A national shame

3 June 2021 | Posted In: #139 Winter 2021,

*Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are warned the following article contains the names of deceased people

Since the publication 30 years ago of the royal commission’s report into Aboriginal deaths in custody, little action has been taken. Christopher Kelly reports.

As of going to print, William ‘Bill’ Patrick Alwyn Haines is Australia’s latest Aboriginal death in custody. He was found unresponsive in his cell at the Cessnock Correctional Centre in April and pronounced dead an hour later. William was 37. It was also April 30 years ago when the findings of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody were released. Shockingly, three decades on, few of its 339 recommendations have been implemented.

“We have been calling on governments to take the deaths of our people seriously, and end the discriminatory laws, policies and practices that see our people die behind bars,” said Change the Record Coalition co-chair, Cheryl Axleby. Describing the inaction as “a source of deep national shame and pain”, Axelby said: “If governments are serious about ‘closing the gap’, and if — as they say — our lives matter, then they must take urgent action to change the discriminatory practices that drive our people behind bars.”

The royal commission — which ran from 1987 to 1991 — found that the primary driver of Aboriginal deaths in custody was the mass incarceration of First Nations people. That remains the case today, with at least 474 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people dying in custody in the 30 years since — with eight deaths since the beginning of March this year.

“We are amongst the most incarcerated peoples on earth and have been waiting on real government action for too long,” said Meena Singh, legal director at the Human Rights Law Centre. “If governments believe that the lives of First Nations people matter, then they would take urgent steps to remove unjust laws and policies that contribute to this crisis of over-imprisonment.”

Some of the “urgent steps” being called for include repealing punitive bail laws, mandatory sentencing laws, and prison sentences for minor offending; raising the age of criminal responsibility from ten to at least 14 years; and replacing the practice of police investigating police with independent investigations of deaths in custody. Crucially, all of the royal commission’s recommendations should be immediately enacted. “Nothing is stopping state, territory and the federal government taking action today,” said Singh.

Meanwhile, on Saturday 10 April, more than 1,500 protesters marched from Sydney’s Town Hall to the Domain during a national day of action against Indigenous deaths in custody. During the march through the CBD, protesters stopped and called out the names of the Indigenous victims who have died. Placards read: “Justice Now”, “Shame Australia”, “No Justice No Peace”, “Stop Killing Us” and “No Pride in Australia’s Genocide”.

Among the protesters was Leetona Dungay — mother of David Dungay Jr, who died in Long Bay jail in 2015 after being restrained and administered a sedative. Leetona and her family waited six years for the coroner’s findings into David’s death. NSW deputy coroner Derek Lee concluded that the prison officers’ conduct was “limited by systemic inefficiencies in training” and recommended that none of them face disciplinary action.

Speaking at the march, Leetona said: “The royal commission didn’t get any justice for the families — not a single police officer or prison guard was charged or convicted. No more royal commissions, I want real justice. The life of an Aboriginal man is worth something.”