Indigenous deaths in custody continue to rise amid unambitious parity targets and opaque reporting systems.
A 48 year old woman died in a Brisbane watch house last week, after being arrested for theft and drug charges.
Amnesty International said that the latest death is just one more example of the shameful legacy of the government’s inaction on recommendations made in the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.
“When people go to prison, they shouldn’t have to die in prison,” said Amnesty’s Indigenous Affairs Advisor, Rodney Dillon.
“Prisons are not a safe place for Aboriginal people to be.”
Amnesty International said there was concern for people who have specific needs and children being kept in watch houses.
“Watch houses should be a place where people have an eye kept on them when they first go in,” said Dillon.
“People are very vulnerable when they first go into these places. The first thing that should happen is that there’s a health check.”
At least 437 Indigenous people have died in custody since 1991, after the first report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody was published.
Queensland Police released a statement indicating that the Ethical Standards Command will investigate the death, but Dillon said that this doesn’t go far enough.
“We have spoken with the woman’s family and they want a fully independent inquiry,” he said.
“Queensland has the opportunity to lead the way by investigating this tragic death properly.”
Recent research studies have found that only a tiny fraction of Indigenous deaths in custody have been referred to a court, and of those, none have ever resulted in a conviction.
The new Closing the Gap targets published in July set a target of parity in incarceration rates by 2093, a goal that even the Indigenous Affairs Minister Ken Wyatt deemed ‘unacceptable’.
Public reporting of deaths in custody is largely opaque. There is no obligation in most states for coronial information to be made publicly available. A quantitative analysis of coroner’s reports for deaths in custody published in 2019 found that reporting practices vary widely between states, accurate data on deaths (including cause of death) are difficult to gain access to for independent analysis, and coroners often do not report whether the person was Indigenous or not in their reports (71% of publicly reported cases).
The study also found that the increase in incarceration of indigenous in recent years has been significant – it has more than doubled in the past 30 years (13 times higher than non-Indigenous people).
Dillon said that the gaps in reporting need to be addressed.
“The data needs to be kept better,” he said.
“But isn’t it sad that we have got to keep data on deaths in custody.”
“Any deaths in custody, whether black or white, shouldn’t happen. The family of that lady, I feel so sad for them. We owe them better than that. We should stop this from happening.”
Photo: Amnesty International
Sarah Jacob is a journalist and editor and is currently The Advocate's Deputy Editor. She has written for a range of print and online publications across Australia and internationally with a focus on the environment and human rights. Previously she worked in conservation science and protected area management, and has completed postgraduate degrees in journalism and marine science.