Still no justice for black deaths in custody

A rally to stop black deaths in custody in Perth, 2011. Photo: Alex Bainbridge.

It has been 30 years since the death in custody of 16-year-old Yindjibarndi youth John Pat after he was assaulted by five off-duty police officers in Roebourne, Western Australia.

John Pat’s murder, and the subsequent acquittal of the five police, started the movement against black deaths in custody. That movement was built from the anger of ordinary people when, again and again, someone died or was murdered in custody, leaving their distraught relatives struggling to find answers.

Years of pressure forced the government to establish the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. The commission’s final report, released in 1991, made more than 300 recommendations.

Since then another 300 people have died in custody including 18-year-old Daniel Yock in Brisbane, 17-year-old TJ Hickey in Sydney, Mr Ward in Western Australia and Mulrunji Doomadgee on Palm Island.

Each death in custody is the tragic consequence of the over-representation of Aboriginal people in the criminal justice system. Though only 2.3% of Australia’s population, Aboriginals make up 25% of the prison population and for Aboriginal youth the rate is 50%.

Aboriginal people are 15 times more likely to be incarcerated than white adults. For Aboriginal youths the situation is much worse. Juveniles in WA are 48 times more likely to be jailed than their non-Indigenous peers. WA also imprisons Aboriginal people at nine times the rate that black South Africans were imprisoned under apartheid. Each one of these prisoners is a potential death in custody.

Several groups around Australia are planning actions around the following demands:
Stop Aboriginal deaths in custody. End the racist persecution of Aboriginal people. Conduct a national audit of the implementation of the recommendations of the royal commission. Make the findings public and table in federal, state and territory parliaments, and, where appropriate, local government bodies.

Build communities not prisons. End the privatisation of custodial services — cancel all contracts with G4S, Serco and other profiteers from incarceration.

Hold the police and custodial authorities to account — end the practice of police investigating police. Establish elected community based police review boards with the full legal and legislative powers to investigate, discipline and charge police and custodial officers found to be involved in a death in custody, negligence or lack of duty of care.

Pass legislation to hold corporation and government departments responsible for their role in a death in custody.

End the harassment of deaths in custody families. Provide full funding for families, both immediate and extended, who have lost a loved one in custody to meet to allow their collective demands — including for apologies and compensation — to be formulated.

Actions in support of these demands will be held in Perth on September 25 and in Adelaide, Cairns, Melbourne and Sydney on September 28.

[For more information contact Indigenous Social Justice Association in Melbourne at or Sydney on 0450 651 063. Contact the Deaths in Custody Watch Group in Western Australia at or Far North Queensland at]

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