Black deaths in custody: ‘Where’s the justice?’

October 29, 2016
Latoya Rule, sister of Wayne 'Fella' Morrison, who was killed in custody.

Rallies against the systemic violence against Aboriginal people were held in Adelaide, Sydney, Perth and Brisbane on October 22.

The call to action was specifically protesting the murders in custody of Wayne “Fella” Morrison and Miss Dhu, the shooting of Dennis Doolan and the abuse and torture of Dylan Voller in Don Dale prison.

Bridget Cama is a Wiradjuri and Fijian woman, and a previous National Union of Students and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander office bearer. She gave permission to Green Left Weekly to reprint her speech at the Sydney action.

* * *

On behalf of Latoya Rule, whose brother Wayne “Fella” Morrison passed away due to injuries sustained from the violent assault inflicted upon him by five correctional officers while in custody, we stand here today to call for justice. The systemic violence and brutality inflicted by Australian police and corrections officers, on both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples is not ok!

To the brothers and sisters, to the Elders and young people, to those who have been brutalised and lost their lives because of police and correctional services’ systemic violence and brutality, we are sorry. We see you, we hear you and we as First Nations peoples, along with many non-Indigenous allies, stand with you today to demand justice globally for our peoples.

In Australia, one in nine Aboriginal people have been to prison at some time in their lifetimes. We have lost a generation to this system. Many of those have lost their lives due to petty crimes, such as unpaid parking tickets or, as in Fella Morrison’s case, having never been convicted of any crime in their life.

This is not an unfamiliar story. There have been more than 400 Aboriginal deaths in custody in the 25 years since a Royal Commission was held into this issue.

Recently we have seen the exposure of correctional officers in juvenile prisons with Four Corners releasing footage of Dylan Voller being tortured. These perpetrators have not been charged. Where is the justice? We have a long list of black deaths in custody including the appalling case of Ms Dhu. No one has been charged.

A few days after the passing of Wayne, we saw police shoot Dennis Doolan in Cowra NSW followed by another Aboriginal man in WA within the same week. In 2004 we saw TJ Hickey and his family go without justice. When will the violence and brutality inflicted upon our people by the system and those individuals in it stop? This is a systemic issue!

It is affecting our First Nations peoples at a disproportionate rate, but it is an issue for non-Indigenous Australians too. Recently there was the case of Yvonne Berry, a non-Indigenous former police officer in Ballarat. CCTV footage shows her being stripped, stomped on, kicked and capsicum-sprayed in Ballarat police cells. This could happen to you; this could happen to me; this could happen to our mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and children. This could happen to any of us.

Despite the royal commission in 1987 which investigated Aboriginal deaths in custody over a 10-year period and gave more than 330 recommendations, very few have actually been implemented. Every year, Aboriginal people continue to die in custody.

The Royal Commission examined the deaths of 99 people who had died in custody between 1 January 1980 and 31 May 1989. Investigating the deaths in NSW, Victoria and Tasmania the commission found that 13 of the 18 people who died in custody may have remained alive had custodial authorities not been negligent, uncaring or had followed procedures adequately. The other five deaths might also have been avoided because these people did not need to be in custody at all.

This negligence, this systemic violence is unacceptable and continues to go on today. That's why we are here today. That's why we have gathered. That's why we are speaking out. Today’s speak out is just one of a national call to action for government to respond to the injustices carried out in the criminal justice system. Where is the justice?

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