When will leaders lead and stop Black deaths in custody?

December 18, 2020
Banner for Wayne 'Fella' Morrison in Sydney in 2016. Photo: Pip Hinman

One of my sons, Wayne “Fella” Morrison, died in custody three days after being restrained by a prison officers in a van at Yatala Labour Prison in Adelaide in 2016. He was just 26 years old.

I acknowledge the untold pain and suffering experienced by too many other families of First Nations peoples in New South Wales and across Australia who have also lost loved ones — sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers — while in the care of police, prison services and law enforcement agencies.

I pay deep respect to the grieving families of those whose lives were unjustly cut short. In NSW, they include TJ Hickey, David Dungay, Rebecca Maher, Tane Chatfield, Eric Whittaker and Veronica Baxter.

Every day that has passed since the death in custody of my son, I have felt anguish and pain and a sense of injustice.

I have tried to make sense of the senseless loss of my son, and have struggled to have faith or any confidence in the subsequent, still ongoing, coronial and judicial oversight of his violent death.

I am determined to find people of goodwill and a measure of compassion who will listen to my story. My desire to bring about positive systemic changes to criminal justice systems grows with the passing days.

It is only more recently in the long, painful process of trying to understand what has happened and after reading the important 1991 Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody report that I see things more clearly.

I now realise that if the recommendations of that ground-breaking report had been implemented, my son would still be alive today. It is also likely that many more of the more than 430 Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders who have died in custody over the past 30 years would be too.

Mothers know that political leaders at the state and federal levels have failed to hear our cries for justice and the responsibility for the continuing national shame of deaths in custody lies with them.

Since 1991, Indigenous incarceration rates have soared. There has been a nationwide shift toward tougher law and order policies, accompanied by a flow of money into jails in line with the rising prisoner population. This stands in stark contradiction with various federal and state government claims to be implementing the recommendations of the royal commission.

One of the reasons why the recommendations of the royal commission have been largely ignored is that there are no votes in fixing the problem. Each day, the privately-owned and -operated corrective services systems become more heartless. The waste of billions of dollars of public monies is unsustainable, and the public need to be more aware of this waste.

I am calling for urgent action to reduce incarceration rates. This is the same conclusion as the royal commission came to nearly 30 years ago.

Its final report stated: “Commissioners identified the principal and immediate cause of deaths in custody as being the disproportionate rate at which Aboriginal people are detained, arrested and imprisoned in Australia. Too many Aboriginal people are in custody too often.”

My son would never have been put in custody in 2016 if the royal commission’s recommendations had been accepted and implemented.

Too many lives have been wasted. Grief, anger, trauma and pain remain, lingering heavy over the nation. When will effective oversight be implemented? When will justice be done? When will leaders lead?

[Caroline Andersen is an activist for justice for her son and other Aboriginal deaths in custody.]

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