The horrific deaths in custody of Mr Ward (in the back of a prisoner transport van), of Mulrunji (in a Palm Island Police cell) and of John Pat (bashed to death in Roebourne) expose systemic flaws, neglect, arrogance and racism. These three deaths are not standalone as unjustifiable deaths in custody – there are many more horrific custodial deaths that should have been deemed as unjustifiable or preventable.
16 year old John Pat’s death, in 1983, horrified many Australians and in order to reduce the type of racism that led to his death Prime Minister Bob Hawke called for a Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.
But 30 years since John Pat’s death there are more Aboriginal people incarcerated than ever before and deaths in custody have not been reduced.
Will another Royal Commission be called? Maybe about prison numbers; the prison population has doubled in the last twenty years and Aboriginal peoples are more than one in four of all prisoners. They are also the world’s most incarcerated peoples and shamefully they are being incarcerated at nearly six times the rate that South Africa incarcerated its Black peoples during the last years of Apartheid. In Western Australia this rate is nearly nine times the Apartheid rate.
A couple of parliamentary insiders have said to The Stringer that one minister suggested there should be a Royal Commission into the rising prison population and into the escalation of Aboriginal incarceration rates.
“But the Prime Minister and the PMO (Prime Minister’s Office) advisers said ‘no’. Such a Commission isn’t justified in an election year and would contradict Closing the Gap reports despite the (deaths in custody) monitoring reports.”
“It would open up a can of worms of (Government) neglect of Indigenous peoples and therefore it’s too big a risk. Any call for a Royal Commission into Indigenous jailing (rates) would have to be a first or second year Government ticket.”
Meanwhile people’s lives are being ruined, people are dying, and prisons are getting costlier.
“The PMO is satisfied that the (Parliamentary) Inquiry into Justice Reinvestment covers enough bases on the jailing rates for now.”
But Justice Reinvestment will not significantly bring about the reduction of incarceration rates, Justice Reinvestment is an investment into various intervention and diversionary programs with heavy community engagements. It is a grassroots community drive and it cannot be all things to all people. It is a lot of onus for Justice Reinvestment to substantively reduce incarceration rates. The high incarceration rates are tied to poverty, and particularly to abject poverty – the solutions therefore lie in addressing poverty.
“The (Justice Reinvestment) Inquiry will not expose the poverty because the focus is not on the underlying issues but rather will focus just on the high number of minor offenders, youth in jail and how to prevent criminalisation of first (minor) offenders and how to rehabilitate and prevent re-offending.”
The mindset and priorities of the PMO towards Aboriginal neglect, to the impoverishment of more than 100,000 Aboriginal peoples and the direct causal link to criminalisation exposes the brutal attitudinal racism of many Australians in high places.
During the last three years there were no official reports on the number of prison and police custodial deaths, but as a PhD researcher into Australian Deaths in Custody & Australian Custodial Systems I kept a record of deaths since the last Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) monitoring report (2008). I argued that Aboriginal deaths in custody were at record levels but I was surrounded by silence from the oversight Government agencies. Then this year the latest monitoring report was released by the AIC covering three years. It is disgraceful that the report is now not annual and has degenerated to an irregular reporting timeline.
The report corroborated my published accounts that Aboriginal deaths in prison custody were at record levels. But now that it is out, what is being done about it?
I had also argued that natural cause deaths were on the rise as a proportion of all deaths in custody and I called for an inquiry because I argued that people dying in their twenties and thirties could not be natural cause deaths. The Australian Medical Association supported my call but Government did not heed it. The latest report has summarised that the natural cause deaths are now more than half the custodial deaths.
A Royal Commission into Aboriginal incarceration is important because the rate of deaths in custody of Aboriginal peoples is directly linked to those incarceration rates. Whereas twenty years ago one in seven prisoners were Aboriginal today this has skyrocketed to more than one in four prisoners.
By reducing Aboriginal impoverishment, preferably eliminating the third-world conditions many endure, then the incarceration rate will dramatically change. The discrimination referred to as the Northern Territory Intervention is not the way. The misspending of funds is inexcusable, little has been redressed while 83 per cent of the NT prison population is comprised of Aboriginal peoples – and that is following six years of the Intervention.
In the meantime one report after another from Government funded agencies work the statistics to show that certain targets are being reached in Aboriginal health and education but the truth is they are getting a good massage and are ultimately not truthful. You only need to go to the impoverished communities to witness the stark reality and continued neglect. You only have to look at the prison numbers – 8,000 Aboriginal persons in our prisons. Shockingly, more than one in 80 Aboriginal persons are in an Australian prison on any given day.
More than one in 80 of all Australia’s Aboriginal peoples are in prison. What does this say about Australia?
In Western Australia, the statistic is unbelievable – one in fourteen Aboriginal adult males is in prison. Why the relatively little outcry, especially from those with a capacity to be heard far and wide, and those who can make some difference?
Aboriginal prison incarceration rates rose by nearly 300 per cent during the last two decades.
The world’s mother of all jailers, the United States of America, locks up its people like no other country on earth. Nearly one per cent of its population is locked up –nearly 3 million Americans. Black American male adults do it toughest imprisoned at horrific rates but Western Australian Aboriginal male adults are incarcerated at a rate higher than Black American males. Western Australia imprisons its Aboriginal people at a rate higher than the world’s mother of all jailers.
In America, Black youth are incarcerated in juvenile detention at less than five times the rate of the rest of their youth population but Aboriginal youth in Australia is locked up in juvenile detention at about 30 times the rate of non-Aboriginal Australians.
The paternalism of the Northern Territory Intervention needs to be done away with. Structural racisms have to be done away with and this can only be done by a properly informed well-resourced Royal Commission. Restorative justice practices should underwrite Custodial Systems but Aboriginal abject impoverishment has to be at long last wiped out.
The Closing the Gap reports, the COAG reports, the AIC reports mean little, and are not to be believed, when the Aboriginal prison population continues to rise, when deaths in custody are at record-levels and when Aboriginal youth suicide is at world record levels.
On September 28, John Pat’s mother, Mavis, his brother Glen and his sister Maisy will grieve his loss thirty years to the day.
His mother said, “There is not a day that goes by that I do not think of John.”
“I had hoped that much good would come out of the Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody, but it didn’t happen.”