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Issue #1498      20 April 2011

Aboriginal Deaths in Custody

Little progress 20 years on from Royal Commission

In the northwest of Western Australia on September 28, 1983, a 16-year-old Aboriginal youth John Pat had been part of a group of people who had been drinking outside Roebourne’s Victoria Hotel when the evening took a violent turn.

A brawl developed between Aboriginal youth and off-duty police officers resulting in a blow from one of the off-duty officers which knocked John Pat backwards causing him to fall and smash his head on the road.

The police officers involved in the death faced charges and all were acquitted. However, the death of John Pat helped to spark sufficient outrage in Australians that on August 10, 1987, Prime Minister Bob Hawke announced that there would be a Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

The final report was signed on April 15, 1991. It made 339 recommendations, mainly concerned with procedures for persons in custody, liaison with Aboriginal groups, police education and improved accessibility to information to people about to enter into custody.

It also noted that racism and Aboriginal health were problems and that for the situation to improve racism had to be addressed and Aboriginal health had to improve.

Since the Royal Commission presented its findings in 1991 there have been more than 269 further deaths in custody. Each of these deaths was represented by a white cross that was carried from the Supreme Court Gardens to Parliament House as part of a remembrance and a call to action on April 15, in Perth.

The march and rally was organised by Deaths in Custody Watch Committee and Aboriginal Legal Aid and was attended by over 150 people. A number of people addressed the rally outside Parliament House including Ted Wilkes, a researcher at Curtin University and member of the National Indigenous Drug and Alcohol Committee. Mr Wilkes said that poor access to and availability of education and health facilities were contributing factors to the high incidence of incarceration of Aboriginal people. “The Liberal government of Colin Barnett should spend money on improving access to health services rather than building a new prison in Kalgoorlie which would mostly be for locking up Aboriginal people,” Mr Wilkes said.

Tammy Solonec, the Managing Solicitor of the Law and Advocacy Unit at the WA Aboriginal Service also spoke of the problems being faced by Aboriginal people in Kalgoorlie. Although they have the state’s only Aboriginal Community Court, they still continued to experience high rates of Aboriginal offending and re-offending. Ms Solenec said, “One third of the deaths in custody examined by the Royal Commission during the period of its mandate were from Western Australia and of these most were from Kalgoorlie.” Ms Solonec added that Aboriginal rates of incarceration were increasing in the Magistrates Courts jurisdictions in WA which included the Children’s Court. She said 73.8 percent of those incarcerated there were Aboriginal despite less than four percent of the population being Aboriginal.

Land rights and self-determination were also issues which the Royal Commission said needed to be addressed in the context of providing justice to the Aboriginal people of Australia. Little has been done to implement the recommendations of the Royal Commission and racism was still evident in the actions of some police officers, in the prison system and the wider community.

One of the last speakers was Yamitji MLA Ben Wyatt who grew up in the Laverton area north of Kalgoorlie. He recalled the young men from his youth who had all now gone due in part to the short lifespan of most Aboriginal people, brought on by a lack of access to health services, to good nutrition, decent education and employment opportunities.

He posed a bigger picture question to the rally, “After so many Aboriginal people had died so young and so unnecessarily, how far have we come since the referendum of 1967-to include Aboriginal people as citizens?”  

Next article – Intervention a sham

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