End the barbaric indifference to Black deaths in custody

April 29, 2021
Image: Green Left

The deaths in custody of two more First Nations people over the past week — bringing the total deaths to seven over the last two months — is nothing less than a national emergency.

It should be sparking governments to pull out all stops to prevent any more such deaths and bring those responsible to justice. Instead, the federal government has shown its barbaric indifference.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison expressed his sympathy to Indonesia over the KRI Nanggala submarine sinking, but said nothing about the horrific recent Black deaths in custody – since March seven people have died.

One man died on April 26 at Port Phillip Prison in Melbourne’s west and, the next day, another man died at Cessnock Correctional Centre in New South Wales.

Greens Senator and Gunai Gunditjmara Djab Wurrung woman Lidia Thorpe hit out at the indifference, saying: “This is a national crisis, and until every single recommendation from the Royal Commission is implemented, this will not end”.

The Aboriginal community controlled legal service Djirra said on April 28: “We can’t wait for any more commissions. We need action now. Imprisonment should be a last resort.” It reiterated its call for an independent Victorian Aboriginal Social Justice Commissioner to “ensure the government is held accountable”.

Since the release of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1991, at least 476 First Nations people have died in custody. The 339 recommendations from that commission — which laid bare for the first time the extent of the racism — were heavily slanted towards keeping people out of the prison system.

But governments have systematically failed to act on those recommendations: the imprisonment rate of First Nations people has continued to grow.

According to the Productivity Commission’s latest Report on Government Services, which collated data from each state and territory’s justice system, the imprisonment rate for First Nations peoples is about 1935 per 100,000 adults, compared with about 166 non-Indigenous Australians per 100,000 adults. 

The latest deaths were reported on the same day that an inquest into the death of Wiradjuri, Kookatha and Wirangu man Wayne “Fella” Morrison began in Adelaide. He was taken to Royal Adelaide Hospital after being pulled unresponsive from a prison van in September 2016. He died three days later.

Caroline Anderson, Morrison’s mother, could never watch the distressing footage showing guards placing her son in handcuffs, ankle cuffs and a spit hood.

She told Green Left last year that her son was moving before being shoved face down into the back of a prison van and driven — in a prone position — to the high-security wing of Yatala jail. At the end of a three-minute drive, Morrison was pulled unresponsive from the van. No cameras recorded what happened inside. One guard, who was in the front of the van, told an inquiry that “code black” had been muttered.

No immediate attempt was made to resuscitate Morrison: it took two and a half minutes before CPR was begun.

Meanwhile, the New South Wales Legislative Council released The high level of First Nations people in custody and oversight and review of deaths in custody report on April 15 to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the Royal Commission.

The inquiry was initiated by Greens MLC David Shoebridge after last year’s mass Black Lives Matter rallies across the county and years of campaigning by the families of those who died in custody.

Inquiry chairperson Labor MLC Adam Searle acknowledged that the families were concerned that the report would be “left on the shelf to gather dust”, just as the commission’s recommendations have been.

He also said that while this report is specifically aimed at preventing the over-representation of First Nations people in custody, systemic racism, historical dispossession and lack of access to healthcare, housing and employment also needs to be addressed.

The report added its weight to the call for all 339 recommendations to be fully implemented. It also said an independent body to investigate all deaths in custody is needed, as well as an oversight mechanism.

It said the criminal age of responsibility must be raised from 10 to 14 years of age; that caps on the number of cautions young people can be given be removed; and more funding be directed to First Nations-led community programs.

Shoebridge acknowledged that there would be criticism of the recommendations, but said the inquiry focussed on policy changes that were most likely to be implemented.

Just days later, NSW Minister for Police and Emergency Services David Elliot used Channel 7’s Sunrise to attack a school for allowing year five and six students to create Black Lives Matter signs during school. He called for the teacher to be sacked, saying: “We don’t have a race problem here in Australia”.

Shoebridge responded, saying there is an urgent need to address police brutality in NSW. The government has six months to respond to the report’s recommendations.

Justice for the grieving First Nations families requires ongoing, public actions, including more mass Black Lives Matter rallies.

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