Recent events in the United States following the death of George Floyd and the charging of a Minneapolis police officer with his murder, have brought the Black Lives Matter movement to national attention. This has inspired activists to turn the focus to the deaths in custody that have occurred in Australia. Carissa Lee Godwin, the APO Specialist Editor of the First Peoples and Public Policy Collection, examines two key reports to the Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody and explores the recommendations that have and have not been implemented, and what action is required. This article contains graphic information about the nature of First Nations deaths in custody, which could be distressing for some readers.
The deaths of First Nations people in custody has been a long-standing political issue in Australia, and still remains one of the ways that colonisation causes the deaths of First Nations people. The issue was brought to the attention of the broader community in 1991 by the Aboriginal Deaths in Custody: Final Report, which was the result of a Royal Commission and made 339 recommendations to address factors such as racism, lack of cultural competency, and preventative measures to be taken when First Nations people are taken into custody. It stressed that imprisonment should be a last resort.
A second report in 2019, Indigenous deaths in custody: 25 years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, explores what has happened in the interim and reveals the contemporary scope of deaths in custody in Australia.
As a First Nations person, I found these reports troubling to read, and have deliberately refused to shy away from the horrific nature of these deaths, so as to provide context to the outrage that has sprung from the Black Lives Matter protests in Australia.
Key policy recommendations from The Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody (RCIADIC): final report
This report was written (by Patrick Dodson, Hal Wootten, Daniel O’Dea, Lew Wyvill and Elliott Johnston) after a Royal Commission to address the disproportionate rates of First Nations people being taken into custody — more than 20 times the rate of non-Indigenous people.
Between 1 January 1980 and 31 May 1989, 99 First Nations people died while in police custody. This report investigates the social, cultural and legal issues behind these deaths, and delivers recommendations to address these issues. It is important to note that many of these recommendations have still not been fully implemented and are still being pursued by First Nations organisations today.
The RCIADIC report states that of the 99 lives lost between 1980 and 1989, there was evidence in every case that “their Aboriginality played a significant and, in most cases, dominant role in their being in custody and dying in custody.” The report goes on to say that the legacies of two centuries of European domination of First Nations people has catastrophic consequences, and one of them is disproportionate numbers of imprisonment. Key recommendations:
Alexandra Gannoni and Samantha Bricknell compiled their report for the Australian Institute of Criminology using data from the National Deaths in Custody Program (NDICP). Gannoni and Bricknell’s report claims that the nature of Indigenous deaths in custody varied, ranging from self-inflicted causes such as hanging, to natural causes, or external trauma.
It should also be noted that due to the absence of reliable data on the number of people placed in police custody each year, the authors were unable to calculate rates of deaths in police custody each year, instead reporting their figures in grouped years.
The Black Lives Matter movement has caused some division between non-Indigenous Australians, with the possibility of COVID-19 spreading during protests, and the misinterpretation that saying black lives matter somehow means that other lives do not matter. It is important to take responsibility for the racism in this country and the role it plays in deaths such as David Dungay, Lynette Daley, Kumanji Walker, Cameron Doomadgee and 433 more First Nations people who have died in custody since 1991.
At the beginning of this year, the Federal Government identified the missed targets in their latest iteration of the Closing the Gap Report, and it is looking to work collaboratively with the Coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peak Organisations.
This same collaborative effort needs to happen when looking at ‘closing the gap’ between First Nations and non-Indigenous deaths in custody. As the RCIADIC report recommends, First Nations consultancy is very much needed to know the ways to address the overrepresentation of our people in prisons and police custody and ensure that police are not influenced by racial biases.
While it is great that Australian society has been expressing its anger at what is occurring in the USA, we also need to look at what’s happening in this country, because racially-motivated deaths are still very much present here in Australia, and our governments and institutions need to acknowledge this and to address systemic racism.