Deaths in custody rally calls for justice

May 18, 2018
600 people march through Sydney to protest Aboriginal deaths in custody on May 14. Photo: Peter Crowfoot

More than 600 people rallied in Sydney on May 14 to protest against Black deaths in custody after footage showing a Western Australian senior sergeant deliberately driving over 18-year-old Aboriginal man William Farmer was released. The police officer who assaulted Farmer has been stood down, but the young man sustained serious injuries as a result of the assault.

The rally, organised by Fighting in Resistance Equally (FIRE), is part of a rising Aboriginal rights movement. More than 15,000 people marched in this year’s Invasion Day — the largest rally of its type in Sydney to date.

The protest was addressed by David Dungay’s mother, Leetona Dungay. David died in Long Bay Prison in 2016. The sister of Patrick Fisher, an Aboriginal man who was chased to death in Redfern in February, also moved the crowd.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are the most incarcerated group of people in the world. They make up 27% of the prison population, while they comprise only 3% of the population. Odious prison warden actions and neglect have claimed four lives in the past month.

The rally was outraged to hear of another alleged death in custody in Mount Druitt the night before. 

Another tragedy unfolded in Queensland on April 21. Mother of two Cindy Miller was found dead at Ipswich watch house in the early hours of the morning, hours after she had been put in a jail cell. She was reportedly being held in custody pending a court appearance the following morning.

Spokesperson for advocacy organisation Sisters Inside Debbie Kilroy told Green Left Weekly: “Once again we have police investigating police. We will never get to the bottom of the case with this type of inquiry. We need an independent investigation into Cindy’s death.”

A 19-year-old Aboriginal man died in the controversial West Kimberley Regional Prison on May 9. He collapsed suddenly and was pronounced dead less than an hour later. An internal investigation is being conducted by Western Australian police.

Another death in custody was reported in Rockhampton on May 15. A 51-year-old remand prisoner was found dead in his cell early in the morning at the Capricornia Correctional Centre.

But this month there was also a historic win for Palm Island’s Aboriginal victims of police brutality. The Queensland government agreed on May 1 to pay $30 million and present a formal apology to Palm Island residents to settle a landmark class action in the federal court. When Mulrunji Doomadgee was murdered on Palm Island in 2004 a riot ensued, resulting in the jailing of Lex Wotton. Wotton’s successful legal action against the police’s racist action netted him $220,000 in compensation in 2016, and opened the way for a class action.

The $30 million settlement will be awarded to 447 claimants, and includes interest, applicants’ legal and administrative costs, and the delivery of an apology. Lawyers say individual payments will range between $5000 and $80,000, to be administered over the next 6–12 months.

Stewart Levitt, senior partner of law firm Levitt Robinson which led the class action, said such a large settlement in these circumstances is "unprecedented in international law".

FIRE has opened another front in the deaths in custody battle by sending a five-point action plan to NSW Parliament. Recent changes to the Bail Act have resulted in a huge increase in the numbers of Black people incarcerated on remand. Some deaths in custody cases, such as Eric Whittacker and Tane Chatfield, occurred while the victims were on remand.

FIRE’s Declaration to Parliament has called for an end to the Suspect Target Management Plan (STMP) by which police racially profile First Nations people. FIRE is calling on parliament, police and prison officers to be held to account by the same laws as the rest of society. It is demanding parliament direct any minister or police officer to stop making statements to the media of “no suspicious circumstances” regarding a death in custody, when an investigation is yet to happen.

The statement calls on all First Nations people who are held on remand for non-violent crimes to be released. The plan also demands that the bail conditions of all First Nations people held on remand be immediately investigated and an independent review committee be established. Finally, FIRE is calling for an immediate review of all First Nations people currently incarcerated.

NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge placed Notices of Motion to both Houses of Parliament calling it to endorse the FIRE declaration, abolish the Suspect Targeting Management Plan, immediately release all Aboriginal people currently held on remand for non-violent offences and establish an immediate review for all Aboriginal people held in NSW jails.

[Sisters Inside is asking people to donate to the family to assist with funeral costs. Sisters Inside's Westpac account: BSB 034037 Account # 218068.]

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