15 April 2021 was the 30th anniversary of the release of the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC). It was a busy month: movement activists hit the streets, attended community events and spoke out in the mainstream media, which, for a brief moment, asked why deaths in custody persist.
Before the month was out, there were two more deaths in custody, taking the number to seven in less than two months. Tragically, by mid-May, another two First Nations people had lost their lives while in custody.
Governments continue to pursue measures that run directly counter to the recommendations. Victoria is expanding the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre, constructing 106 new cells in this maximum-security women’s prison. Meanwhile, the Northern Territory has passed new youth bail laws that will see the number of First Nations children in jail skyrocket.
The Indigenous Social Justice Association – Melbourne (ISJA) hosted a discussion on 22 April titled End the genocidal inaction! Implement the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. Alison Thorne spoke on behalf of ISJA, and discussed much-needed solutions. These are extracts from her speech.
It’s truly shocking that there have been five First Nations deaths in custody since the start of March! These appalling figures remind me of the period immediately prior to the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, called in 1987.
In 1983, Roebourne teenager John Pat died in a police cell a month before his 17th birthday. He had been assaulted outside a pub by five drunken off-duty cops before being taken into custody, where he died from the head injuries sustained in the assault. The off-duty cops were acquitted by an all-white jury and, as Aboriginal people had come to expect, no one was held accountable.
Pat’s death provoked large and angry Indigenous-led protests and exposed the growing death toll of First Nations people at the hands of police and prison authorities.
It was clear that Aboriginal people had a gut full, and demands for action were growing louder and louder. Yinggarda woman, Helen Corbett, had worked at the Western Australia Aboriginal Legal Service before moving to Sydney to head Tranby Aboriginal College. After Pat’s death she formed the Committee to Defend Black Rights, which was at the forefront of a massive campaign credited with pushing the federal government to call the Royal Commission. A key event was a national speaking tour of families who had lost a loved one in custody.
The Hawke government was starting to feel the heat from the sustained mobilisations from a multiracial movement. When it announced the Royal Commission, this was a contradictory moment. Official enquiries, including Royal Commissions, are a tactic traditionally used to defuse widespread anger and promote the belief that the current system can fix things. Then once the expert commissioners have made their recommendations, all will be resolved.
As is now well-known, the commission released 339 recommendations on 15 April 1991. The view of the movement was that the recommendations weren’t too bad. The commission took a holistic approach, making recommendations about health, education, housing, access to land and self-determination. The key finding was that Aboriginal people were dying at such a shocking rate because of massive over-incarceration. Key to ending deaths in custody would be addressing this.
A series of recommendations focused on diversion from police custody. Recommendation 92 was for legislation to enforce the principle that imprisonment should be utilised only as a sanction of last resort. There were 29 detailed recommendations, but measures were needed to make them real.
The call to implement the recommendations became a central demand of the movement. The responsibility for implementing this sweeping plan has sat with federal, state and territory governments, but they have proved themselves incapable of delivering. Not only have they failed to implement key recommendations, they have continued to make things worse.
In 1996 and 1997 mandatory sentencing was introduced in Western Australia (WA) and the Northern Territory (NT) — so-called “three strikes” laws, which removed discretion from magistrates. The result? Racially profiled teens incarcerated for minor offences. Paperless arrest laws in the NT also gave police more powers to racially profile.
In WA, Ms Dhu was jailed for unpaid fines in direct contravention to Recommendation 92. And in Victoria, the bail laws, coupled with a lack of duty of care by prison authorities, failed Ms Nelson Walker. Last year she was arrested, not represented, refused bail, and died hours later in the Dame Phyllis Frost Centre, the first privately operated prison in Victoria. Women are more likely to be denied bail than men. This is a major factor behind the growth of women’s imprisonment. The increase is particularly stark for Aboriginal women, whose numbers in the prison population have jumped by 240% in the last five years!
Faced with social problems, governments continue to adopt simplistic law-and-order measures. This approach has hardened in the two decades since 9/11 and the launch of the so-called “war on terror.” Police are routinely given more powers and more dangerous hardware to repress the population.
While public housing is massively under-resourced in every state and territory, there’s no shortage of funding to increase police numbers. There’s cash to splash on expanding prison capacity by building private prisons. The more governments ignore Recommendation 92, the more profitable it is for the big corporates, such as G4S and Serco, to keep their prisons full!
Patterns are all too familiar — racial profiling, police brutality and a lack of duty of care. As a result, the deaths in custody continue. The latest figures released by The Guardian reveal a staggering 474 First Nations deaths in custody since the Royal Commission. One of these deaths was TJ Hickey.
ISJA Melbourne was formed in late 2004 in the lead-up to the first anniversary of TJ’s death. His Mum, Gail Hickey, was working closely with ISJA in Sydney. When Ray Jackson contacted his Comrades in Melbourne with Gail’s appeal for a national day of action, we sprung into action. Those of us involved did some local community consultation and found strong support for an action demanding justice for TJ. But the message was also clear that deaths in custody are a key feature of a racist system, and we must keep organising until they stop.
ISJA has kept organising. We’ve seen the movement ebb and flow, but we have remained true to the commitment we made almost 17 years ago: keep up the fight.
Some recent developments have brought hope. It is a win for the movement that the Victorian government will finally replace public drunkenness laws with a health response. This is Recommendation 79, released in 1991: “in jurisdictions where drunkenness has not been decriminalised, governments should legislate to abolish the offence of public drunkenness.” Why did it take the death in custody of Tanya Day to get this commitment from the Victorian government, and why is it taking so long to implement?
Also bringing hope is the growth of the movement — the 30th anniversary rally, organised by Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance, brought good numbers onto the streets. We’re also seeing more organisations come on board, with established groups, such as the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service, now campaigning with families.
On this anniversary, it is important to consider both the demands being raised by the movement and what will be needed to ensure First Nations people are not facing the same issues in another 30 years!
The movement backs the recommendations, but they have gaps. They do not specifically tackle the issue of ending the practice of police investigating police. Addressing this has become a core demand of the movement, which is sick of internal investigations, where evidence goes missing and collusion and cover ups are routine. After the death of TJ Hickey, his bike, a key piece of evidence, was tampered with. After the death of Mulrunji Doomadgee, the police investigators who flew to Palm Island were hosted by Chris Hurley, the cop at the centre of the investigation!
The movement calls for independent bodies to investigate the role of police and prison authorities. Genuinely independent bodies need to be well resourced, have real powers and be accountable to the community. That’s why we want them to be elected. Bodies called “independent,” but appointed by and reporting to the same governments responsible for the cops and jails, would hardly be independent!
ISJA Melbourne believes that it must not be left to First Nations people to fight alone — we all have a responsibility to build the resistance capable of stopping deaths in custody. We must ensure the same issues are not still happening decades into the future.
We demand implementation of the recommendations of the Royal Commission, especially Recommendation 92, that imprisonment be the last resort, and that implementation be done with the involvement of all the families who have lost someone in custody. We further demand the establishment of a genuinely independent accountability mechanism, directly responsible to communities.
We support the call for the Prime Minister to meet with deaths in custody families and implement their 10 demands, which include “funding for prisons and police being repurposed to meet the needs of all communities, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Housing, raising Newstart to $80 a day, health and other community needs should be funded in place of western socio-legal-based programs.”
To win these demands we’ll need to continue our efforts to build an ever-stronger and more power multiracial movement that builds unity around these common goals. We are sick of waiting. The inaction is genocidal and it has to stop. If this system is incapable of meeting these necessary demands, we need to replace it with one that will!
Get involved in the Indigenous Social Justice Association — Melbourne. It meets on the first Thursday of every month, 6:30 pm at Solidarity Salon, 580 Sydney Road Brunswick. When it is not safe to meet in person, ISJA meets via Zoom.