Content warning: This article contains reference to suicide. Please refer to the services at the bottom of this article for support.
Please note: This story contains reference to people who have died.
Thirty years after the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody recommended that hanging points be removed from prison and holding cells the recommendation remains to be implemented.
In March it was revealed in NSW Budget Estimates that a 44-year-old First Nations woman had taken her own life in her cell at Silverwater Women’s Correctional Centre.
“Clearly, one of the major recommendations from the Royal Commission 30 years ago was that hanging points be removed from jail cells,” Shadow Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney told the National Indigenous Times.
“That recommendation is 30 years old but still we have jail cells where people can take their own lives.”
National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service chair Priscilla Atkins told NIT governments must “stop avoiding responsibility for putting an end to Black deaths in custody”.
“Governments have also not implemented the recommendations from the Australian Law Reform Commission’s Pathways to Justice Inquiry, the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory and the many deaths in custody coronial investigations,” she said.
“Our people are dying as a result and clearly there is a lack of political will and respect for the lives of our people.”
While a spokesperson from the National Indigenous Australians Agency said the Government has implemented 91 per cent of the recommendations “for which it has responsibility”, the removal of hanging points falls to police and corrective services.
“The recommendation to eliminate and/or reduce equipment that could be used for self-harm, including the screening of hanging points in police and prison cells, was directed to the police and corrective services authorities,” the NIAA spokesperson said.
As the 30th anniversary of the Royal Commission passed on April 15, many rallied across the nation to protest the lack of government action.
Families who have lost loved ones in custody called on Prime Minister Scott Morrison to meet with them, hear their stories and their recommendations.
An online petition calling for the meeting initially attracted more than 23,000 signatures. But Mr Morrison did not meet with the families on April 15. The petition now holds more than 34,000 signatures.
Since the 1991 Royal Commission, more than 474 Aboriginal people have died in custody. While the anniversary has been and gone, the push to end Aboriginal deaths in custody continues.
Of the 15 families, those of Ms Dhu, JC, GJ Roe, Stanley Inman, and Christopher Drage and Trisjack Simpson are fighting for justice in WA, with the support of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service.
The doctor who saw Ms Dhu before her death was last week found guilty of professional misconduct. He was fined $30,000 but has kept his medical licence.
“Police officers at South Hedland left my granddaughter to die alone. Shame on them,” Aunty Carol Roe, grandmother of Ms Dhu, a Yamatji woman who was detained at South Hedland Police Station in 2014 for unpaid fines, said.
“The medical staff never listened to my granddaughter, she was moaning in pain and crying out for help, they never helped her, they left her to die.
“After 30 years … the system is still killing our people and we need justice, my granddaughter died alone by herself. This breaks my heart every day and I want it to stop.”
In Australia, no police officer, correctional services personnel, or medical professional has ever faced conviction for an Aboriginal death in custody.
“With the support of my sister Rosemary Roe, we vowed to make the WA Police and all government agencies accountable for any cruel and inhumane treatment of my 11-year-old son and nephew,” said Aunty Suzette on behalf of the family of GJ Roe, who suicided in Carnarvon in 1997.
Aunty Jennifer Clayton lost both her son Wayne Cooper and her 26-year-old granddaughter Cherdeena Wynne in custody.
“My son passed away, and then his daughter passed away, both at the hands of police,” the family said.
“Our kids are still dying in custody. Stop the cover-ups and own up — they need to be held accountable for their wrongdoings.”
In September 2019, 29-year-old Yamatji woman JC was killed by a police officer in Geraldton. The police officer has been charged with murder. A trial date is yet to be set.
If sentenced, this will be the first WA police officer to be held criminally responsible for an Aboriginal death in custody.
Aboriginal legal services are supporting the families of those lost in custody, like the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service (VALS).
VALS is representing Percy Lovett, the partner of Veronica Nelson who died while on remand for shoplifting-related offences at Melbourne’s Dame Phyllis Frost Centre in 2020, and the next-of-kin of Raymond Noel Lindsay Thomas, who died during a police pursuit in Melbourne in 2017.
“Governments over many years have avoided accountability by not listening to the families of Aboriginal people who have died in custody. By silencing these voices, they have been able to deny the crisis altogether,” said VALS CEO Nerita Waight.
“We have had so many inquiries and reviews since the Royal Commission. All the solutions are available to governments across Australia. We need action.
“We need resources and power to be given to Aboriginal people and organisations so that we can end the cycle of incarceration that has oppressed us since invasion.”
Amnesty International Australia has advocated for the end of deaths in custody. The organisation’s Indigenous rights lead campaigner and proud Bardi man Nolan Hunter says the rate of Aboriginal people dying in custody is “inexcusable”.
If you or anyone you know is struggling with mental ill-health, please call:
- Spartan First Suicide Prevention Crisis Line – 1800 370 747
- Lifeline – 13 11 14
By Rachael Knowles