- HONEST HISTORY - http://honesthistory.net.au/wp -

Twenty-five years since Deaths in Custody Royal Commission: Honest History miscellany

‘Twenty-five years since Deaths in Custody Royal Commission: Honest History miscellany’, Honest History, 15 April 2016

Taking a line through the dozen or so news reports and pieces of commentary below, we do not attempt any summing up other than the one that falls from the words reported and presented. We as a country in 2016 seem to be pretty much where we were in 1991 when the Royal Commission (Elliott Johnston QC, Pat Dodson, Hal Wootten, DJ O’Dea and LF Wyvill) brought down its findings, the burden of which was as follows:

A central conclusion of this chapter is that the immediate causes of the deaths [the 99 over the years 1980-89 that the Commission investigated] do not include foul play, in the sense of unlawful, deliberate killing of Aboriginal prisoners by police and prison officers. More than one-third of the deaths (37) were from disease; 30 were self-inflicted hangings; 23 were caused by other forms of external trauma, especially head injuries; and 9 were immediately associated with dangerous alcohol and other drug use. Indeed, heavy alcohol use was involved in some way in deaths in each of these categories. The chapter concludes that glaring deficiencies existed in the standard of care afforded to many of the deceased.

The finding that foul play on the part of police and prison officers was not implicated in the deaths in no way diminishes the seriousness of the problem of Aboriginal deaths in custody, nor does it undermine the reasons for the establishment of the Royal Commission. Indeed, the finding that the life styles of the Aboriginal people who died in custody, along with the procedures adopted by custodians and others, are the central determinants of their deaths (rather than foul play on the part of custodial officials) highlights the importance of the Royal Commission’ s broad enquiry into the position of Aboriginal people in Australia today and the ways that Aboriginal people are handled by the police and criminal justice systems.

Now, as then, life styles are key. Many of the articles below point to statistics for deaths in custody that are as bad as or worse than they were a quarter of a century ago. Others point to Indigenous incarceration rates far higher than those for non-Indigenous Australians.

Beneath the numbers, though, lie the way Indigenous Australians still live and the way the largely non-Indigenous system treats them. Pat Dodson at the National Press Club referred to an Australian culture ‘that permits the criminal justice system to continue to suck us up like a vacuum cleaner and deposit us like waste in custodial institutions’. Others made similar remarks.

the violence and brutality of the colonial-settler state, which was and still is killing Aboriginal people both behind bars and outside of them. The violence on the frontier has internalised itself in our communities: from one generation to the next, the trauma is handed down and reborn in new forms of violence, whether it be alcohol abuse, or now, family violence.

Issues now but causes way back and still running.