least 14.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children account for 65 percent of the 600 kids locked in prison last year according to the Raise The Age movement.

They are also “more likely to be stopped by police, arrested and charged instead of cautioned, and locked up on remand instead of being released on bail,” Cheryl Axleby, co-chair of Change the Record told the AAP.

And according to a report released last year by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, young Indigenous Australians aged 10-17 were over 20 times more likely than their non-Indigenous counterparts to be in detention on an average night.

Recommendation #62 says the more needs to be done to reduce the rate that Indigenous juveniles participate in the welfare and criminal justice system as well as minimising separation from their families and communities.

“Incarceration should be the last resort and it is not used that way,” Williams says.

She believes more needs to be done at the root of the cause to prevent further Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth deaths in the criminal justice system including skilling up the police force to respect Indigenous people, acknowledging biases in the Anglo-mainstream culture, more community involvement in decision making and solutions, and accountability of staff who abuse human rights.

“It’s been 30 years since the RCIADC and [nothing] has changed, in fact the situation has become worse,” Yow Yeh says.

“Australians should be ashamed! Stop Killing Us. Do better!”

Here are the 23 young lives tragically lost in custody between 2011-2021:

BAW – Male, 15, WA
MEO – Female, 16, QLD
P – Female, 13, QLD
PB – Female, 21, NSW
JJR – Male, 20, WA
Jayden Stafford Bennell – Male, 20, WA
GWR – Male, 15, WA
Ms Dhu – Female, 22, WA
KMCN – Female, 23, WA
ADIR – Male, 18, NT
Danny Whitton – Male, 25, NSW
KE – Male, 24, WA
AAU – Female, 25, WA
Steven Freeman – Male, 25, ACT
Jordan Robert Anderson – Male, 23, WA
Tane Richard Chatfield – Male, 22, NSW
JH – Male, 23, NSW
Mr Yeeda – Male, 19, WA
JWC – Male, 24, NSW
TS – Male, 17, WA
CD – Male, 16, WA
Tafari Walton – Male, 21, NSW
Man, name not released – Male, 20, NSW
Kumanjayi Walker – Male, 19, NT
SI – Male, 19, WA