Mavis Pat at her son's memorial, 29 years later - Photo, Gerry Georgatos

Mavis Pat at her son’s memorial, 29 years later – Photo, Gerry Georgatos

Social justice rights advocates are calling for compensation payments to be made to the families of deaths in custody victims – for the loss of a loved one, but also as a mechanism to bring about a reduction of deaths in custody. A call for a compensation payment has gone out for the family of John Pat after the Western Australian Government recently passed a motion apologising to the Pat family for the death of the 16 year old in 1983. Many have said an apology is not enough.

Perth Uniting Church social justice campaigner Rosemary Hudson-Miller said that an ex-gratia payment should be made to the family of John Pat. Ms Hudson-Miller hopes that the State Government will consider this next step following the apology which was unanimously passed after being tabled by Yamatji parliamentarian Ben Wyatt.

The 30th anniversary of the death of Yindjibarndi John Pat who had grown up being known as ‘Murru’ was marked recently with a number events, culminating in national marches and rallies on September 28. Ms Hudson-Miller said that the apology is not anywhere enough in relieving any of the grief caused to the family over 30 years.

“The family should be compensated for the suffering they have endured,” said Ms Hudson-Miller.

“It would be like a physical demonstration of our sorrow to pay some sort of reparation to the (affected) families – to pay some sort of reparation to the families.”

“You can’t ever bring back a 16 year old boy, which caused untold grief to the family. You can’t ever pay the sort of money that will ever pay for that. But paying compensation is like truly putting our money where our mouth is,” said Ms Hudson-Miller.

Sydney’s Indigenous Social Justice Association president, Ray Jackson, said that the apology standalone is not enough, “indeed inconsequential.”

“It means nothing without compensation. The compensation will not relieve the loss and the grief, but it is what is rightful, the right thing in the very least to do.”

“Apologies are nothing on their own. The copper and the jailers will never apologise for any death in custody that they are at fault for, but at least we can get Governments to apologise, and therefore these same Governments should pay compensation on behalf of the coppers and jailers who will never admit any culpability.”

Mr Jackson called for compensation across the board to “all families that have suffered from a death in custody.” He said the amount of compensation would vary, but it would also act as “a deterrent” for any police and corrective services officers from using unlawful physical abuse and maltreatment.

“Personally, I would like to see all the 440 (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander) families who have lost a loved one since January 1980 compensated.”

Mr Jackson said that it has taken several deaths in custody to highlight that justice for all is not the case, “certainly not before the law”. Despite the often obvious unnatural hand in the death of an inmate, only Seargent Chris Hurley who beat Mulrunji Doomadgee to death and the five police officers who beat on Aboriginal youth which led to the death of John Pat were brought to some sort of account, but all were acquitted. Neither family has ever been compensated. The West Australian Government granted an ex-gratia compensation payment to the family of Mr Ward, but as Mr Jackson said, “That has been the only time, there are more than 400 other families waiting.”

WA Deaths in Custody Watch Committee’s former chairperson, Marianne Mackay, a third-year law student and one who lost the father of her eldest child to a prison death in custody said that the Pat family should be compensated.

“The families of John Pat, his mother, his brother, his sister, they should all be compensated for their 30-year long grief. The money will not bring John back, but it will help the families, and it is will send a strong public message to the police and to the prisons that they can’t just get away with what some of what their people do. There are those among them who treat people like animals, like dogs, and that it’s okay because we’re only black – well that racism should come at a high price, and if compensation is the way, maybe then we need to go this way, because for far too many in our society all that seems to matter is money. When compensation becomes a reality then well it may well turn out that there will be a reduction in deaths in custody,” said Ms Mackay

Noongar Whadjuk Elder, Ben Taylor said, “We need to get rid of racist cops. We need to get rid of racism. I’ve lived racism all my life. They have been killing our people for two centuries. The law won’t do anything to stop all the racism and the assaults on our people but maybe compensation will. If payments like the one to Mr Ward are made to other families too then maybe some of the racist behaviour will stop.”

Noongar rights advocate Rex Bellotti said,”With horrific deaths in custody like what happened to Mulrunji, to Mr Ward, to John Pat, well we all know the truth, so do all coppers, most right-minded people know, but still no-one gets prosecuted, no-one is held to account, but every black fella that does even the littlest wrong gets the book and more thrown at them. It does not pay to be black in this country, in our own country, but compensating is the right way to go for those who have lost or suffered.”

“My son was hurt by police officers, and his life has been messed with to the point it affects all of us, and is ruining the lives of all my children. We are still waiting for compensation for his injuries, and it is now four and a half years of waiting. No wonder our people suicide at the world’s highest rates,” said Mr Bellotti.

“Compensation should be a must, and until it happens then we continue to live in a racist country with two sets of duty of care – the reasonable duty of care for white fellas and the shitty one for black fellas.”

The calls for compensation were supported by many advocates and community leaders around the country.