Two Aboriginal people have died in custody within a week, contributing further to what Indigenous rights advocates are calling the “national crisis” of Indigenous deaths in custody.
On July 15, a 37-year-old Aboriginal man passed away at Royal Adelaide Hospital in South Australia whilst in custody and on July 8, 43-year-old Ngemba man, Frank ‘Gud’ Coleman, died in custody at Long Bay Correctional Centre in Sydney, New South Wales.
Since March, 10 Aboriginal people have died in custody, and almost 500 Indigenous people have died in custody since the 1991 Royal Commission — an estimated average of one person lost every three weeks.
Indigenous advocates are calling it a “national crisis” and are calling upon the Federal Government to do better.
“This is a national emergency, with a second death within the space of a week,” said Shadow Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney.
“One of the most significant factors in First Nations deaths in custody is the volume of interactions of First Nations people with the criminal justice system.
“Until we properly embrace a whole of community approach to preventing those interactions, we will simply not yield the results we desire in this space.”
The Shadow Minister said the “socioeconomic issues” confronting Aboriginal communities require “socioeconomic response, not a criminal justice one”.
“The Commonwealth Government has a leadership role to play in working with the States and Territories in reducing First Nations incarceration, but this is simply not reflected in the Government’s lethargic and lacklustre response to this ongoing national discussion.”
Greens Senator Lidia Thorpe said Aboriginal people continue to die in police custody due to the Morrison Government’s continuation of “Liberal and Labor’s legacies of inaction”.
The Greens are pushing for all 339 recommendations of the 1991 Royal Commission to be fully implemented.
A National Indigenous Australians Agency (NIAA) spokesperson has previously told NIT that the Federal Government has “fully or mostly” implemented 91 per cent of the recommendations “for which it had responsibility”.
“What’s the point of a Commission if you ignore its findings?” Senator Thorpe said.
“This is a matter of life and death, why should our people keep dying in places where they’re meant to be kept safe?”
GetUp First Nations Justice Campaign Director Larissa Baldwin shared her frustrations concerning the recent deaths in custody.
“Every single one of the nearly 500 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have died at the hands of the Australian justice system since 1991 was somebody,” she said.
Baldwin said when the Royal Commission recommendations were handed down, she was only a few years old. For almost her whole life, she has seen inaction.
“When Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people win Wimbledon or State of Origin, politicians can’t slap us on the back fast enough. But when a First Nations person dies in jail, or in lock-up, or in police custody, they’re nowhere. For 30 years, they’ve been nowhere,” she said.
“This is a day of shame for Australia. Unutterable shame. And those days are becoming too many to count.”
A spokesperson from Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt’s office said while States and Territories are “responsible for their respective criminal justice systems”, the Australian Government “funds activities that aim to take a strength-based approach to minimising interaction with the justice system”.
“Most recommendations of the Royal Commission have been fully implemented. Some recommendations remain partially implemented as they have been superseded by subsequent government actions and policies, and will need to be reconsidered in the current context to achieve the outcomes intended.”
By Rachael Knowles