Please note: This story contains reference to people who have died.
Fifteen families of those who have died in custody are calling on the Federal Government to put an end to Black deaths in custody on the anniversary of the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.
On April 15, 1991, the Royal Commission handed down its findings which included 339 recommendations. According to the National Indigenous Australians Agency (NIAA), the Federal Government has “fully or mostly” implemented 91 per cent of the recommendations for which it “had responsibility”.
Today, 474 known First Nations people have died in custody and the rate of First Nations people incarcerated across Australia has doubled from 14 per cent to almost 30 per cent, with Indigenous Australian women being the fastest growing prison population.
The families calling for Prime Minister Scott Morrison to meet with them have a petition that currently holds over 23,300 signatures.
Families involved include the families of Cherdeena Wynne and Warren John Cooper, Christopher Drage and Trisjack Simpson, David Dungay Jnr, Gareth Jackson Roe, Joyce Clarke, Ms Dhu, Nathan Reynolds, Raymond Noel Thomas, Stanley Inman, Tane Chatfield, Aunty Tanya Day, Aunty Sherry Fisher-Tilberoo and Wayne Fella Morrison.
They are calling on the Government to end Black deaths in custody through a list of 10 extensive demands, including:
- Fully and meaningfully implementing all the recommendations of the Royal Commission with the involvement of families who have lost loved ones
- Creating an independent investigative body to inquire into police, prison officer and other employee conduct in relation to deaths in custody
- Redirecting public funds from corrections into strengthening self-determination in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
They call for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to have access to Custody Notification Services without expectation or delay, and for it to be mandatory for police to notify Aboriginal Legal Services when a First Nations person enters custody.
The families also want to see the age of criminal responsibility to be raised nationally to 14-years-old, a moratorium placed on the construction or expansion of prisons, and the ending of physical restraint abuse and torture of all people in police and prison cells.
In 2016, Wayne Fella Morrison died in custody in South Australia, and his mother Caroline Andersen and sibling Latoya Aroha Rule have been fighting for justice since.
“It’s time the Government agree to a public and national commitment to Aboriginal people to stop Aboriginal deaths in custody entirely,” Andersen said in a statement.
“Resolving injustices and working toward a future where Aboriginal peoples lives are favoured over a system that renders us unworthy of being mourned needs to be a priority in every policy and legislative strategy.
“Wayne’s life matters this much!”
The Chatfield family lost Tane Chatfield in 2017 in Tamworth, New South Wales.
“Our beautiful Tane, 22-year-old Gomeroi man was taken too soon. The system killed our son. We will continue to fight for justice to make change so we can stop Black deaths in custody,” said Tane Chatfield’s family.
“The pain never goes away, it’s still raw.”
“Corrective services have that much power in Australia without being investigated, why do we need a Prime Minister? These deaths won’t stop until there is an independent body to investigate police and prisons.”
The Day family lost their mother, Aunty Tanya Day in 2017 in Victoria.
“Our mum — Tanya Louise Day — was a proud Yorta Yorta woman and much-loved mother, grandmother and advocate. Three years ago, she died in police custody after she was locked up for falling asleep on a train,” said the Day family.
“In the last 30 years, hundreds of Aboriginal people like our mum have died at the hands of the police, yet no police officer has ever been held criminally responsible. This is wrong and speaks volumes about racism and police impunity in this country.
“Aboriginal people will keep dying in custody until the legal system changes and police are held accountable for their actions.”
Many organisations are standing in strength and solidarity with the families, including the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service (NATSILS).
“No one should have to go through their loved ones dying at the hands of police and authorities,” said NATSILS Co-Chair Priscilla Atkins.
“Our communities have had solutions to end these deaths for decades, yet families continue to endure tragedy.”
“We urge the Prime Minister to meet with these families … hear their stories and the change they want to see — and work alongside them to implement all of the recommendations of the Royal Commission.”
Amnesty International Australia’s Indigenous Rights lead campaigner Nolan Hunter says the Royal Commission recommendations were intended to end Indigenous deaths in custody, however they have not worked and some have not been implemented.
“Key recommendations like tackling the root causes of imprisonment, diverting people away from prisons, and removing hanging-points from prisons are yet to be fully actioned. What’s even worse is that no-one has ever been convicted or held accountable for these deaths,” said Hunter.
“The community has been fighting for action for years and years. Families, even through their suffering, continue to campaign for justice — we’re also calling for support for these families. It’s time to shine a light on what’s gone wrong and fix it. It’s time for action.”
By Rachael Knowles