A Western Australian parliamentary committee heard reports of police maltreatment of Aboriginal people in custody. The Legislative Assembly Community Development and Justice committee slammed the lack of recommendations implemented from the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC), criticised various negligence and criticised the ageing infrastructure such as watch houses – the lockups. The parliamentary committee’s report included 22 recommendations.
Many of WA’s 125 lockups were found to be “old, dirty and unfit for use” – it was stated they have an average age of 45 years. A significant proportion of the lockups were not in compliance with the majority of the 1991 RCIADIC recommendations – the Australian Senate recommended 338 of the report’s 339 recommendations for implementation. However a recent Indigenous Law Bulletin review found that in most jurisdictions the majority of the recommendations have not been implemented – with implementation varying between 22 per cent to less than 50 per cent around the nation – and with the weight of those recommendations implemented at generally less than 50 per cent their full value.
Hanging points are still to be found in many cells. Maltreatment of people in custody is still a contributor to injuries and deaths in custody. Inadequate police staffing levels have been identified by numerous parliamentary and coroners’ reports.
The committee’s chairperson, Margaret Quirk said that the Aboriginal Legal Services described some lock ups as outdoor cages with concrete floors and strewn with dirty mattresses.
The Aboriginal Legal Services identified the lockups at Halls Creek in the far north and Collie in the State’s south west as unfit for any form of detention. The lockup at Halls Creeks was also described as reaching “stifling hot” temperatures. The lockup was reported as still harbouring hanging points. Mr Quirk said that Aboriginal Legal Services Kununurra “observed hanging in police cells in Kunnurra.”
Ms Quirk said that her committee was presented with many “examples of systemic racism leading to unequal outcomes before the law.” South Hedland’s Aboriginal Legal Service presented testimony that a detained juvenile was awoken by being “kicked in the heard by a police officer.”
Ms Quirk read out the committee’s report and noted testimony of “how Aboriginal women in Kalgoorlie were frequently stripped because the police claimed that it calmed them down.”
The parliamentary report highlighted regional areas with generally worse conditions than are found in Perth. Ms Quirk said prisoners are often unable to access timely medical advice let alone legal advice. Her committee found that there is no uniform comprehensive system of oversight of lockups.
One of the report’s recommendations is that the Inspector of Custodial Services is allowed greater oversight for police lockups.
Former Deaths in Custody Watch Committee chairperson, Marianne Mackay, who herself knows the pain of losing the father of her eldest child as a prison custodial death in custody, said that there is a long road for police and prison custodial systems to journey “if we are to saves lives that need not be lost and for people to be treated with even the most rudimentary forms of compassion and with the right to redemption.”
“There is nothing new identified in the committee’s report that is news, it is all old news, we’ve been there before, heard it all before, what is actually going to happen to implement what needs to be done, to implement common courtesies and human decency,” said Ms Mackay.
“We are sick to death of hearing how one report after another report identifies that many of the recommendations of the Royal Commission are not being implemented.”
“What will it take? People are dying in custody, so if this can’t get everyone to get their act together then what will?”
“More than half our people should not be in jail, they’re in there for being Aboriginal, for the most minor of offences, for traffic fines, and one report after another too is finding that our people are being sentenced where others get off, and are being hit with harsher sentences. So what do we call this? Racism? Yes, I think so. Well, we as a people know so.”
In a statement, the State’s Police Minister, Liza Harvey said she had not had the opportunity to read the committee’s report and stated that she will seek advice on the findings from the WA Police.
WA Police Union president George Tillbury welcome the recommendation and said that funding should be made available to upgrade infrastructure, to provide for the report’s recommendation of at least two on-duty officers at the lockups and for a 24/7 medical presence at the Perth watchhouse, and for more cultural awareness training.