'The system is deeply racist': Five Indigenous people have died in custody since March

‘The system is deeply racist’: Five Indigenous people have died in custody since March


Another Indigenous person died in custody over the weekend, marking the fifth Indigenous death in custody since the beginning of March.

The 45-year-old man, an inmate at Perth’s Casuarina Prison, died on Saturday after he was taken to Fiona Stanley Hospital to undergo a medical procedure. His death is the latest in a tragic spate of Indigenous deaths in custody over the past month.

On March 2, a man in his 30s died in custody at Long Bay Prison hospital, after he was found unresponsive in his cell.

On March 5, a woman in her 50s died in an apparent suicide in Silverwater Women’s Correctional Centre.

On March 7, another man died in Victoria’s Ravenhall Correctional Centre.

On March 18, 37-year-old Barkindji man, Anzac Sullivan, died after suffering a medical episode during a police pursuit in Broken Hill, NSW. His sister, Donna Sullivan, said Anzac was a “loved brother, nephew, son and uncle.”

The Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT has called for urgent action and accountability in the wake of these deaths in custody.

Sarah Crellin, Principal Solicitor (Crime Practice) at the Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT, said that for four deaths to have occurred in the space of a little over a fortnight is a “huge red flag that something is seriously wrong with police and correction systems” in Australia.

“Without urgent action, Aboriginal people will continue to die before their time, away from their loved ones, and in traumatic circumstances,” Crellin said.

Next week will mark the 30th anniversary of the Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody, tabled in parliament in 1991. The landmark report made 339 recommendations to stop Aboriginal deaths in custody.

There have been almost 500 Indigenous deaths in custody since the royal commission handed down its findings, and no police officer or authority has ever been held criminally responsible for the death of an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person in custody in that time.

Families of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have died in custody have launched a petition calling for a meeting with Prime Minister Scott Morrison to mark the 30th anniversary of the Royal Commission. At the time of publication, the petition has over 15,000 signatures.

“The legal system is so entrenched with systemic racism that Aboriginal people are the most incarcerated people in the world, yet when one of our loved ones dies in custody of police officers, prison guards or medical officers, there is no accountability,” the petition states.

“The Federal Government knows that few of those recommendations have been fully implemented, despite a one-sided report that says otherwise. In reality, most of the recommendations that have been actioned have subsequently been defunded or remain extremely under-resourced with limited Aboriginal governance.”

At a recent parliamentary inquiry, Labor Senator Pat Dodson told assistant attorney-general Amanda Stoker the situation was a “scandal”.

“We’ve gotten to the chronic stage now where instead of learning from the royal commission and its recommendations 30 years ago, we’re standing on the brink potentially of another royal commission to inquire into the same sorts of things,” Dodson told reporters after the inquiry.

“The fundamentals have just not been taken seriously, and certainly the federal government is not taking a leadership role where it should be taking a leadership role.”

Just last week, another incident that highlights the continued mistreatment of First Nations’ people in custody was reported on, when an Aboriginal teenage girl lost an appeal for a request that her criminal trial be heard by a female magistrate for cultural reasons.

The girl said she wouldn’t defend the charges she was facing if footage of her being strip-searched would be seen by men in court. She made the request in accordance with her Aboriginal culture, where men’s and women’s business are traditionally kept separate.

In 2019, the girl who was then aged 15, was arrested on suspicion of stealing a car. She was strip-searched at Wagga Wagga police station and does not want the footage to be seen by men.

Greens Senator Lidia Thorpe has called for urgent action following the reports of these deaths in custody over the last month.

“As First Nations people, we are sad – and we are angry beyond words,” Senator Thorpe said.

“Why does this system continue to kill us off? We know that was the intent from the beginning of the colonial invasion – is this part of the same genocidal agenda? 

“Why should our people keep dying in places where they’re meant to be kept safe? The system is deeply racist.”

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