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.

  • Calla Wahlquist in Guardian Australia looks at what happened to the Royal Commission recommendations (not much), some recent notable cases, and Dodson’s trenchant remarks to the Press Club.
  • There are similar general news items on SBS, the ABC and the ABC again.
  • Meanwhile, in Eureka Street, veteran campaigner for Indigenous causes, Frank Brennan, anticipates the arrival of Pat Dodson in the Senate and notes a combination of distress and hope in his Press Club address. ‘We will not be liberated from the tyranny of the criminal justice system’, Dodson said, ‘unless we also acknowledge the problems in our own communities and take responsibility for the hurt we inflict and cause on each other’.
  • Thalia Anthony in The Conversation looks in more detail at the Royal Commission, the situation it dealt with and what has happened since. ‘The commission’s lessons are more pertinent today than they were in 1991’, she concludes, ‘because the majority of its recommendations remain unimplemented.’
  • Among other articles in The Conversation, Chris Cunneen writes about a hardening in public and government attitudes towards crime, particularly Indigenous crime, since 1991. He warns against the assumption that rising incarceration rates indicate an increase in crime. ‘The use of prison is a function of government choices; it reflects government policy and legislation, as well as judicial decision-making.’
  • Then Amanda Porter, also in The Conversation, counsels us to look behind the statistics at the individual human tragedies. But, she adds, ‘We need to consider why our fellow citizens continue to see Aboriginality, not in terms of an identity of proud and diverse peoples, but in terms of criminality and deficiency’.
  • Tragedy, of course, can reach out to affect police also, although Craig Longman in The Conversation argues there is still insufficient police accountability and a new monitoring body is needed.
  • Reema Rattan and Wes Mountain round out The Conversation‘s coverage with information presented graphically.
  • Finally, over at New Matilda, Darumbul journalist Amy McQuire compares the work of the Royal Commission 25 years ago with that of the recently completed Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence. She notes that Indigenous women were victims then and now, today often being locked up for retaliating against violence. She tries to get to the root of the matter, referring to

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.




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