More deaths in custody

July 24, 1996

By Lisa Macdonald

On July 5, Michael Anthony Blackman was found hanging in the hospital ward at Lotus Glen Prison in Mareeba, Queensland. He was 26 years old.

Blackman's death mirrors the circumstances surrounding the death by hanging two days earlier of 27-year-old Rodney Lawrence Hamilton at Bathurst jail. Both men had been in prison for only a few days, both were found hanging from suicide points that are supposed to be removed from all prison cells, and both had been found by an analyst to be "of a non-suicidal nature". They were therefore put in cells by themselves.

"It has been proved over and over again that the buddy cell system works", said Ray Jackson of the Aboriginal Deaths in Custody Watch Committee. "Royal Commission recommendation 144 is quite clear in its intention — whenever possible, Aborigines should be placed in a buddy cell situation."

Shortly after these deaths in custody, the Watch Committee announced that on July 2, an Aboriginal man was killed when he was thrown from a passenger seat of a vehicle being pursued by police on Groote Eylandt. That brings to 11 the total number of Aboriginal deaths in custody for 1996 and 102 since May 1989.

Ernest James Bell also died, on June 23, 1995, as a result of being chased by police in Moama/Echuca Bridge, NSW. In both cases, the men were known by to the police and could have been apprehended the next day.

"These deaths are not recognised by the police and some authorities as being deaths in custody", Jackson told Green Left.

"The deaths are outside of police stations so the police argue that they are not really in control, that any deaths resulting from police pursuits are really not the fault of the police, but the fault of the victims", he said.

Jackson said that the police's refusal to accept the Royal Commission's definition of a death in custody means they can go on not implementing the recommendations of the Commission.