Deaths in custody: the shameful statistics


I am a committee member of the Human Rights Alliance and a trustee of the Deaths in Custody Watch Committee WA. Through my role in both during the past couple of years, I have been stunned by the fact that Australia has one of the world's worst deaths in custody records.

There are more non-Aboriginal deaths in custody than Aboriginal deaths. But the rate of Aboriginal deaths in custody is higher than in South Africa during the peak of apartheid.

We must definitively document the reality so we can find genuine remedies and save lives. I have been educating human rights groups and even the Deaths in Custody Watch Committee, which had not realised the extent of deaths in custody in Australia.

The Australian Institute of Criminology’s National Deaths in Custody Program said there were 601 deaths in custody in Australia from 2000 to 2007 alone. The same rates continue.

These 601 deaths in custody over eight years (an average of 75 deaths a year) compares badly with the horrific 1980-2000 tally: 1442 deaths in custody (an average of 72 deaths a year). The rate of deaths in custody is increasing.

The 99 Aboriginal deaths in custody from 1980 to May 1989, which led to the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, do not reveal the total numbers of Australian deaths in custody. They do not reveal the bottom-of-the-barrel, sub-standard custodial services of police or prisons.

Shamefully, Aboriginal deaths in custody have not improved. In fact, they have risen, 20 years after the Royal Commission. The commission report made 339 recommendations, but — in terms of police and prison custodial handling and services — most of the recommendations have not been carried out or substantially budgeted for.

Non-Aboriginal deaths in custody have blown out to unacceptable and inhumane levels. We have a scandal-in-waiting. A Royal Commission into Australian deaths in custody is urgently required.

Our Australian senators, 76 of them, are derelict in their constitutional duties because they have failed to call for and implement such a commission. They have failed to educate the Senate and the lower house of the horrific custodial death statistics.

It seems many politicians are inspired to act only when the community at large is aware of a horrific wrong. Our politicians need to oblige their moral duties and not be guided by the polls.

The Human Rights Alliance and the Deaths in Custody Watch Committee are beginning public talks to educate the community to “inspire” our parliamentarians into action.

Of the 1442 deaths in all forms of custody from 1980-2000, there were 1367 males and 75 females. Two hundred and forty-eight were Aboriginal deaths — 18% of all deaths in custody. Of the 75 female deaths, the Aboriginal female deaths were 32%.

These figures are closely related to incarceration rates. There are higher incarceration rates of Aboriginal people in terms of proportion of Aboriginal people to total population.

So, systemic racism towards Aboriginal people does not directly cause their deaths in custody — deaths in custody are rather the result of substandard treatment towards prisoners, in addition to prejudices towards prisoners that the criminal justice system and broader society may have.

Discrimination happens against all prisoners — it’s not targeted only at Aboriginal people. But systemic racism can be argued as leading to the much higher Aboriginal incarceration rates.

Rates of deaths in custody appear linked to incarceration rates, in terms of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. But an Aboriginal person is 15 times more likely to be locked up than a non-Aboriginal Australian.

In August, ABC Online said in WA, 68% of incarcerated juveniles were Aboriginal, and 40% of the adult prison population was Aboriginal. Aboriginal people make up about 3% of the total population of WA.

In 1991, when the Royal Commission released its reports, there were 69 deaths in custody. Thirteen were Aboriginal.

Ten years later, there were 87 deaths in custody, with 19 Aboriginal deaths in custody. In 1997, there were a record 105 deaths in custody, with 22 Aboriginal deaths in custody.

For Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians, nothing has improved. The statistics have worsened.

There has been an Aboriginal death in custody somewhere in Australia every month of the past 18 months. For each Aboriginal death in custody, there are about eight to 10 non-Aboriginal deaths in custody.

How can Australia have more deaths in custody than those at the peak of apartheid South Africa, and one of the world's worst records?

The time has come for us to have a good look at ourselves and find out what is going on. We need a Royal Commission to ensure the recommendations are carried out. The situation must be monitored and reported to the Senate.

We cannot turn a blind eye. Our prisons are filled with the poorest among us. The middle and upper classes are not the majority of prisoners and generally serve less time for similar offences or for their predominantly white-collar crimes.

We may be turning a blind eye because we have been taught to be harsh on the poor and our Aboriginal brothers and sisters who suffered under Australia’s own apartheid practices.

We must invest in services that help those incarcerated from among our poorest classes. We need to treat them fairly when judging and sentencing them.

But foremost, we must improve the police and prison services, protocols, manuals, procedures and their supervision, handling and treatment of all prisoners. We need Australia to ensure that it is a just and civil society.


Brilliant article, very useful information and statistics for my research