At least 474 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have died in police and prison custody since the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody handed down its final report in 1991, new research has revealed.
Guardian Australia has spent the past three years tracking Indigenous and non-Indigenous deaths in custody for the Deaths Inside project.
The first time we published, in August 2018, an exclusive analysis of 10 years of coronial data found 407 Indigenous people had died in police or prison custody since the end of the royal commission in 1991. In 2019, that figure had increased to 424.
Today, it stands at 474.
At least five of those deaths have happened since the beginning of March this year.
In 2019, four Aboriginal people were shot dead by custodial officers – the highest number of fatal custodial shootings involving Indigenous people since official reporting of such shooting incidents began in 1991. In three of these cases, criminal trials are under way.
A Western Australian police officer has been charged with murder over the shooting death of 29-year-old Joyce Clarke in Geraldton, the first to be charged with murder in the line of duty in the state in 93 years. In the Northern Territory, the murder trial of police constable Zachary Rolfe over the shooting death of Kumanjayi Walker, will begin in Darwin in July. And in NSW, a prison officer is facing manslaughter charges over the shooting death of 43-year-old Dwayne Johnstone in March 2019.
This month marks 30 years since the royal commission made its 339 recommendations designed to protect Aboriginal lives.
Labor senator Pat Dodson, a Yawuru man who was one of the royal commissioners, said the toll of 474 deaths since then was a “national shame”.
“Only strong national leadership and fundamental policy changes can avert this crisis,” Dodson said.
In our 2021 analysis Guardian Australia has found:
- Indigenous people who died in custody were more likely to not have been charged with any crime. Those who died on remand, in “protective custody” or while being arrested or pursued comprised 54% of cases compared with 45% of non-Indigenous deaths in custody.
For both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, the most common cause of death was medical issues, followed by self-harm. However, Indigenous people who died in custody were three times as likely to not receive all required medical care, when compared to non-Indigenous people.
Indigenous women were less likely to have received all appropriate medical care prior to their death (54%) compared with men (36%)
Agencies such as police watch-houses, prisons and hospitals failed to follow all of their own procedures in 43% of cases where Indigenous people died, compared with 19% of cases for non-Indigenous people
The use of force in deaths in custody was similar between both Indigenous and non-Indigenous deaths, however for the 21 Indigenous deaths in custody where force was used, agencies failed to follow all of their own procedures in 62% of cases, compared with 39% for non-Indigenous deaths in custody.
The database contains details of every Aboriginal death in custody since 2008 for which we have been able to find public information, and every non-Indigenous deaths since 2010, from which we are able to then draw a statistical comparison. This data has been checked against the Australian Institute of Criminology’s national deaths in custody program.
For more information on how we determined these figures and categories read the ‘about the data’ section here.
Linda Burney, a Wiradjuri woman and Labor’s spokesperson for Indigenous Australians, is calling for the federal government to fund a real-time reporting system for deaths in custody and an independent audit of the recommendations, which would go deeper than a desktop audit done in 2017.
“It would be extremely helpful if there could be an audit of the recommendations because this just can’t continue,” she said.
Tanya Day, a proud Yorta Yorta, Wemba Wemba and Barapa Barapa woman, died from injuries sustained in police custody in Victoria in 2017, after being arrested for public drunkenness – the same offence for which her uncle Harrison was arrested when he died in a police cell in 1982. Harrison Day’s death was examined by the royal commission, which recommended the crime of public drunkenness be abolished. The Victorian government did not act on that until 2019, just before the inquest into Tanya Day’s death began and after another sustained public campaign. The new law won’t come into effect until November 2022.
It’s a delay that Day’s daughter, Apryl, says cost her mother’s life.
“It’s always this waiting game of when they’re going to do it, and it’s always a political game,” Apryl Day said. “If that recommendation had been enacted when they first said it, mum would still be here.”
Aboriginal deaths in custody are a “national shame” not because Aboriginal people die at higher rates in custody than non-Indigenous prisoners, but because Aboriginal people are disproportionately arrested, remanded, and jailed, and so die at higher rates in custody as a proportion of the total population.
In 2018-19, according to the Australian Institute of Criminology, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people made up 3.3% of the total population, 28% of the prison population, and 18% of all deaths in prison custody. That same year the AIC calculated that Indigenous people die in police custody at more than six times the rate of non-Indigenous people – 0.61 per 100,000 people, compared to 0.09 per 100,000 people.
According to the latest Australian Bureau of Statistics figures, Aboriginal people are jailed at 13 times the rate of non-Indigenous people.
They are also jailed younger, and more likely to die of preventable medical causes, more likely to be incarcerated for minor offences, and more likely to be on remand.
Others have died of what coroners called “natural causes”, but in many cases, these were fatally exacerbated by systemic failings and neglect. Anaiwan-Dunghutti man Nathan Reynolds, a 36-year-old father of one, died on the floor of prison from an asthma attack. The coroner said he was deprived of “at least some chance” of surviving by the “unreasonably delayed” response to his emergency by prison guards and health staff.
Others took their own lives using hanging points in cells that the royal commission recommended be removed 30 years ago. Others committed suicide after authorities failed to monitor their mental health needs, or perform necessary welfare checks.
There have been calls over 30 years for reforms to bail legislation, to raise the age of criminal responsibility, to end to solitary confinement, to decriminalise public drunkenness, to repeal mandatory sentencing laws and to develop justice reinvestment programs to steer people away from the criminal justice system.
“What has absolutely outraged me is if it hadn’t been for questioning in budget estimates a couple of weeks ago in the NSW parliament, Australia would be none the wiser about two deaths that took place – one on the 2nd of March at Long Bay, and on the 5th of March at Silverwater,” Labor’s Linda Burney said.
“It is just wrong that there is not at least federally somewhere, that the deaths are recorded, and they can be made public,” she said. “It is just wrong that if it weren’t for the media, we would not know anything.”
Burney said an independent audit of the royal commission recommendations was necessary to determine why nothing had changed.
“I mean, almost 500 deaths – some of them are by natural causes or some of them are by accident; I am not for one minute suggesting that foul play is involved – but what I am saying is that if an Aboriginal person is still able to hang themselves in a jail cell, where they should be safe, what does that tell you about the system?” she said.
“These are young people who have families, who have children … there needs to be an understanding that Aboriginal people are just furious with this. We are sick of it.”
30 years ago, the royal commission concluded: “there are issues underlying the alienation of Aboriginal people and their continuing conflict with the law which cannot be solved by police and Aboriginal people alone. The key is to be found in the hearts and minds of all Australians. It lies in the recognition of the Aboriginal people as a distinct people … who were cruelly dispossessed of their land and until recent times denied respect as human beings.”
Apryl Day, who started the Dhadjowa Foundation to support Aboriginal families through the inquest process after spending three years fighting for justice for her mother’s death, said the 30 years since the royal commission had shown that governments would introduce reforms slowly and reluctantly, and only when pushed by grassroots activism.
“Where we get our justice is on the street,” she said.
“If you look at the Black Lives Matter rally, that wasn’t organised by government officials or anyone else, it was organised by community organisers and activists … Getting all that media attention and sharing those family stories was really important and it’s really powerful.
“And the mainstream media have no choice but to report on it because of how powerful and how big it is … And then the rest of Australia has no choice but to listen to it as well as the government.
“Whether they take that on and they actually action the calls that are being made in community is one thing – but they can’t say that they didn’t hear it,” she said.
“They can’t say that they don’t know my mum’s name.”