Yesterday, ten years ago Mulrunji Doomadgee was bashed to death in a Palm Island police cell. His death is one of many deaths in custody which occurred in either murderous or in the least – dubious circumstances. Despite the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADC), deaths in custody continue at inexcusable rates. But the tragedy of deaths in custody is borne by the spiralling imprisonment rates of First Peoples, which are among the world’s highest jailing rates.
Mulrunji was the 147th Aboriginal death in custody since the final report of the RCIADC in 1992. Only months ago, a 22 year old Yamatji woman became thereabouts the 340th Aboriginal death in custody since that 1992 final report. There were 100 thereabouts Aboriginal deaths in custody over a ten year period to 1992, nearly 150 deaths over the next 12 years and nearly 200 deaths in the ten years since Mulrunji’s death.
Amid the rogue bashing deaths of detainees such as of Mulrunji, there are the unnatural death rates – of suicides and of premature deaths from health-related issues compounded by neglect. There is a school of thought that argues that deaths in custody are decreasing but is this really the case? According to the Australian Institute of Criminology’s researchers Matthew Lyneham and Andy Chan there is concern that the actual number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander custodial deaths are rising. The death toll compares and in some years surpasses the annual death toll preceding and just following the RCIADC.
But some argue that the death rate per 100 prisoners has remained relatively stagnant for a long period of time. In no year during the last several decades has the death in custody toll surpassed 0.30 deaths in custody per 100 prisoners, whether Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal. In fact on average the Aboriginal death in custody rate is just under 0.20 per 100 while the non-Aboriginal death in custody rate is just higher than 0.20 per 100 prisoners. But is the Aboriginal death in custody rate lost in the spiralling Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander prison population?
In 1991, Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders comprised 14 per cent of the total national prison population. But the Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander prison population proportion has doubled to 28 per cent. Aboriginal and/Torres Strait Islander women comprise 33 per cent of the total women’s prison population. According to the Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage Report 2014, between 2001 to 2010 the Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander imprisonment rate increased by 57 per cent.
Despite distractive squabbling over whether deaths in custody have increased or decreased or whether there are more White deaths in custody than Black deaths in custody, there are a large number of deaths in custody which are classified in various categories of unnatural deaths. There are youth dying in custody who we should have worked with restoratively rather than punitively. More than 80 per cent of prison custodial deaths are of non-Aboriginal inmates, but non-Aboriginal inmates on average are dying in jail at higher median ages than Aboriginal inmates. If you are less than 25 years of age and you are Aboriginal you are more likely to die in custody than a non-Aboriginal inmate aged less than 25 years. If you are older than 50 years of age and are a non-Aboriginal inmate you are more likely to die in prison than an Aboriginal inmate. It is more likely that someone dying at an age over 50 years will die of natural causes as opposed to the likelihood that someone who died at an age less than 25 years that it shall have been of unnatural causes.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics the prison population “has been steadily ageing.” The Australian Institute of Criminology stated, “The ageing of Australia’s prisoner population was the focus of a paper produced by Baldawi (2011), where it is observed that over the decade from 2000 to 2010, the number of prisoners aged over 50 years had increased by 37 per cent, with those over 65 years increasing by 142 per cent (Baldawi et al. 2011).”
It is my view that deaths in custody for Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders have not decreased but are being lost in statistics, in the deplorable tragedy of the spiralling imprisonment rate. Some of the recommendations from the RCIADC have been implemented – some, but not the majority. Hanging points have been reduced but in the end unless the penal estate takes on a restorative justice methodology – one of healing and of the ways forward for the majority of its inmates then not only will there be a high incidence of suicides pre- and post-release but reoffending will continue to be high. It is my view that in general people come out of prison worse than they went in. The real focus needs to be on the reducing of the will to suicide rather than focusing more on removing an apparent means. The real focus needs to be on restoring people, in assisting them to reclaim a sense of hope and to believe that they can participate in society. We have to drop this preposterous policy that people must be pilloried with punishment. It is a many generations old failed policy. Jails have become factories and warehouses of sickness. The punitive penal estate has failed. Brutalising people, criminalising people only serves to damage them, to remove them from the society best intentions. People should not be so broken that the only remaining identity they see for themselves is one of a life-long criminal.
The Australian Institute of Criminology states, “There is a growing body of evidence that suggests that mental illness, both diagnosed and undiagnosed, is more prevalent in the criminal justice system than in the general community (Australian Institute of Health Welfare 2011, Beyond Bars 2007).”
A 2003, NSW Department of Corrective Services conducted an inmate health survey found, “54 per cent of women and 39 per cent of men in prison have at some point in their lives been diagnosed by a medical doctor as having a ‘psychiatric problem’”.
Restorative justice academic and prison reform advocate, Dr Brian Steels rightly states, “We are going round in circles.”
“We are just talking about the same things over and over again. We need to help heal and educate young kids as well as the adults.”
“No society can operate without social cohesion. Our courts and policing have to change and we have to ask what will help bring about compliance to fair rules.”
It is long overdue that we need to move to highlighting the ways that will lead us all forwards, otherwise where we are now at 340 Black deaths in custody, we will soon be at many more. We need to help everyone who finishes up or may finish up in prison, it does not matter whether they are Black or White. But there are pronounced issues related to identity and extreme poverty that many First Peoples face that non-Aboriginal cultures do not face. On trends alone, we are heading to 600 Black deaths in custody by 2025. And for those who believe that imprisonment rates alone underwrite the high number of Black deaths in custody, well then on current trends we will be at nearly half the national prison population comprising Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders by 2025.