The burning issue of deaths in custody - Aboriginal people die 5 times the rate of Apartheid South Africa

PHOTO: Roebourne Prison inmates - for crimes like ‘absconding’ from ‘blackbirding’ - slavery. Those who resisted strongly were sent to Wadjemup (Rottnest Island) and Fremantle Prison - most never to return. The word they used for policeman was “Marndamarangga” and means “chainhand” and is still used today. (Photo: Battye Library, WA)

Gerry Georgatos - Deaths in Custody continues and at the same abominable rates since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (1987-1991). However the rates of custodial deaths that led to the call for the Royal Commission were actually less than since the end of the Royal Commission. So what has gone wrong, why are deaths in custody – proportion to prison populations and in terms of crude totals – on the rise?

Several years ago as part of my PhD research into Australian Custodial Systems and Australian Deaths in Custody I did the comparative sums on deaths in custody in countries of equivalent social wealth such as England and Wales, and for instance found that Australia had double the prison suicide rate in terms of proportion to prison populations to England. And proportionately more police custodial deaths than countries such as Scotland. To my surprise I found that Australia had five times the rate of Aboriginal deaths in custody when compared to deaths in custody towards the end of Apartheid South Africa. Even worse, Western Australian had nine times the rate.

These horrific rates are now run of the mill information for many Australians – many don’t seem to blink an eyelid. In some countries these rates would lead to civil strife if not a civil war. Our incarceration rates of Aboriginal peoples are the worst in the world – Aboriginal peoples are the most incarcerated peoples in the world – with Western Australia, as a jurisdiction, the worst offender in the world – one in every 20 Aboriginal adult males is in prison on any given day and night, and with a rate for juveniles at one in 18. This human disaster is chased down by the Northern Territory where the prison population has 84 per cent of its population comprised by Aboriginal peoples.

In terms of averages and medians an Aboriginal death in custody occurs somewhere in Australia every three weeks, and has so for the past five years. For each Aboriginal death in custody, there are eight to 10 non-Aboriginal deaths in custody. Every five days an Australian dies in custody. Therefore there is every right for questions to be raised about Australian custodial systems.

How can Australia have one of the world’s worst records? For every death in custody, we must acknowledge that there are scores of people maltreated, neglected and suffering.

The time has come for us to have a good look at ourselves, and not just the statistics, and realise what is going on and why.

The Australian Institute of Criminology’s National Deaths in Custody Program said there were 601 deaths in custody in Australia from 2000 to 2007. These 601 deaths in custody over eight years (an average of 75 a year) compares badly with the horrific 1980 to 2000 tally: 1,442 deaths in custody (an average of 72 deaths a year).

The rate of deaths is increasing against a backdrop of the bottom-of-the-barrel, substandard custodial services of police and prisons.

The 99 Aboriginal deaths in custody from 1980 to May 1989 led to a 1991 Royal Commission. Shamefully, 22 years after this Commission, Aboriginal deaths in custody numbers have risen.

The Commission report made 339 recommendations, but – in terms of police and prison custodial handling and services – most of the recommendations have not been carried out. Non-Aboriginal deaths in custody have blown out to unacceptable and inhumane levels. Some say we do not need more royal commissions into deaths in custody, and if per se it is to about statistics then we don’t, however we do need a royal commission into why little has been done, why the statistics have got worse, why prison and police officers are not being made accountable let alone prosecuted. We need a royal commission that is about instrumentally implementing changes and that is not bent only statistical reporting.

It seems many politicians are inspired to act only when the community at large is aware of a horrific wrong, however on this occasion the majority of Australians are aware of the horrific deaths in custody rates, which elsewhere in the world may have led to mass protests and a civil rights movement however in Australia the myriad veils and layers of our racist identities quell the urge and skew the moral compass.

Discrimination happens against all prisoners – it’s not targeted only at Aboriginal peoples – systemic racism can be argued as directly leading to the much higher Aboriginal incarceration rates. We have to overwhelm the discrimination many have towards those who finish up before the criminal justice system and also the racism that makes many turn a blind eye to the neglect and maltreatment of our far too many abjectly impoverished Aboriginal peoples.

Rates of deaths in custody are linked to incarceration rates, in terms of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. However, an Aboriginal person is 15 times more likely to be locked up than a non-Aboriginal Australia so the deaths in custody issue affects Aboriginal peoples disproportionately.

From 1982 to 2008 there have 2,056 deaths in custody, 379 of them Aboriginal deaths. Aboriginal deaths to 2013 are now past 420. This is a national disgrace.

In 1991, when the Royal Commission released its reports, there were 69 deaths in custody. Thirteen were Aboriginal. Ten years later, there were 87 deaths in custody, with 19 Aboriginal deaths in custody. In 1997, there were a record 105 deaths in custody, with 22 Aboriginal deaths.

For Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians, nothing has improved. The statistics have worsened. We need a royal commission to get to the heart of change and not just to acknowledging statistics and facts – we need a royal commission that empowers change – which ensures recommendations are carried out. The situation must be monitored and reported bi-annually to the Australian Senate.

The Australian Silence cannot be allowed to predominate. Our prisons are filled with our poorest people. The middle and upper classes are not the majority of prisoners and generally serve less time for similar offences or for their predominately white-collar crimes.

A couple of years ago, in WA, the prison population increased 18 per cent. 40 per cent of the total prison population was Aboriginal and continues at this rate. During that same period, parole denials dramatically increased and the length of sentences increased an average of 118 days. Annually, in WA alone, more than a half a billion dollars is spent to incarcerate 4,600 people – more than 2,000 are Aboriginal. It is not true that a significant number of prisoners have been incarcerated for defaulting on fines alone, however the majority of prisoners are incarcerated for minor offences. We need to treat them fairly when judging and sentencing them. Until such time that we remedy the disparity in the criminal justice system we must ensure we do not compound the problems. We must improve and educate the police and prison services and their protocols, manuals, procedures and supervision, handling and treatment of all prisoners. We need to ensure that Australia is a just and civil society. If we do not invest in our people, then by 2020 we will have at least close to another 1,000 deaths in custody, and no less than a dozen more jails built around the country.

Any inquiry must break up into sub-inquiries and for an instance an independent investigation is needed to explain the sharp rise in the number of Australian prison deaths being attributed to “natural causes”. I have long raised concern at the young ages of many of those dying, and especially of Aboriginal youth, and especially in police custody, and it is the premise of my PhD and several chapters in the book that I have written about deaths in custody – ‘Climate of Death’. Deaths from natural causes have become a concern for me because they are now the most frequent cause of death in Australian prisons. They outnumber suicides which historically were the most frequent classification of prison deaths. In examining statistics from the Australian Institute of Criminology natural causes accounted for nearly 75% of prison deaths in 2008. Just as disturbing are the young ages of these prison deaths. Aboriginal prisoners die younger than non-Aboriginal prisoners, and the difference in some jurisdictions are thereabouts 20 years. They are presumably dying of ‘natural’ causes at ages when their health should generally be considered resilient. In the general population Aboriginal males die at 57 while non-Aboriginal males die at 81, however in prison Aboriginal males die on average at 38 years while non-Aboriginal males die at 53.

I have been quoted elsewhere, “You can’t have people dying in significant numbers at these young ages — in their 20s, 30s, and so on — and deem them as natural causes. We would not, and do not, accept this elsewhere. We seek the cause of death and whatever may have contributed to premature deaths and, where possible, lay charges in pursuit of culpability and liability.” I have rejected the Australian Institute of Criminology’s claim that the rise in natural cause deaths is “probably linked to an ageing prison population and a prison population with more health problems than the general population”. These assumptions have not been validated. Furthermore, I have deep concerns about the attribution of the manner and cause of death and therefore about the classification of deaths in custody. I have been quoted, “There is nothing natural about a person dying of causes that basic medical intervention could prevent. More than 50% of Aboriginal folk who die in prison are classified as natural cause deaths, but maybe what has occurred is that medical attention wasn’t flagged or their insulin dependency was not given proper care or they were maltreated or neglected.” There should be an independent inquiry and a review of natural cause deaths where family members have requested this, and in all the cases of young deaths, and especially of those less than thirty years of age. Once again I have been quoted, “We do have a culture of turning a blind eye, favour dispensation and an acceptance of stressed prison health services … underwritten by a culture where reporting mechanisms and investigations by certain authorities do not scrub up.” The Australian Medical Association President Steve Hambleton has expressed his alarm at the ages of prison deaths. He has expressed his alarm at the age disparity of the prison deaths between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal and supports my call for an independent inquiry.

Statistics that one should be versed when trying to understand disparity and the discriminatory repressive conditions, and in line with much of what I have described should include the fact that 93% of the Australian prison population are males. The Australian Institute of Criminology cites that since 1980 more than 20% of deaths in custody have been of persons aged less than 25 years, and 41% of persons aged 25 years to 39 years. Historically, a greater proportion of Aboriginal prisoners die in the younger age groups compared with non-Aboriginal prisoners. Over the 20 year period 1980 to 2000, each year hanging deaths generally outnumbered all other causes. However, from 2001 to 2008, hanging deaths have been outpaced by ‘natural’ cause deaths. Since 1980, 37% of deaths in custody have been by hanging, while ‘natural’ causes account for 51%. A greater percentage of Aboriginal prisoners die in custody of ‘natural’ causes than non-Aboriginal prisoners, 51% compared to 36%. Human desperation, and mental breakdown is depicted by the statistic that of the 340 hanging deaths in prison custody between 1990 to 2008 cell bars accounted for 39% of these deaths, 36% by other fittings inside the cell and shower fixtures accounted for 13%. Australia’s prisons have a worse rate of suicide than do Welsh and English prisons. The Australian Institute of Criminology aggregate and breakdown all the figures, and avail them to all our agencies and politicians. 71% of Aboriginal prisoners and 67% of non-Aboriginal prisoners who have died in custody since 1980 were sentenced at the time of their death. In 2008 there was a notable rise in the number of prison custody deaths of sentenced prisoners – this is in line with longer sentences and a harsher penal code. Private prisons have rates of death at three times the rate of government-run prisons. 34% of deaths in private prisons since 1990 were due to hanging. However, private prisons have a higher rate of deaths from ‘natural’ causes than do government-run prisons.

In terms of police custodial deaths, in 2008 Western Australia recorded the highest in the nation, with 11 deaths, 6 in Victoria, 5 in the Northern Territory, 4 in NSW, 4 in Queensland and two in South Australia. Why? According to the Australian Institute of Criminology, from 1980 to 2008 there have 779 police custodial deaths. 2008 recorded 32 police custody deaths, one of the highest totals since 1980, nationwide, and this was particularly so because of the high number of police custody deaths in WA. The rates of police custody deaths have increased in terms of crude totals and proportion to population since the 1980s, with 566 deaths from 1990 to 2008. Since 1990, 44% of the Aboriginal police custodial deaths were aged less than 25 years. One of the most shocking statistics is the median age of Aboriginal police custodial deaths – in WA, between 1990 to 2008, it is at 20 years of age, with 34 deaths. 109 Aboriginal police custodial deaths nationwide during that period at a median average age of 27 years. Western Australia recorded the most Aboriginal police custodial deaths, 34, a long way ahead of NSW at 21, followed by the Northern Territory at 19, followed by Queensland at 18 and South Australia at 10. However, 31% of the Northern Territory identifies as Aboriginal whereas in WA, the Aboriginal population is less than 80,000 people and less than 3% of the total state population. The Western Australian government should call for an inquiry into this disproportionate statistic and preferably a demarcated body such as the Australian Senate should inquire into Western Australia. The Australian Government should finally do something for everyone and start paying serious attention to the statistics and facts from the Australian Institute of Criminology and to researchers including myself. There is not even mock indignation from our parliamentarians – silence is often complicit and therefore indicts not only neglect but attitudinally discrimination, racism and inhumanity.

Certain objectives of any parliamentary inquiries must include the pursuit of demarcated inspectorates to investigate police – bodies that are far removed and independent of police and prisons and which will not report to police and prisons or to the relevant ministerial portfolio holders and rather to the whole of state governments, in public to the parliament. This in turn will remove imputations and aspersions against police and prisons, which many police and prison officers do despise. If we do not move towards solutions we will continue to rely on the most negative and inhumane policies, which will be to impose more mandatory sentencing regimes, harsher sentences, and hence we will continue with the building of more prisons.

In terms of Aboriginal deaths in custody we have to reduce the rates of Aboriginal incarceration – this is a significant step. The answers do lie before us, they lie in Aboriginal advancement by Aboriginal peoples and with those of with adequate knowledge and front line experiences, where invited or accepted we can work alongside our Aboriginal brothers and sisters – and Aboriginal advancement by Aboriginal peoples will be expedited in the course of a generation if finally our government moves away from piecemeal changes and overt attempts at wholesale assimilation and instead, unfettered, produces the full suite of funding to Aboriginal peoples to enfranchise themselves with the full suite of social health and wealth, and access to every opportunity that non-Aboriginal Australians have. For those who are suffering at this time, the incarcerated, for them we must consider every support program, every education, every intervention such as ‘Justice Reinvestment’ and every foreseeable mercy, however for those to come we must rush and rely on prevention - we must provide from the very beginnings of their lives the conditions that non-Aboriginal Australians enjoy, we must ensure their full suite of rights. Anything less than the full suite of funding to redress the lives of Aboriginal peoples is sheer racism – we must unveil the racist layers of the Australian national identity, set aside hostile denials of our racism and move forward, bringing together Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples to a common humanity and the common good. We must not in any way stand in the way of self-determination and capacity-building. Otherwise, the type of prejudices and stereotypes that killed young John Pat in 1983 shall manifest in the many ways they do and in one way or another break and kill people. Harsh systems do not improve society, look at the USA, it incarcerates more people, proportion to population, and in total numbers than any other country on this planet – 2.8 million Americans are in prison, one per cent of their total population, and 8 million are before the criminal justice system – three per cent of the total American population! Are Americans this bad? Or is America harsh on its people? Do we want this for Australia?

In 1983, 16 year old Yindjibarndi youth, John Pat lost his life after being brutally bashed by off-duty police officers outside the Victoria Hotel, and Roebourne became to WA what Birmingham was to Alabama. With its horrific incarceration rates of Aboriginal peoples, Western Australia is the hotbed of racism in Australia, and it is up to state and federal governments to demonstrate the moral leadership, thus far languishing, in eliminating Aboriginal poverty, disparity, injustices, and in supporting the rights of Aboriginal peoples, and in supporting, rather than standing in the way, of Aboriginal advancement by Aboriginal peoples. When this occurs everything will change.

A significant proportion of prisoners are sleeping on cell floors in deplorable conditions in Northern Territory prisons according to the Northern Territory Prison Officers' Association (NTPOA).

More than 80 per cent of the Northern Territory prison population comprises Aboriginal peoples and the maltreatment and abusive conditions have contributed to illness, anger and even re-offending once out. People are leaving prison worse than when they went in. For every person that dies in prison, at least five times as many die within the first year post-release. That is between 350 to 500 deaths in the first year post-release. My argument therefore that people come out of prison worse than what they went in surely cannot be argued against when I throw out a statistic like this.

The NTPOA has called for improved conditions, more beds and more resources to relieve prison staff of the huge pressures and risks they are under.

NTPOA spokesperson Phil Tilbrook said these third world conditions in prisons must not be allowed to continue. He described Darwin and Alice Springs prisons as the "worst" with dormitories approximately five by ten metres housing up to 12 to 14 prisoners and with only one toilet.

"You've got prisoners living in third world conditions. We've got mattresses on the floor and prisoners sleeping within one metre of a toilet that 14 other prisoners have to use," Mr Tilbrook said. He said he was concerned for prisoners, most of them Aboriginal and his prison staff colleagues and he warned the situation would lead to a tragedy unless the Territory Government acted.

In April the Territory Government announced 189 more beds would be provided to existing prisons and another prison would be built by 2014 with a holding capacity of 800 prisoners.

However, Mr Tilbrook said this was not enough. "The potential for prisoners to spill out frustration on themselves or on officers is huge," he said. "We have seen incidents where hot water is regularly used as a weapon against other prisoners and against officers."

Indigenous Social Justice Association President, Ray Jackson said there should be an inquiry. "An inquiry should be had, independent of the Territory Government as they don't seem to be responding to the crisis," he said.

"They have to inquire into the conditions, into the over-crowding, into how stressed officers treat inmates and just as importantly into why so many of our people are being jailed for minor offences.

"We are losing our people in these jails and the inquiries are not happening.

"We have called for inquiries into prison and police cell deaths in the Northern Territory and nothing has happened despite another death recently of one Aboriginal man, 28 year old Mr Briscoe who was found dead in March in the Alice Springs police lock up and again with another Aboriginal man, Mr Clarke who died in April because of neglect just before he was due to be released from prison."

Mr Tilbrook said the Northern Territory prison network cannot cope with any more prisoners. "Yet the courts are still sending them to us," he said.

Criminal Lawyers' Association President, Russell Goldflam said the situation was dire. He said the Alice Springs prison "was full to the brim" and with "one hundred more prisoners than it was originally built to hold."

He said the over-crowding had reached the point where some prisoners were being held in police watch houses "to cope with the overflow."

"We had the situation where there were a number of people being held on remand during Easter in Alice Springs who could not be sent to jail because there was no room for them," he said.

"I don't want to dwell on the past but I have grown up bitter," said Noongar Elder Ben Taylor. Mr Taylor is on the mark when he says, "They have been killing our people for two hundred years." Mr Taylor has just been awarded an Order of Australia Merit for his work in advocating on behalf of families who have a loved one as a death in custody, and also for his work in assisting these families.

John Pat is dead. Cameron Mulrunji Doomadgee is dead. T.J.Hickey is dead. Dion Woods is dead. Grantley Winmar is dead. Elder Mr Ward is dead. Peter Clarke is dead. Terrance Briscoe is dead. The deaths continue and the heartache that is racism burns at the Australian consciousness, encumbering the journey that is conciliation, that cries out for a coalescing of humanity.

John Pat's mother Mavis remembers him every hour of every day and not just on September 28 - there is a hole in her heart that nothing can mend, such is a mother's pain.

I have seen Mother Mavis cry for her son, John Pat, who is not lost to her, nor is he lost to his sister and brother.

Her son did not die in an accident, her son did not die of illness, he did not die by some means that in the least could make some sense - her son was stolen from life by the rapacious prejudices of racism - her son was a 'black cunt' bashed to death. The colour of his skin, his very identity, historical and contemporary, cultural and political were the liabilities that the ugliness of prejudice caught in its net. These liabilities encumber the Australian id, and our consciousness has not been liberated in ensuring the bringing about of equality.

John Pat was almost 17 years old when he was found dead in a police station lock-up in Roebourne, Western Australia on 28 September 1983. He died of head injuries sustained during a fight with off-duty police officers outside the local Victoria Hotel. Four officers and a police aide were later charged with his manslaughter but acquitted at trial."

During the evening of what would be John Pat's last day of life, the four off-duty police officers and the police aide came to the Victoria Hotel after a night of revelry and drinking at the local golf club. What would come to pass in the minutes ahead would tear a hole so deep in Mother Mavis Pat that a world would cave in within it and sink the hopes of a family and scar a community - for Roebourne, in the heart of Yindjibarndi, is known Australia-wide for the death of John Pat, and not for its red earth, its yellow sands, the vast landscapes, or for the warm seas nearby that wash its pebbles and cobble - there are few people who bring on the mention of Roebourne without thinking of the vile racism that killed John Pat - Roebourne's is to Western Australia what Birmingham is to Alabama. If we do not examine the racism then we will never find the ways forward. We have to eliminate racism by coalescing humanity, embracing the ‘other’ and believe in self-determination, in all its forms, if we are to truly eliminate racism and therefore reduce Aboriginal incarceration rates. However the Australian identity still has a long way to go, having walked only small steps since its own Apartheid, since the matter of fact murders of Aboriginal peoples, their en masse incarceration in neck and leg chains, the deaths in custody or in wastelands without the nation blinking an eyelid.

In the decade since the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody recommendations, - 339 recommendations - Aboriginal deaths in custody went up by 150%. This trend continued during the last ten years. Indeed, it is 22 years since a royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody and yet little seems to have changed. Indeed, in terms of the Australian Institute of Criminology's crude totals, the numbers have got worse, human lives are still being lost. In terms of proportion to total deaths in custody, Aboriginal deaths are proportionately higher than they were three and two decades ago. Deaths in custody is a horrific problem for Australia, and for the national moral compass, for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples.

Is the Australian racist identity still fervent? There is so much good in people, caring, well meaning, volunteers for this and that however we do not rise in the call for the saving of Aboriginal lives in the ways we should – in a march of hundreds of thousands. Is Australia still burning with the racism that killed John Pat on September 28, 1983. Yes it is – as I note, the veils and layers of racism are myriad, and in these layers we can be caught in, and silence, a complicit action, is one of these layers.

The off-duty police officers had continued their drinking at Roebourne's Victoria Hotel before they unnecessarily brawled, and with great viciousness, with the local Aboriginal youth who had also been drinking. The fight never had to have happened, it was a choice, a decision, a conviction, it was brought on needlessly however with the highest cost, that of a human life and with a hurt through so many that its pervasiveness is yet to yield. The off-duty police officers could have walked away, most certainly, or acted with a modicum of humanity, instead hate and spite urged them on. Prejudices with their origins-of-thinking generations old, and generations removed, fired their synapses, flushing morbidly their thinking. 1983 was not 1933 and the excuses of the police officers and the police aide run thin. John Pat died of head injuries, a torn aorta and his bruised and battered body finished up a thornbush of broken ribs. One witness was straightforward with testimony to the Supreme Court in 1984, of the unconscious and likely lifeless John Pat - that he was "thrown like a dead kangaroo" into the back of a police van.

The late Dr Jack Davis wrote in his book, John Pat and other poems, "Write of life, the pious said, forget the past, the past is dead. But all I see, in front of me is a concrete floor, a cell door, and John Pat." In every visit I make to a prison, I see John Pat in everyone, young and older, and every prison cell I walk past I see the dank concrete floors and what little boys, and girls, with innocence born, will grow up to see day in day out, with heads lowered, concrete floors and John Pat. The pigment of their skin and the holes in their pockets telling them of a difference which was once unknown to them and in a better world would be unknown.

The Coronial Inquest which began on 31 October, 1983 during 21 days, heard from seventy-seven witnesses. On February 6, 1984, four police officers and a police aide were committed for trial on charges of manslaughter and they were brought before the Supreme Court in Karratha on 30 April 1984. An all-white jury of 12 men and three women acquitted them. There has never been a successful prosecution against any police or prison officer in that they contributed an unnatural hand in a police or prison custodial related incident. Let us remind ourselves that it took confrontational protests and the burning of the Palm Island Police Station to bring to the light of day the death in police custody of Cameron Mulrunji Doomadgee and yet justice has not been done, Officer Craig Hurley is yet to atone while Palm Island councillor Lex Wotton was sent to prison.

Roebourne's name came to everyone's lips with John Pat's death. It all started when one local boy, Ashley James, was threatened by one of the off-duty police officers when he sought to make a purchase from the hotel's bottle shop. The off duty police officer was heard to say, "We'll get you, you black cunt."

John Pat tried to intervene and break up the brawl, to rescue his mate however found himself pummelled. He had tried to pull Ashley James away from the heart of the brawl. It was at this point that one of the off-duty policemen, with an obvious deep hate wandering in his heart, walked up to John Pat and punched him in the mouth. A number of blows to John Pat spiralled from the officer's hateful heart. A witness would testify, "he fell back, and didn't get up. I heard his head hit the road." John Pat was not the victim of just one punch, however of many punches. His life may have ended just after his head hit the road however such mitigation is foolhardy - the punches that struck him in the head, after his body was battered, and with such a force that they sent him pummelling to the ground and with such force that his head was whipped back on its neck's nape that it would hit the ground before the rest of his body. The punches sent him spiralling back, head first, to the earth are what killed him. Don't blame the hard earth, this is outrageous and gutless. An intention was behind the attack on John Pat. Similarly don’t excuse the criminal justice system for being harsh – it is intentional. Don’t excuse our governments for their neglect of justice – there is an intention. The involved police officers may have been acquitted however till the end of days they carry with them a wrong that lies and cowardice cannot undo, they carry with them the fact they slaughtered the life out of a young man and little can perceptually modify this - John Pat was a victim, and the police officers and others past and present, inter-generational prejudices were and are the perpetrators. Similarly our criminal justice system and our governments, those who make them up, carry with them the guilt of not doing enough to prioritise justice and equality for Aboriginal peoples. Aboriginal Elder, the late Dr Jack Davis AO, BEM once said, "The beginning of the cause of deaths in custody does not occur within the confines of police and prison cells or in the minds of the victims. Initially, it starts in the minds of those who allow it to happen."

The Warburton Elder, Mr Ward suffered a terrible death in the back of a prisoner transport van which was wholly unnecessary and avoidable." So too was the death of John Pat, and of Mulrunji Doomadjee and of T.J. Hickey, and this year of 28 year old Terrance Briscoe in an Alice Springs police cell and of so many others. The WA's Director of Public Prosecutions Joe McGrath publically announced criminal charges would not be laid over Mr Ward's death.

In 1901 the WA member of Parliament for Kalgoorlie, Hugh Mahon moved a motion calling for a royal commission into the conditions of Aboriginal people in WA and the administration of justice in the lower courts of the state. It was not heeded. 112 years later after that tabling of that motion we are here again with calls for inquiries into deaths in custody."

Last year Emma Purdy in her widely published article "A sick prison still claiming lives" wrote of the death of Mr Winmar in the SERCO managed prison of Acacia, on the outskirts of Perth, "Public anger was fuelled even further when (the custodial death of Dion Woods) was followed less than a week later by that of 39-year-old father of five Grantley Winmar in Sir Charles Gardiner Hospital, also in Perth, on 22 March 2010. Although Winmar had previously suffered two strokes and been diagnosed with meningitis, when he became ill in WA's Acacia Prison he was treated only with aspirin, shortly after which he passed into a coma from which he never recovered. Winmar had served all but three weeks of a six-month sentence for driving without a licence."

"His brother, Richard Winmar, told the West Australian the day after his death that the family were told by doctors there had been bleeding on his brain for six to seven days while he was in jail. He said Winmar had called his mother from prison and said his head felt like it was 'about to explode', but that prison officers had simply given him aspirin and told him to return to his cell."

Ms Purdy reported that WA's DCS assistant commissioner, Graeme Doyle, said: "I have received a full rundown of Mr Winmar's medical treatment over the past several weeks and I am satisfied he was treated promptly and appropriately." The DCS declined to comment further to Ms Purdy.

What Ms Purdy describes is thematic of what occurs in Australia's prison and police custodial jurisdictions, and I have long come to the conclusion that our prisons, as they are, are failed systems.

The forensic pathologist, Dr John Hinton reported that John Pat died of multiple injuries, his head injuries caused swelling and a brain haemorrhage, and that indeed he was victim to at least ten blows to his head. There were half a dozen bruises above his right ear and therefore at one stage he had been degenerated into a punching bag. The bruises and injuries to the rest of his body were so horrific that his aorta was torn, and to one family member this is as if his heart had been broken by the violence of man in the same ways the heart of Aboriginal peoples had been broken by those who chose for far too long to treat them as lesser.

John Pat's body was laid in a police cell, however after it was confirmed he was dead, police officers washed him prior to photographs of his body being taken. During the Coroner's Inquest investigating police officer Detective Sergeant Scott when cross-examined commented that it appeared the Roebourne Police could have engaged in a perversion of the course of justice and that they may have falsified police statements and records. To Aboriginal peoples this is nothing new, it is not news to them and for to time to come will continue to not be news. The Corruption Crimes Commission of Western Australia (CCCWA) found that police officers at the East Perth police station as recent as 2009 had fabricated charges against multiple taser victim Kevin Spratt, and yet these police officers continue in their roles despite the CCCWA ordering the quashing of the charges. These police officers and their actions, and the relative inaction by the WA Police to bring them to account casts a dark pall of aspersions against the whole of the WA Police.

In many ways strikingly similar to John Pat's death is the death of Cameron Mulrunji Doomadgee and once again strikingly similar is the racism preventing the political will for anyone to do anything significant about a black man's death at the hands of police officers.

On November 19, 2004 Mr Doomadgee was walking his dog on Palm Island, Queensland, and he was singing "Who let the dogs out?" Sergeant Craig Hurley took offence instead of walking on. Allegedly Mr Doomadgee swore at the officer despite others within vicinity testifying they did not hear anything however Mr Doomadgee is dead and we have only the officer's testimony. Seargent Hurley took offence and arrested Mr Doomadgee. At the watch house, apparently after a 'scuffle' according to Sergeant Hurley he threw him into the police cell. The 201cm 115k officer admitted to throwing some punches at the 181cm 74k Mr Doomadgee.

An hour later Mr Doomadgee was dead.

Despite other police officers at the watch house, "none of them heard or saw anything." Officer Hurley said he noticed Mr Doomadgee "motionless" and "cold" when touching him. He applied an "arousal technique" by "kicking him twice" but Mr Doomadgee remained motionless.

An ambulance was called however it took fifteen minutes to arrive however in that time not once did any police officers attempt to resuscitate Mr Doomadgee.

A few days later Palm Island people were filled with doubts and rage, and the watch house is burned down however this does not atone for a black man dead in a police cell - the cries went out for justice however remain unheard as did Mr Doomadgee's cries by everyone in the watch house in a climate of death.

The business of police investigating police ensured that Senior Sergeant Hurley was not charged and instead received various confidential payouts from the Queensland State Government. The call must be independent - demarcated - police and prison inspectorates to undertake such investigations and other complaints of maltreatment and various allegations of injustices.

Police told investigating pathologist Guy Lampe that Mr Doomadgee had swallowed bleach instead that he had been punched to death.

After three months of paid leave, Sergeant Hurley was appointed as a duty officer on the Gold Coast however in September 2006 Coroner Christine Clements found that Mr Doomadgee died of punches inflicted by Sergeant Hurley.

Coroner Clements accused the police of failing to adequately investigate the death of Mr Doomadgee. Most importantly Coroner Clements stated that Mr Doomadgee should never have been arrested, just as Mr Ward should not have, just as Mr Briscoe should not have, just as so many should not have been arrested.

Mr Patrick Bramwell who was in the police cells at the time Mr Doomadgee died testified he remembered hearing him cry out "Help, help, please help me..." Mr Bramwell testified that Sergeant Hurley said to Mr Doomadgee, "Do you want more?"

A Queensland Crimes and Misconduct Commission inquiry into Mr Doomadgee's death found that no charges could be laid against the police officer. However on this occasion as with the public outcries after John Pat's death, public outcries and sustained news media coverage led to justice Sir Laurence Street being appointed to review the death of Mr Doomadgee on the Palm Island police watch house cell floor.

On January 4 2007 the review commenced however the key witness, Patrick Bramwell was found hanged on Palm Island on January 16. A family member alleged that Mr Bramwell had earlier said to relatives he had been threatened by a police officer in the event he testified. However on January 26, the review overturned the DPP's decision not to lay charges and instead recommends that Sergeant Hurley was charged with manslaughter. Like the five police officers accused of killing John Pat and brought before trial, so too was Sergeant Hurley in June 2007 - before an all-white jury in Townsville.

Sergeant Hurley was acquitted.

On October 24, 2008 Palm Island Elder and former councillor Lex Wotton received 7 years in response to the Palm Island riots following Mr Doomadgee's death.

On July 19, 2010 Mr Wotton was released however the Queensland Government controversially placed an order upon him as a condition of release that he cannot publicly speak about Mr Doomadgee.

Broken lives haunt and Mr Doomadgee's only son, 18 year old son Eric was found hanged in Palm Island bushland on July 19, 2010 - it was said this occurred after earlier being taken for a drive by police.

On May 14 2010 another Coronial Inquiry found that police had colluded to protect Senior Sergeant Hurley and shortly after a Queensland Crimes and Misconduct Commission report leaked to the media stated that up to seven police officers should be charged, but none have ever been charged. The Commission's chairperson Martin Moynihan clashed with the Anna Bligh Government in that there is a "culture of self-protection" for police. Ms Bligh dismissed calls for a Royal Commission and instead accepted the April 2011 410 page report by Queensland Deputy Police Commissioner Kathy Rynders that no police officer needed to be disciplined in relation to the death of Mr Doomadgee. She recommended 'managerial guidance' for one of the officers. So it goes that it continues to appear to Aboriginal people that it is not a crime for police officers to kill someone black.

A couple of years ago, in remembrance of John Pat, I listened to Noongar Elder and Reverend Sealin Garlett, and his words a 100 strong crowd into the chilly seconds of truth. "Tears that filled Roebourne then, are the tears that have brought us here today." The Reverend has known the pain of family, friends and community, many times over, who have lost their loved ones in the dank confines of a prison or police cell, and every time I hear him speak, year in year out he hurts more than the year gone, for it is the abyss of despair we look into to know that nothing has changed and that his people die for no good reason. He said, "I believe that our young fellas will make the changes... They are our voice. We cannot be silent, we need to stand up and when we do this our voices will change the destiny of our direction by this so-called liberated government. If we do not do this, if we do not stand up then we will continue to live under the shadows and clouds of their dominion."

When John Pat died Harvey Coyne was a young man in prison, at Fremantle Prison, now a museum, and where the memorial for John Pat is held every year. Harvey said, "I was inside here in this prison when news of the death of John Pat came. Our heads went down - we all felt insecurity in the system and by the forces demanding cultural assimilation. What happened to John we knew more of it would come and it has. I have seen in many, many people around me, in prison and outside prison the mental collapse of my brothers and sisters and how we are punished for this by the very system that makes this happen. 40 years later I would have hoped things would change however they have not, the fear is still there that the system is still letting us down and shutting heavy metal doors on us."

Alison Fuller said, "I think we have to remember we are a strong people and that we have survived and that we will continue to survive. Blacks will lead the way for Blacks. We are not beggars, let us remember that, and that this is our land. Our wealth is counted in love and not in money."

Rosemary Roe said that her children are suffering at the hands of the criminal justice system and the narrow mindedness of a dull cold set of judgments. Let us remind ourselves that Australia's prison population, which had doubled in the last two decades, that 26% of it is Aboriginal peoples, yet Aboriginal peoples are less than 3% of the total Australian population. Let us remind ourselves that in the hotbed of Australia's racism, Western Australia, that 41% of its prison population is Aboriginal peoples. There are 80,000 Aboriginal peoples in Western Australia however 2,000 of them are in Western Australia's 13 prisons. Once again let us remind ourselves, and let it never leave our thinking, that one in forty Western Australian Aboriginals will spend the night in a cold prison cell, and one in twenty Western Australian Aboriginal males will spend the night in a cold prison. And as sad it is to read let us understand the fact that the blacker the skin is the higher the rate of prison incarceration, the higher the arrest rates, the higher the deaths in custody rates, and also the higher the homelessness and suicide rates.

The cinders and embers of this racism have damaged our psyches and damaged the Australian national identity. If you want to know the identity of a nation, if you want to know its heart and soul, its mind, then day and night look into its prisons and you will know its heart, its soul and its mind.

Rosemary Roe said, "My children suffer and I give everything of what I have to help them and it is hard when those, whether they are police or courts don't know how to help them and only to hurt them."

"Far too many of us are affected, and there are no barriers to gender or age. I was part of the first Death in Custody meeting in WA, in 1988 at Bunbury and here we are 33 years later after that meeting, and that meeting had been brought about by the death of John Pat. In 1997, we had the suicide of an 11 year old Aboriginal child, the youngest ever in the country. This was my first cousin's child. This tore us up and now he is no longer the youngest suicide. When will it get better?"

--- Gerry Georgatos, Phd Law researcher in
Australian Custodial Systems & Deaths in
Custody, prison reform advocate and regular
prisons visitor, will be launching his book,
‘Climate of Death; justice denied means more
deaths’ during the Media at the Crossroads
Conference, sponsored by the NSW
Government, in Sydney on February 25 – in
this article Georgatos eclectically discussed
deaths in custody, and why it appears little
has changed.

"The WA Government recently prided itself on its 14th adult prison - an 'Aboriginal Prison' in Derby. Some would reflect on the Aboriginal prisons of yesteryear - Roebourne Prison for instance. In 1889, Samuel McLeod wrote, "On arriving at Roebourne we saw gangs of unfortunate Aborigines chained to wheelbarrows with bullock chains... The effect of the chains can be imagined in a climate where the stones get so hot they cannot be handled. The sight was too painful for most of us from a free land."

"Attitudes are inter-generational, there are always origin-of-thinking..." - "I didn't have time to write by last mail as I was very busy getting my darkies together for pearling. I've got a good crowd this season, nearly 40. Jack has been out after darkies and is expected daily now," Duncan MacRae, pearler & pastoralist, 1881.


The Emergency Response was ill-conceived and damaging, with destructive social reach, and that if it impacts had been assessed in terms of social impacts and trauma then it should never have occurred. My research can find no evidence to support the Stronger Futures legislation and that in fact evidence and various testimonies point to the erosion of community and contemporary identities and to the rise in the various traumas described thus far.

Crikey - Deaths in Custody: Why are more prisoners dying from natural causes? - Georgatos rejects the AIC’s claim that the rise in natural cause deaths is “probably linked to an ageing prison population and a prison population with more health problems than the general population”, saying that these “assumptions” need to be validated. “I have deep concerns about the attribution of manner and cause of death and therefore … [about] the classification of deaths in custody,” Georgatos said. “There is nothing natural about a person dying of causes that basic medical intervention could prevent. More than 50% of Aboriginal folk who die in prison are classified as natural cause deaths, [but] maybe what has occurred is that medical attention wasn’t flagged or their insulin dependency was not given proper care or they were maltreated or neglected.”

Crikey - Deaths in custody still rising, why? - The rate of death in privatised prisons is far higher than in state prisons, which Georgatos cites as a serious concern given the drive towards privatisation in NSW and other states. “People die in privatised prisons at three times the rate they die in government prisons: 4.5 deaths per 1000 prisoners in privatised prisons in Australia, compared to 1.3 in government prisons,” he said.

The Australian - Indonesian children in Australian adult prisons.
Mr Georgatos said he believed the boy graduated from junior high school in 2009, but he was waiting for a statement which would prove his age "beyond reasonable doubt".
He criticised the Australian Federal Police, the Department of Immigration and WA Department of Corrective Service for not trying hard enough to ascertain the boy's age. "I can't see why lawyers, legal authorities, AFP, immigration, did not pick up the goddamn phone and speak to his family," Mr Georgatos said. "Authorities could have ascertained one way or another beyond reasonable doubt he was born in 1995."

ABC Drum Interview - Indonesian children in Immigration Detention Centres and in Adult Prisons

UnderCurrent Interview - Indonesian children in Immigration Detention Centres and in Adult Prisons

The West Australian - Boy in adult jail says he is scared - "He is in the adult prison awaiting people-smuggling charges after allegedly working as a cook on a boat that carried 50 asylum seekers to Ashmore Reef in June last year. The boy is understood to be working alongside sex offenders in the prison laundry."

ABC Radio National Interview - Indonesian children in Australian Adult Prisons

The Australian - Leonora to house unaccompanied minors - "How can you call a semi-arid location, 830km from Perth, community detention?" he said. "They are too far away from the full suite of services. There isn't a psychologist resident in Leonora or heavy duty medical services."

Sydney Morning Herald - Warning of more detention centre deaths - "These centres are inducing trauma, multiple trauma, self-harm, suicide and multiple suicide attempts, clinical disorders both acute and chronic," he said in a statement.
"Unless the Commonwealth acts promptly with due regard to the rights of our asylum seekers we believe that there will be en masse riots, unnecessary suffering and trauma, and the loss of further lives."

The West Australian - Supporters rally for Albany teenager - Human Rights Alliance convenor Gerry Georgatos called for independent police inspectorates which report to the Corruption and Crime Commission or the office of the Attorney-General rather than to the police. "In lieu of the conflicting versions given by witnesses and police, what we need is to have an end to police investigating police," Mr Georgatos said.
"We have never had a successful prosecution into deaths in custody in 30 years where there have been 2056 (and where an unnatural hand by a police or prison officer was involved)." Mr Georgatos, who has done a PHD into Australian deaths in custody, said there was a "culture of cover-ups" in the WA police as demonstrated by the case of Kevin Spratt, who was tasered multiple times by police.

SBS - "Two decades, too little, too late" - nominated for UN Media Peace and Walkley Awards

The West Australian - Deaths in Custody Still a National Disgrace
"There has been an Aboriginal death in custody somewhere in Australia every month in the past 18 months. For each Aboriginal death in custody, there are eight to 10 non-Aboriginal deaths in custody. Every five days an Australian dies in custody.
How can Australia have one of the world's worst records? For every death in custody, we must acknowledge that there are scores of people maltreated, neglected and suffering."

CAAMA Radio - Aboriginal deaths in custody - Part 1

CAAMA Radio - Aboriginal deaths in custody - Part 2

Indymedia - Racism gives Australia one of the world's worst deaths in custody records - " Detention Centres, where thousands of self harms and attempted suicides are being committed each year. These Detention Centres have been described by psychiatrist Dr Patrick McGorrie, an Australian of the Year, as mental illness factories."

The death of Cameron Mulrunji Doomadgee - "147th Aboriginal death in custody since the RCIADC recommendations 1991"



The deaths in custody just continue and this means so does the racism.
Nothing changes brother.

When no-one is charged then it speaks for itself. Change will come way after we're dead and only when assimilation has done its dirty work.

What laws are you going to implement to prevent people marrying other people from a different culture or with a different ethnicity?

And what are you going to do about a situation where someone accidentally falls pregnant to someone from a different culture or a different ethnicity?

Me thinks your heading somewhere that this country has been before and its not a pretty place. If you want a culture to survive then you need to educate the young ones both in the culture and its language, at the same time as you educate them in the ways of the world, so they have the skills to get by.

Australia is acting like Israel, how shameful.