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Issue # 1426      2 September 2009

Govt accused over jail deaths report

Advocates for South Australia’s Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands say the SA government is stalling on the release of a report on its performance in implementing black deaths in custody recommendations.

Jonathan Nicholls, of Uniting Care Wesley Adelaide, said the government announced in January 2005 that it would conduct a “government-wide review” of efforts to implement the recommendations of the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC), and promised to “introduce a systematic and ongoing reporting process”.

However, Mr Nicholls said the government had yet to fulfil either commitment, long urged by the SA Coroner.

He said Premier Mike Rann was Aboriginal Affairs Minister when the RCIADIC recommendations were handed down, but he had “dropped the ball” on the issue, and current Minister Jay Weatherill had not responded to requests for clarification on whether the review had started and when it would be completed.

Mr Weatherill referred Koori Mail inquiries to Corrections Minister Tom Koutsantonis, who declined to say what recommendations had been implemented.

Mr Koutsantonis took up the Corrections portfolio after quitting the road safety portfolio in April when he divulged that he had 60 unpaid traffic fines, some of those incurred while driving a ministerial vehicle. His licence had been suspended for non-payment three times, and in 2005 he was put on a 12-month good behaviour agreement.

Ironically, a significant proportion of Aboriginal inmates are in jail for non-payment of fines and traffic offences.

Mr Koutsan-tonis said the department “continues to modify infrastructure to remove potential hanging points” and the majority of the recommendations had been “addressed”. But he did not supply a copy of the report on the review, or confirm its existence.

The Minister said he was “pleased to advise all new cells meet safe cell specifications and there has not been an intentional Aboriginal death in custody since 2003”.

However, there were three hanging deaths of non-Indigenous people the following year and subsequent prison deaths due to other causes since that time.

Shadow Minister for Health and Aboriginal Affairs Duncan McFetridge is demanding government accountability on adherence to the recommendations and observance of human rights for the growing number of Aboriginal people in custody.

“Why the government is being as difficult to deal with as it is over such an important issue, I don’t understand,” he said. “I can only conclude they’ve put it in the too-hard basket and failed to act on the recommendations, because if they’d done it, they’d be trying to grab a headline on it.”

In SA, although Aboriginal people comprise less than two per cent of the general population they account for more than 22 percent of the male prison population, and 68 percent of juveniles in detention.

Dr McFetridge said the government had admitted its own failure when its Social Inclusion Minister suggested that jail might be the only way to quell the activities of the so-called “Gang of 49”, a group of youths blamed for serial offending.

Reducing Aboriginal recidivism is a key target of recent SA justice strategies, and earlier this year the operations of the Nunga Court were expanded to regional South Australia, to focus on rehabilitation programs, incorporating spiritual healing programs and appointing 11 Aboriginal liaison officers.

An Aboriginal unit was opened in July at Port Augusta Prison to redress recidivism rates and provide culturally appropriate detention and programs.

It has been suggested that the unit’s position – facing the Flinders Ranges – could be more comforting to those held off-country.

However, Jonathan Nicholls said the recommendations were broader than an increased and enhanced provision of cells and facilities could provide.

Dr McFetridge said the opening of a culturally specific unit was good, but not enough to address escalating drug use, the shortfall in health care for the high number of Indigenous prisoners, and the need for greater post-release support services and accommodation.

Inmates at Port Augusta Prison attracted international media attention last October when they staged a riot and roof-top protest, demanding an end to lockdowns and alleged bashings by guards.

Impetus to implement the commission recommendations grew after inquest findings into four deaths on the APY Lands in 2005. Then-State Coroner Wayne Chivell also recommended the federal and SA governments assess the degree to which the recommendations of the Royal Commission had “still not been implemented”.

The Koori Mail

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