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Aboriginal deaths in custody: the untold stories behind bars

The native Australians, the Aboriginals, have been facing terrible social suppression since the Europeans set foot on the land centuries ago. These natives have lost their lives, land, culture, languages, traditions and even children were ‘stolen’ by the White government.

In short, they lost their separate identity as a nation. They have faced loss beyond words and are left depressed and deprived of their rightful social status, health and education facilities.

None of their problems has been addressed so far to their satisfaction. Promises and bills stay undelivered to the date.

April 15, 2021, marked the 30th anniversary of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody report, and ironically there have been five Indigenous deaths in custody in the past few months.

The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC) was established in 1987 to study the deaths of Indigenous people in custody. The Royal Commission report presented 339 recommendations to ensure the safety of First Nations people in custody but to no difference in the situation even after 30 years.

“Indigenous people now make up around 30% of the prison population” (In Australia) as reported by Frances Mao, a BBC’s Australia digital journalist, in his article: Why Aboriginal people are still dying in police custody. These figures are striking as the population of indigenous people in Australia makes just 3% as a whole!

“While indigenous people don’t die at a greater rate than non-indigenous prisoners, they are much more likely to be in prison or police lock-up, to begin with. That was the finding of the 1991 inquiry and has continued to this day,” Mao wrote.

“Aboriginal people have the highest rate of incarceration of any group in the world. Roughly half of all juvenile prisoners are indigenous,” he claimed.

In an article (The facts about Australia’s rising toll of Indigenous deaths in custody, published in The Guardian) the journalists, Lorena Allam, Calla Wahlquist and Nick Evershed highlighted “Aboriginal people were being taken into custody, often unnecessarily. Aboriginal deaths in custody, it found, were a symptom of a system that disproportionately diverted police attention toward Aboriginal people and resulted in Aboriginal people being jailed younger and more frequently; a system where Aboriginal people were 11 times more likely to be denied bail and jailed on remand.”

Causes of Deaths


Racism is the basic element that indirectly triggers the situation. “The majority of those who died suffered medical issues and evidence proved that medical care is much slower to arrive — if at all — for Indigenous people due to institutional racism,” Cat Woods, a freelance writer, narrates in Newsweek (Australia’s Indigenous Deaths in Custody Continue to Prove Systemic Racism | Opinion). The deep-rooted sense of superiority and hatred against the Australian first people lead to the delay in the much-needed care or facilities by these unfortunate aboriginals while in custody. Even young children are not safe from this unjust belief.

As per a BBC report published on February 13, 2020 (Australia: NSW police scheme ‘targeted’ Aboriginal children) “Australia’s New South Wales police have disproportionately targeted Aboriginal children under a repeat offender monitoring scheme. The Law Enforcement Conduct Commission (LECC), in its report said that many of the children were placed on the STMP (Suspect Target Management Plan) scheme despite being never charged with any crimes.

In one case, a nine-year-old Aboriginal child from a rural area with no previous charges was subsequently charged 94 times.”

The LECC reported the monitoring scheme “showed patterns of targeting that appear to have led to unreasonable, unjust and oppressive interactions for young STMP targets”.

Medical care

An analysis of deaths in custody cases over 10 years conducted by Guardian Australia shows that while the most common causes of death in custody for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people were medical issues followed by self-harm, Indigenous people who died in custody were three times more likely to not receive all required medical care, according to coronial reports.

For Indigenous women, the result was even worse – less than half received all required medical care prior to death. Police, prisons or hospitals failed to follow all of their own procedures in cases involving an Indigenous death in custody than a non-Indigenous death in custody. Indigenous deaths in custody were also more likely to involve drugs or alcohol.”

As stated in “The facts about Australia’s rising toll of Indigenous deaths in custody”, recently published in The Guardian.

Mental health support

“Three decades since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, First Nations people in Australia are still unacceptably being incarcerated and dying in prison,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch. “Given the recent spate of Indigenous deaths in custody, it’s clear that this is a national crisis… there is still a pressing need for adequate and culturally appropriate mental health support for prisoners,” Pearson said.

“Instead of focusing on changing the physical infrastructure of prisons to make it harder for people to harm themselves, the Australian government should act to end preventable prison deaths by improving services and support.”

Human Rights Watch, in a 2020 report recorded “the serious risk of self-harm and death for prisoners with mental health conditions, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners, in Western Australia.

Between 2010 and 2020, about 60% of adults who died in prisons in Western Australia had a disability.”

Diverging the masses

However, many people try to create the myth that the issue is “wildly exaggerated” as Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt stated. Most of the deaths are “natural” as Anthony Dillion, a journalist writes his opinion in The Sydney Morning Herald (Thirty years on from the royal commission, let’s set the record straight on deaths in custody). Myths are simply diverting the people from the brutal reality.

Failed to deliver

Robyn Newitt, a Lecturer of Criminology at Western Sydney University, writes in The Conversation: “The recommendations in the Royal Commission report could have prevented the four deaths this month (March 2021), had they been implemented.

The Long Bay man in this mid-30s who died due to pre-existing conditions could have been saved if recommendation 154 had been in place.

There would have been appropriate cultural health services available for him, and other Aboriginal people in custody.

It’s possible the woman who died in Silverwater Correctional Complex could have been safer if recommendation 165 had been implemented (if she did in fact take her own life). This recommendation suggests police and corrective services carefully assess equipment and facilities to eliminate or reduce the potential for harm. An example of this is the removal of hanging points in police and prison cells. Peter Severin has said removing hanging points from cells is a budget issue.

Recommendation 133(a) addresses the necessity for police to undertake training to know when someone is in distress from their presence. This training could have assisted the police when approaching Anzac Sullivan.”

“Thirty years after the Royal Commission, the government has overstated the degree to which they’ve actioned changes. This has led to the over-incarceration of our community and inevitably their death in those prisons, resulting in the destruction of kin and community, which affects our communities for generations to come,” Nerita Waight, chief executive officer of Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service, openly shares her views “We are imprisoned and criminalised by a system that works under systemic racism day in-day out. Is it apathy? Incompetence? Racism? It’s shameful and it’s heartbreaking, and it doesn’t feel as if we’re truly part of society when this goes on.”

The government and media have been found ignoring the issue and not giving it the priority it requires. “The federal government simply doesn’t keep consolidated records of Indigenous deaths in custody,” writes Eddie Cubillo Senior Indigenous Fellow at the University of Melbourne (Real action needed on Aboriginal deaths in custody). The fact remains that Indigenous families continue to grieve senseless deaths that could have been prevented if the Royal Commission’s recommendations has been put in place 30 years ago.”

How long shall it continue? No one has the answer. Each year some concern is shown in April to deliver the recommendations in the royal commission report nevertheless no solid step is taken to bring the change that is truly hoped for and promised.