It was a busy and sad start to 2012 with another Aboriginal death in custody. On January 5, police arrested Terrance Daniel Briscoe in Alice Springs for public drunkenness. The life of this young 28-year-old Aboriginal man was cruelly cut short not long after he was taken into custody. Police allege the cause of death was a heart attack. But two men, who were arrested at the same time as Terrance, describe how they witnessed one female and four male police officers brutally beating the young Aboriginal man.
Powerful Women. Patricia Morton-Thomas, the Aunt of Mr Briscoe, told me during a recent 3CR interview for the Doin Time prison show that she is “absolutely saddened and appalled at the terrible death.” A spokesperson for the family, she said, “I demand a full independent investigation into Terrance’s death. The whole family does.” She also asked: “Why is it that young people like Terrance can’t go out and have a good time without dying in custody?” Indeed, this question needs to be asked. Had it been a white man in a similar circumstance, would this have resulted in him being taken into “care” by police?
Patricia also described the severe lack of finances on the part of the family to pay funeral costs for young Terrance. Shortly after, Ray Jackson, President of the Indigenous Social Justice Association in Sydney, circulated an appeal for donations. The necessary $2,500 was raised in less than a week, allowing the family to bury the young man with full honour and respect. Patricia also argued that compensation needs to be allocated to the families of people who die in custody.
Patricia spoke eloquently about the problems of the Northern Territory Intervention and noted that the Basics Card “causes Aboriginal people to starve and lose their cultural identity.” She expressed concern that income management will soon be extended across Australia.
It was a privilege to speak with Patricia Morton Thomas who is a strong advocate for her nephew. She is determined to see justice done.
Still waiting for change. 2012 is the 25th anniversary of the formation of a Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. This year, on 15 April, we will also mark the 21st anniversary of the release of the final report of this enquiry. The outcome was 339 recommendations, including that imprisonment be the last resort. But, has anything really changed?
In an exclusive 3CR interview broadcast on Doin Time, as part of a feature on the Summer Stop Aboriginal Deaths in Custody Action organised by the Indigenous Social Justice Association, Alison Thorne from the Freedom Socialist Party argued: “We’re here because we are about building a stronger movement to stop Aboriginal deaths in custody. As a society, we are still locking up Aboriginal people at a massive rate. We kicked off 2012 with the terrible death of Terrance Briscoe in Alice Springs. Had the recommendations of the Royal Commission been implemented, he would have been safe in a sobering-up centre, not dead in a police cell.” This action, 11 February, was the first of four seasonal actions comprising a Year Of Action.
Who investigates? A significant problem when a death in custody occurs is that police end up investigating police. Tamar Hopkins, solicitor from Flemington Kensington Community Legal Centre, put this issue into an international perspective during her speech at the recent Summer Action. She noted that, “Independent investigations happen all over the world.” She gave the example of Ireland and asked, “why can’t this happen in Australia?”
Hopkins also said, “There’s a few things in common between Terrance Briscoe’s death, TJ Hickey’s death, Paul Carter’s death, here in Victoria and many, many other deaths in police custody, and that is that all of those deaths were investigated by the very agency that is being implicated in these deaths. There is absolutely no independence in investigating those deaths. The lack of independence means that Australian jurisdictions are in breach of international law, which requires that deaths in custody be investigated by a completely independent agency.” Gail Hickey, TJ’s mother, was cited in Tamar’s speech. Gail has gone to the UN to challenge the lack of independent investigation into TJ’s death. If she wins her complaint, Australia will be reminded of its obligations.
It is imperative that we escalate and build momentum to mobilise more people to take action against Aboriginal deaths in custody. We must support the Briscoe family’s demand for a full independent investigation into Terrance Briscoe’s death. Police need to be placed under the control of elected civilian review boards that have the authority to hold racist cops to account. Investigations independent of the police and under community control need to take place.
I believe that we cannot hope to have justice under capitalism. The police force is founded on genocide of Aboriginal people and colonisation. I have no faith that the justice system can deliver justice for First Nations people.
Marisa Sposaro is passionate about stopping deaths in custody. She is a presenter on the Doin Time prison show on 3CR community radio. Tune in every Monday from 4 pm until 5 pm at 8.55 am.