An indigenous Australian is 15 times more likely than a non-Aboriginal Australian. Indigenous Australians constitute 2% of the country’s population, and 25% of its prison population. And of the 2056 inmates to die in custody in Australia between 1982 and 2008, 379 of them – that’s 18% – were Aboriginal.
Those numbers represent a crisis of which all Australians should be thoroughly ashamed.
This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the release of the findings in a royal commission investigation of Aboriginal deaths in custody. That commission was launched in response to the violent death of a 16-year-old boy, John Pat, in police custody in 1983.
That commission issued over 300 recommendations. And while those recommendations were well-received, critics believe that their implementation failed.
To Mick Gooda, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, the report’s release was a moment of great hope for Australia’s Aboriginal people. But while he believes the royal commission itself was perfect, the implementation of its recommendations has been the problem.
“We ended up with recommendations that went to almost every facet of life that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experience here.
“I thought we approached it as if it was a program of work to be done, instead of embedding all those practices in the way we do business every day of the week, every day of the year. “And I think we missed an opportunity to do that with that report,” he said.
In other words, systemic problems require systemic solutions.
That missed opportunity has had disastrous consequences. While Aboriginal deaths in custody have become less frequent, the rate of incarceration among indigenous Australians has more than doubled. In the 1980s, when the commission began its work, indigenous Australians accounted for 12%-15% of Australian inmates. Now, the figure is 25%. And, in the blunt words of the head of research for the commission, “The more people there, then, clearly, the more are going to die.”
And the issue of indigenous deaths in custody has never been more relevant; just this month, the inquest into the suicide in custody of a transgender Aboriginal woman, released its findings. In March 2009, Veronica Baxter was transferred from a women’s prison to a men’s facility, and was found dead two days later. The inquest found that the Department of Corrective Services could not have done anything to prevent her death.
Twenty years after the release of the royal commission findings, deaths in custody are down, which, of course, is wonderful. But with an incarceration rate fifteen times higher than non-Aboriginal Australians, which carries with it a higher risk of death and the unavoidable conclusion that Aboriginal Australians are being treated very differently by law enforcement, it doesn’t feel like much of a victory.
If you have time, I highly recommend the SBS video on the commission , and the radio reports, all of which are available here.