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40 years on, John Pat's death still hasn't led to major reforms

Dechlan Brennan -

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are advised this article contains names of deceased persons.

September 28, 1983, will be forever tarred as the day 16-year-old Yindjibardi boy, John Pat, died in a police cell at Roebourne police station in Western Australia. It is a date, according to CEO of the Aboriginal Legal Service of WA (ALSWA) Wayne Nannup, that's a "constant reminder of the oppression and injustice that our people continue to face".

In the aftermath, the officers' acquittal for his death led to widespread anger, and was eventually the catalyst for the four year inquiry that led to the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC).

40 years on, many of the 339 recommendations in that landmark report haven't been acted on, and there is condemnation for the lack of tangible action on the part of all Australian governments.

Kurin Minang woman, human rights expert and member of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, Dr Hannah McGlade, says she had hoped more of the recommendations from RCIADIC would have been implemented.

"It was an important and watershed enquiry that Aboriginal people called for, protested for, marched for and we know there are many outstanding recommendations today," Ms McGlade said.

Amnesty International Australia's Indigenous Rights Advisor and Palawa man, Rodney Dillon, told National Indigenous Times in the 32 years since the RCIADIC, "nowhere near enough" has been done to stop Indigenous deaths in custody.

"40 years on and that family still got no justice," Mr Dillon said.

"Right from that, and all the other deaths that we've had since, there's still no justice. All the recommendations: Still no justice."

Rodney Dillon says 40 years on from John Pat, and there is still no justice (Image: supplied, Amnesty International)

The death of John Pat

On the lands of the Ngarluma people, Roebourne is notorious for its chequered history. The old gaol saw Indigenous people from the Pilbara interned, some having to walk from Karratha in chains, during the height of summer.

The current prison has come under fire for a lack of air-conditioning in all the cells, despite the temperature in the town reaching over 50 degrees at the start of 2022.

In 1983, it was notorious for saturated policing, with patrols by officers "every 15 minutes". The population of the town - Leramugadu to the Ngarluma people - was around 1670, with 860 of the residents identifying as Aboriginal.

Over a period of 89 days in 1983, police made 730 arrests - "virtually" all of them Aboriginal people.

On September 28, another Aboriginal man, Ashley James, was abused by five inebriated off-duty police officers as he went to make a purchase at the Victoria hotel in Roebourne. A bartender heard one of the officers say to Mr James, "We'll get you, you Bl**k c**t".

When he was set upon outside by the officers; John Pat, along with several other Aboriginal onlookers, joined the fracas in support of Mr James.

A witness saw one officer strike Mr Pat in the face, causing him to fall backwards and strike his head. Another witness observed an officer kick Mr Pat in the head whilst he lay on the ground. He was dragged to a police van, kicked in the head again, then thrown into the vehicle "like a dead kangaroo".

On arrival at the Roebourne police station, witnesses observed the officers drag Mr Pat and other Aboriginal men, from the van, onto a pathway, before proceeding to beat each of them.

When they checked on Mr Pat in his cell an hour later, he was dead.

An autopsy found John Pat had suffered a fractured skull, haemorrhage and bruising and tearing of the brain. There was also a large bruise at the back of his head and six on the right side of it. He had a torn aorta and two broken ribs.

The officers were committed to face trial for manslaughter; they were found not guilty, and their legal costs reimbursed by the state government.

They were also acquitted under internal disciplinary proceedings and all the officers maintained their jobs in the force.

40 years on

In 2013, on the 30th anniversary of Mr Pat's death, the West Australian government unreservedly apologised to the family of John Pat. Outside parliament at the time, his sister said nothing had changed.

"There's no justice for my people and all people of today. My brother's life was taken, it only seems like yesterday it was taken from me and I still wish I had my big brother here today."

Officially, there have been 516 Indigenous deaths in custody since RCIADIC. In the reporting period ending June 2022, there were 24 Indigenous deaths in custody; eight recorded deaths were in police custody and a further 16 deaths in prison custody.

Of these deaths, very few - including the case of John Pat - have made it to trial.

No one has ever been found guilty of an Indigenous death in custody in Australia.

These numbers are the minimum and do not include deaths in police presence, rarely include deaths as a result of police pursuits. The definition of death in custody has been heavily contested by police unions.

Darumbal and South Sea Islander journalist, Amy McQuire, told National Indigenous Times despite the importance of the RCIADIC, there was a lack of attention paid to the "perpetrator" in deaths in custody, and the culture that accompanies them.

"There was this absence of - or unwillingness - to actually look at direct acts of violence from prison officers and police officers," Ms McQuire said.

"And not just structural violence, and not just the callous apathy; the refusal to provide adequate healthcare, or even the reasons that black fellas were ending up in custody in the first place.

"That inquiry is an important standard to hold us to, but we actually have to continue to look at the stories of people who died behind bars. Actually, listen to their families and what the families are fighting for. Because often what the families are fighting for, we're not even talking about the recommendations anymore."

The punitive response to crime has only exacerbated incarceration. One of the main findings from RCIADIC was that imprisonment should be utilised only as a sanction of last resort.

However, this has consistently been ignored. This year alone saw Queensland twice override their Human Rights act; to criminalise bail breaches for children, and to allow children to be imprisoned in police watchhouses designed for adults.

Dr Hannah McGlade has called for the establishment of a National Aboriginal Justice Commission. (Image: Aaron Bunch/AAP)

Dr McGlade says these measures have been punitive and only drive-up Indigenous incarceration.

"What we've seen over the last decade, and in recent years, is increasingly punitive laws passed by states which are driving Aboriginal incarceration, including of children and youth," she said.

"These laws have been criticised by the United Nations Treaty bodies that we are a party to, including the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

"Mandatory detention laws, particularly affecting children and youth in West Australian, continue to have serious impact and must be repealed."

Along with Yawuru Elder and Labor senator Pat Dodson, Dr McGlade has called for the establishment of a National Aboriginal Justice Commission.

Ms McQuire noted the "silences" that weren't addressed by the RCIADIC, which are still having impacts on First Nations deaths in custody.

"Not only were the recommendations never implemented in full, but also, the conversation in a sense hasn't moved forward," Ms McQuire said.

"There are a lot of silences even in that inquiry. One example is they didn't afford a lot of attention to gender and the unique oppressions that Aboriginal women actually face when they were put in custody.

"(The RCIADIC) actually looked at the deaths of Aboriginal women, and they mirror a lot of the cases we're seeing today; Aboriginal women are dying in watch houses and in prisons from the very same violences."

On the 30th anniversary of RCIADIC, the Labor party in opposition committed $90m in funding to stop Aboriginal deaths in custody. This week saw independent senator Lidia Thorpe criticise the government for its lack of action on the subject.

The government has maintained that many RCIADIC recommendations are either outdated or not able to be acted upon by the commonwealth.

ALSWA said it "remembers the young John Pat and the strength of his community who have endured this heartbreak for the past 40 years".

"40 years on, we continue to think of Mr. Pat's family and community members, as we do all families who have lost a loved one in such tragic and avoidable circumstances," Mr Nannup said

"Western Australia still has a long way to go. Our men, women and children continue to be over-policed and over-represented in every aspect of the criminal justice system. There is an urgent need for more Cultural training within the WA Police Service and Justice Reinvestment practices to be embraced."

Mr Dillon, in reflecting on 40 years after the events in Roebourne, notes that "we still have a long way to go".

"The recommendations that need to be followed to stop the deaths in custody haven't been followed. That's as simple as we can put it," he said.

"If the recommendations were followed to the letter, we would have stopped a lot more deaths. We would have 500 to 550 more people here in this country today.

"So, I just think: all those lives, those innocent people that have died in this system. And that no one's ever been held accountable."

Had he lived, Mr Pat would have turned 57 next month.

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