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Black Lives Matter and Aboriginal deaths in custody

17 June 2020

News and media


Protestors marching during Black Lives matter protest.


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.

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The death of First Nations People in custody

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:

The report stresses the importance of governments to enforce legislation that imprisonment should be used only as a last resort. There should also be an abolishment of the offence of public drunkenness, with non-custodial facilities made available to treat and care for intoxicated persons instead.
With regards to First Nations juvenile people in custody, governments and First Nations organisations need to work together to devise strategies to reduce the rate at which our young people are involved in welfare and criminal justice systems. Particularly instances where First Nations young people are being separated from their families and communities, because this can have harmful, long-term consequences.
When developing potential policies and programs concerning First Nations people, it is imperative that the informed views of First Nations people and/or organisations are incorporated into the process. First Nations people themselves are better placed to know the best way forward when addressing the needs of our communities.
The report also recommended that a national survey be undertaken to ascertain the range of social, demographic, health and economic characteristics of First Nations people, while also acknowledging the diversity of different language groups in this nation. The development of a future national census and other methods of data collection involving First Nations people should involve consultation with relevant First Nations organisations (at the time of the report, ATSIC was recommended as the representative body for First Nations, but was dissolved in 2005) to ensure that this is a collaborative process. This has still not been done in the way the Royal Commission recommended.

Key report findings from Indigenous deaths in custody: 25 years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody

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.

Key findings:

In 1991, the Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC) concluded Indigenous people were no more likely to die in custody than non-Indigenous people but were significantly more likely to be arrested and imprisoned. Gannoni and Bricknell’s report claims that the same remains true today. According to the Change the Record Coalition, Australia has seen an 88% increase in the number of First Nations people being put in prison, making them 13 times more likely to be imprisoned than non-Indigenous people.
Indigenous deaths in police custody were higher among younger First Nations people compared to non-Indigenous deaths. Forty per cent of Indigenous deaths were aged under 25 years, followed by those aged 25–39 years (38 per cent). The average age of Indigenous people who die in custody was found to be 29.9 years, compared with 34.6 years for non-Indigenous persons in police custody. Over the years, the average age at death for Indigenous people in custody has been increasing, yet still remains lower than that of non-Indigenous.
The report states that the leading cause of Indigenous deaths in custody for people aged under 25 were self-inflicted deaths such as hanging. During 1991–92 to 2015 –16, self-inflicted deaths among those aged under 25, accounted for 76 per cent of such deaths. Whereas those aged 25 to 39 years, death by hanging was 36 per cent and natural causes was the leading cause of death (48 per cent).

Aboriginal Lives Matter

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.


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Other APO articles

July 2019NAIDOC week: Truth telling together
August 2019 – Improving learning outcomes for Indigenous students
September 2019 – Economic independence through Indigenous art in Australia’s far north
October 2019 – Experiences of the cashless debit card from the First Peoples of Ceduna
November 2019 – Making Indigenous voices heard in climate change debate
December 2019 – Keeping First Nations families together
February – Garma 2019 report: Including First Nations in future policies
April – Closing the gap: A new partnership
May – Providing community-based pandemic healthcare for First Nations
June – After the bushfires, the absence of First Nations’ voices