Australian deaths in custody: Call for a Senate inquiry

Gerry Georgatos Indymedia 9th March 2011

Australian deaths in custody and the call for a Senate inquiry - joint committee

Australian deaths in custody - one of the world's worst records - has become an obsession with me as I quickly compile a University Press book for community and research my PhD (Law) from a criminological aspect into the extensiveness of Australian deaths in custody. The Human Rights Alliance is working to disseminate the facts, and is beginning regional Deaths in Custody Advocacy Units to help affected families especially with their rights, and we continue the campaign calling upon the Australian Senate for an urgent Joint Committee Inquiry. There are a number of concerned human rights groups and some agencies such as the Aboriginal Legal Services and the Australian Human Rights Commission complementing each other in shining the light. We all need to spread the word. Gerry Georgatos

Australia has one of the world's worst deaths in custody records. Deaths in custody includes prison and police custody. We, of The Human Rights Alliance, have called upon our 76 Australian Senators to initiate an Australian Senate Inquiry into Australian Deaths in Custody. We ask that any Inquiry ensure a Joint Committee of Senators and experts, and not only researchers from the Australian Institute of Criminology however expert researchers from the Australian Human Rights Commission, and academics who have researched the criminal justice system and include our most respected and qualified Aboriginal Elders. It is negligence and constitutional impropriety for the Commonwealth to delay an Inquiry into Deaths in Custody. I myself have commenced a PhD (Law), through James Cook University, from a criminological aspect of the extensiveness of Deaths in Custody in our Australia. I am quickly writing a book for community, through a University Press, so as to en masse raise community awareness about the extensiveness of Australian Deaths in Custody.

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There are more non-Aboriginal deaths in custody than Aboriginal deaths. The rate of Aboriginal deaths in custody is higher than in South Africa during the peak of apartheid (excluding Apartheid South Africa's ex-judicial killings). Most Australians have not realised the extent of deaths in custody, and we must ensure they do so we can move to the next step of procuring genuine remedies and save lives.

The Australian Institute of Criminology's National 'Deaths in Custody' Program said there were 601 deaths in custody in Australia from 2000 to 2007 alone. The same rates continue. These 601 deaths in custody over eight years (an average of 75 deaths a year) compares badly with the horrific 1980-2000 tally: 1442 deaths in custody (an average of 72 deaths a year). The rate of deaths in custody is increasing. The 99 Aboriginal deaths in custody from 1980 to May 1989, which led to the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, do not reveal the total numbers of Australian deaths in custody. They do not reveal the bottom-of-the-barrel, sub-standard custodial services of police or prisons. The 2008 figures increased with 85 deaths in custody nationally. Between 1982 to 2008 we have had 2,056 deaths in custody with the national average having increased to 77 per annum.

Shamefully, Aboriginal deaths in custody have not improved. In fact, they have risen, 20 years after the Royal Commission. The Commission report made 339 recommendations, but - in terms of police and prison custodial handling and services - most of the recommendations have not been carried out or substantially budgeted for.

Non-Aboriginal deaths in custody have blown out to unacceptable and inhumane levels. We have a tragic scandal-in-waiting. A Royal Commission into Australian deaths in custody is urgently required. Our Australian Senators, 76 of them, are derelict in their constitutional duties because they have failed to call for and implement such a commission. They have failed to educate the Senate and the lower house of the horrific custodial death statistics. They have no excuse as the Australian Institute of Criminology's National Deaths in Custody Data Bank, set up in 1992, as a result of the RCIADC recommendations, publishes (and explains) the data. It seems many politicians are inspired to act only when the community at large is aware of a horrific wrong. Well, the Human Rights Alliance has begun a campaign to ensure our Australian community is availed to the facts and I will assist with a short book. Our politicians need to oblige their moral duties and not be guided by the polls. If the polls are all they listen to then we will do our best to continue bringing the facts to Australians and the international community. The Human Rights Alliance has begun public talks to educate community to "inspire" our parliamentarians into action.

Of the 1442 deaths in all forms of custody from 1980-2000, there were 1367 males and 75 females. Two hundred and forty-eight were Aboriginal deaths - 18% of all deaths in custody. The Aboriginal population of Australia is 2.6% of the total population. Of the 75 female deaths, the Aboriginal female deaths were 32%. These figures are closely related to incarceration rates. There are higher incarceration rates of Aboriginal people in terms of proportion of Aboriginal people to total population. So, systemic racism towards Aboriginal people does not directly cause their deaths in custody - deaths in custody are rather the result of substandard treatment towards prisoners, in addition to prejudices towards prisoners that the criminal justice system and broader society may have.

Between 1980 to 2007, 494 prisoners took their lives by hanging. Deaths by hanging are decreasing because there has been a relatively concerted effort to decrease hanging points. It is argued that a significant number of prisoners are dying of natural causes and that this is a result of an ageing prison population. This needs to be qualified with the fact that if urgent medical attention is not flagged someone can still be considered to have died of natural causes. Furthermore prison populations always age, and we need to better understand this argument as a possible indictment of the sentencing schedules of the criminal justice system and the role of the parole boards. We need to understand that ageing infrastructure, overcrowded prisons, lack of pro-social resources such as educational opportunities and psychosocial counselling contribute to suicides and death by 'natural causes'. Prison and police officers may follow protocols that are high risk and result in the maltreatment of prisoners as exemplified by WA's Mr Kevin Spratt, tasered 41 times over five days and who could have become a death in custody. On June 9, 2009, a man in Townsville was tasered 28 times to his death.

Discrimination happens against all prisoners - it's not targeted only at Aboriginal people. But systemic racism can be argued as directly leading to the much higher Aboriginal incarceration rates. Rates of deaths in custody appear linked to incarceration rates, in terms of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. But an Aboriginal person is 15 times more likely to be locked up than a non-Aboriginal Australian. This is a 50% increase on when the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody Reports were released. In August, ABC Online said in WA, 68% of incarcerated juveniles were Aboriginal, and 40% of the adult prison population was Aboriginal. Aboriginal people make up about 3% of the total population of WA. The NT has an Aboriginal population that is 35% of the total NT population, however outside the NT, WA is the only other state with more Aboriginal deaths in custody than non-Aboriginal deaths. WA has three times the national average of Aboriginal deaths in custody however WA has only 3% of its total population as Aboriginal. If my preliminary research is correct WA surely unfortunately recorded 2010 with more Aboriginal deaths in custody than in any other year.

From 1982 to 2008 there have been 2,056 deaths in custody, 379 of them Aboriginal. This is a national disgrace and essentially a hidden truth. In 1991, when the Royal Commission released its reports, there were 69 deaths in custody. Thirteen were Aboriginal. Ten years later, there were 87 deaths in custody, with 19 Aboriginal deaths in custody. In 1997, there were a record 105 deaths in custody, with 22 Aboriginal deaths in custody. For Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians, nothing has improved. The statistics have worsened.

There has been an Aboriginal death in custody somewhere in Australia every month of the past 18 months. For each Aboriginal death in custody, there are about eight to 10 non-Aboriginal deaths in custody. There is an Australian death in custody less than every five days, and an Aboriginal death in custody less than every four weeks. How can Australia have more deaths in custody than the record of peak apartheid South Africa (excluding ex-judicial killings), and one of the world's worst records? For every death in custody we must acknowledge that there are scores of people maltreated, neglected and suffering.

The time has come for us to have a good look at ourselves and find out what is going on. We need a Royal Commission to ensure the recommendations are carried out. The situation must be monitored and reported to the Senate. We cannot turn a blind eye. Our prisons are filled with the poorest among us. The middle and upper classes are not the majority of prisoners and generally serve less time for similar offences or for their predominantly white-collar crimes. In WA the prison population has increased by 18% during the last year. During this same period parole denials have dramatically increased and prison sentences have increased by an average of 118 days.

We may be turning a blind eye because we have been taught to be harsh on the poor and on our Aboriginal brothers and sisters who suffered under Australia's own apartheid practices. Sincere remedy requires state and federal budgets to prioritise our Aboriginal brothers and sisters and eliminate disparity. We must invest in services that help those incarcerated from among our poorest classes. Annually, in WA alone, we spend nearly half a billion dollars to incarcerate 4,700 people. It is not true that a significant number of prisoners have been incarcerated for defaulting on fines alone however the majority of prisoners are incarcerated for minor offences. We need to treat them fairly when judging and sentencing them.

Till as such time as we remedy disparity and the criminal justice system we must ensure we do not compound the problems. We must improve and educate the police and prison services, protocols, manuals, procedures and their supervision, handling and treatment of all prisoners. We need Australia to ensure that it is a just and civil society. If we do not invest in our people then by 2020 we will have in the very least another near thousand deaths in custody, and no less than a dozen more gaols built around the country.

In WA alone there are 4,700 prisoners at a direct cost to the state of more than half a billion and an indirect cost to the state in the many billions, in terms of health, mental health and community burdens and in terms of dysfunctional families and hence the perpetuation of vicious cycles. 40% of our prisons are filled with Aboriginal people, 68% of our juvenile detention centres with Aboriginal youth. 70% of Aboriginal adults reoffend, and 80% of Aboriginal youth reoffend.

The answers do not lie in mandatory sentencing, nor in increased jail sentences - they have risen by on average 118 days - nor in parole denials. The answers do not lie in building more jails. A new jail is being built in this country every year. Build jails and what happens is that they are filled. It is only now with the acknowledgment of overcrowding in our jails, and its effect on the mental health of prisoners, increasing suicide rates, that we are considering other options. I believe people are good, and all people have some good in them and here lies the solution - tap in to the goodness.

I have visited jails to promote alternative pathways and hope to prisoners. They jump at the chance - there is a real yearning for their form and content to make them employable and contributing to their family and community. Half the road is about helping people to believe in their capacities and the other half to provide the opportunities for education and employability. In WA Aboriginal juveniles make up two thirds of juvenile detention, and they are forty times more likely than non-Aboriginal youth to finish up there. Nationally they are 30 times more likely. Many of us know the statistics or have a fair idea. The sole reason that we have these abominable rates is because of Aboriginal disadvantage. Poverty, for any Australian, is the primary cause of crime and its recidivism.

There are some strategies which have been proposed which will work. One such strategy is Justice Reinvestment, where communities with an over representation of people in the criminal justice system are assisted with target specific funding for infrastructure and various services. The community is encouraged to take a role in its accountability and in working within itself to make for a safer immediate society. Such communities take ownership of diversion programs, preventative crime programs, rehabilitation and education programs, and community counselling programs. In some communities they have taken responsibility for managing 'prisons'. They have proven to have done better jobs than that of for instance private prison management companies, who arguably are led by a profit motive, such as G4S and Serco. There are many examples of where this localised management has worked.

In Alberta, Canada the first nations people coordinate the National Couselling Service of Alberta and have taken charge of educating and assisting families experiencing domestic violence and mental trauma, and as a result have decreased family violence and have educated family members of their roles as protectors and providers. The Canadian Government confirmed that 80% of the participants in these programs did not reoffend. Justice Reinvestment works in the manner that money saved from less people in jail who have instead been helped by these programs is then reinvested in the community to provide more services, opportunities and infrastructure. In the end we must acknowledge that only self determination changes people. They have a right to protect and promote their cultural settings and hence find their esteem filled place in the world. It works. Ones cultural and historical identities should not be a liability!

These Justice Reinvestment programs bring community together and this includes the Police, Corrective Services, the criminal justice system, community organisations, the local councils, health services, and the non government organisations. This enshrines secure cultural settings and a place for all people. It breeds understanding and ensures inter and intra cross cultural awareness.

From the Australian Human Rights Commission I have learned that such programs have worked in Oregon where "there was a 72% drop in juvenile incarceration, after money was reinvested in well-resourced restorative justice and community service programs for juvenile offenders." As a result Texas reinvested $241 million in 'treatment programs and improved probation and parole services'. What is beautiful is that the 'Texan prison population stopped growing for the first time in decades.' From other sources I have identified that these community programs have been effective in Ohio's criminal justice system, in Indiana where the Governor and state leaders described a strengthening of increased public safety and lower reoffending rates as a result of reinvestment initiatives. In New Hampshire these programs have led to reduced spending on correction facilities and once again achieved increased public safety. Here in Perth, we have such a program, the HALO program, whose participants have not reoffended and are involved in worthwhile community and self-esteem building pursuits. Isn't this what we want?

Firstly, if we want to halve our prison population we must invest and reinvest in our Aboriginal brothers and sisters. Let us address Aboriginal disadvantage, which we have imposed upon them, however let us ensure that we allow for the political conviction of Aboriginal advancement by Aboriginal people. Many of us who mean well must know when to step away from working on the front-line towards Aboriginal advancement and allow them to do it for themselves, be the managers and policy makers and the agents of change. This goes for government, human rights groups and community organisations. No one wants to be made feel like that they are a 'Jacky-Jacky' (forgive me for using this term) which is a complaint put to me many times over by my many Aboriginal friends. In the pursuit of India's liberation many non-Indian folk who assisted towards this either stepped back or Gandhi asked them to step back when he needed to ensure Indian advancement by Indian people. Secondly, we need to ensure what shall remain of our prison facilities shall have a full suite of psycho-social counsellors, psychologists and mentors present and on stand-by, and that these remaining prisons are exemplified with diverse education facilities and employment generating opportunities to help people, all people, in terms of their future prospects and place within society rather than harden them up for reoffending.

Mandatory detention does not work in improving society or in rehabilitating people, it only serves to fill our jails, and has contributed to an unfortunate need for more jails. If we continue in the belief that we should have a harsh criminal justice system then we will be burdened with a new jail every year, and with an annual $200 million cost for each jail to be managed whether by the Department of Corrective Services or by a private profiteer such as G4S or Serco.

Sadly, private management companies are moving into many layers of government services (the criminal justice system, immigration, transport, health, welfare and I have it on good authority before we know it into child and family services and education). Mandatory detention and a harshly inflexible formal criminal justice system that does not recognise the need for substantive equality understandings are hardening criminality and breaking the human spirit. Substantive equality requires us to recognise disadvantage and in order to treat people equally we may need to treat many of them differently, pro-socially, and work with them and for them. By so doing we tap into the good that is in all of us. Let us move as far away as possible from the bars and barbed wire. To take the first steps towards decreasing deaths in custody, and in helping the poorest and most troubled in our prisons overcome trauma and to become employable, and to decrease our prison populations and bring on humanity in all its pride to society we must begin with a legitimately empowered Senate Inquiry into Australian Deaths in Custody, as a Joint Committee of Senators and experts. With the passing of each day people are hardened into reoffending, less than every five days someone does, and with the passing of every year another jail is built.

Gerry Georgatos
PhD (Law) researcher in Australian Deaths in Custody
Convener of The Human Rights Alliance

Gerry Georgatos
Managing Consultant - Education, Training, Advocacy
Human Rights Practice - 0430 657 309

BA (Phil), BA (Med), BA (AIS),
G/Dip (Human Rights Ed), MHumRgts, MA (Social Justice)
PhD (Law) Candidate (Australian Deaths in Custody)
Human Rights Practice
Human Rights Alliance (WA) (Australia)
Ecological, Social Justice, Aboriginal Group (WA)

'Go tell the Spartans, Passerby, That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.' Molwn labe

"A theologian said that all will be well with me and all permitted to the degree that I obey the Council, and he added, 'If the council were to declare that you have but one eye, despite the fact that you may have two, it is your duty to agree with the Council.' I replied to him: 'Even if the whole world were to affirm that, I, utilising whatever reason I may possess, could not acknowledge such a thing without a rejection of my conscience.'" (Karel Kosik, Czech philosopher and victim)

"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."- MLK


TJ Hickey Plaque Poster

By Ray Jackson, President, Indigenous Social Justice Association.

attached is a colour version of the tj hickey plaque that was donated by the uts atsi students that was to be attached to the concrete block wall below the spiked metal fence on which tj became impaled on the first anniversary of his death. that was in 2004.

now in 2011 the redfern police and the waterloo dept. of housing continue to deny the hickey family, including his father, ian west, the dignity of placing a memorial to their son to better honour his memory.

the redfern police are oppossed to the words on the plaque stating that tj died as a 'result of a police pursuit'.

they want the wording to reflect that tj died as the result of a 'tragic accident' thus cleansing their participation in the events leading to his death.

the time whereby police could just rewrite history is over. we must be allowed to honour tj. the plaque must be allowed to be fixed to the concrete wall.

we ask that you print out the poster, in colour if possible, and place it, and others, in suitable places.

we also ask that you contact superintendant luke freudenberg on and inform him of your support for the plaque to be finally placed on the concrete wall. also contact the dept. of housing on 1300 468 746 24 hours a day to request that they ignore the police direction and allow the plaque to be placed.

together we can make change.


ray jackson
indigenous social justice association.

Call to arms by Gerry Georgatos is timely

Comment written by: Ray Jackson, President, Indigenous Social Justice Association

The call to arms by gerry georgatos is indeed timely as deaths in custody continue their steady climb.

an important area that gerry has not addressed however is the death in custody of juveniles. though few in number, they matter and their deaths highlight the insanity of the juvenile justice systems in the state of nsw, at least 2, and 1 in the nt.

gerry is correct in stating that most royal commission recommendations were not implemented correctly, if at all.

the major push of the recommendations was to significantly reduce the numbers of aborigines - males, females and youth - from being incarcerated. as gaol commissioners and ministers were able to hide behind the truism that they were at the bottom of the process, they were able to argue that they had no real control over the numbers being incarcerated. whilst this point could be accepted they were charged with their duty of care to inmates and that needed to be their first priority. that they failed miserably is history. in fact, commissioner woodham has placed a media blackout relative to death in custody and other controversial gaol issues. this blackout is also endorsed by his minister. nowhere else in australia does this blackout apply and seemingly accepted by the nsw media and others.

as we are aware there are two previous steps occuring prior to being locked up in a gaol. the middle step is the court system at all levels. the federal court, the state/territory courts, the juvenile courts, the drug courts, the koori, murri, noongar, etc courts. we are weighed down with courts. the aboriginal courts, whilst still under the legal thrall of the white justice systems, appear to be working reasonably well by keeping their constituency out of gaol/jj and thus successfully lowering the recidivism rate. in this the recommendations are working, however slowly and perilously.

the mainstream courts, with perhaps some exceptions from the drug court and jj courts, present a no-nonsense view of the world, aided by the dpp and lying-on-oath coppers, to rid society's streets of criminals and their gangs. whether guilty or not. in my 20-odd years working within the system i firmly believe that i met some, not very many, but some innocent inmates. even a previous police minister, on his way to being dumped, stated that. but perhaps he was merely being mischievous.

of the previous 339 recommendations, less 1, accepted by the hawke government some 170 recommendations dealt with the australian custodial system. specific women's issues were not dealt with by the commissioners and that blot remains with them. overwhelmingly the recommendations dealt with male inmates and, perhaps as an afterthought, juvenile justice. of those 338 accepted by the hawke government, initially, 98 dealt with police issues. the states and territories then accepted most, but not all, of the recommendations over several years.

nationally the police forces were horrified at the absurd, ignorant and insulting interference from 'people' who knew nothing about policing issues. how dare they!!

when our imported police commissioner, 'thumper' ryan, was running the show the watch committee had a meeting with him to bring him up to speed with police/aboriginal issues. he had had of course dealings with the indigenes in his own country, hence the title 'thumper'. he showed little interest and handed us on to his 2ic who sternly informed us that 'the recommendations were for the politicians and were not the concern or purview of the nsw police. their job was to catch criminals'.

that belief is as set in police culture thought as it was on the day it was uttered. i firmly believe that all police forces in australis emphatically agree with that blind ignorance.

the royal commission recommendations have a natural flow to them. the proper implementation of each recommendation is absolutely necessary to the proper implementation of the previous and to the following recommendation. to break the sequence is to break the social ethos and humanity of the recommendations themselves.

yes the recommendations failed but only because of the bully-boy intransigence of the australian police forces, the weakness of state and territory governments (that had falsely accepted their responsibility for the recommendations) in enforcing their police, courts, jj and gaols to impalement them in full. a further major problem was the absolute nonchalant attitude of white society who bothered not with white deaths in custody - and still do - let alone suffer from black deaths in custody. you can count on one hand the community groups involved in death in custody issues.

not wishing to spread doom and gloom over the recommendations, there was one nsw judicial department that totally implemented their 39 recommendations and that was the nsw coroners court when state coroner dereck hand was in charge. this justice nirvana worked well for some years up to and including his retirement. the new state coroner, john abernethy eventually took the advice of the pathologists who hated us for 'looking over their shoulder' and the police. the recommendations were dropped forever more.

i am sure that gerry already realises he is attempting to open up a pandora's box of judicial and custodial crimes committed against all those - black, white or brindle - who have died at the hands of their supposed protectors. those who carry the social duty of care that is worn with the uniform. the same duty of care that is forever denied by the greater majority of those who work within the systems.

some quibbles, jerry. you say that hanging deaths are decreasing; i question that. and even if true hanging deaths should have decreased in far greater numbers than is happening. one of the eternal discussions with then-minister bob debus and then- senior acting commissioner, ron woodham related to recommendation ( 60 recommendations in total ) 165 that called for the removal of obvious hanging points. could not be done, they cried, the older gaols have heritage status and could not be changed. their newer john moroney gaol 2 at windsor was built with metal screens that, when tested, were able to support a man's weight. when this was pointed out i was moved from the premises. when the metropolitan remand and reception gaol was being built, i and several others complained of the heavy duty shower rails being used in every cell. no problem, they said. after the hanging death of the sixth inmate over as many months they tore out those rails and replaced them with a much lighter rail. the construction argument was that the light rails would be contiguously vandalised whilst the heavier rail would not. duty of care, anyone?

whilst i can accept that a person can be hung whilst sitting on the floor i believe that corrective services australia-wide still have obvious hanging points in their cells. a nation-wide study of this matter must be done as a matter of emergency. for ron and his cohorts, i volunteer.

the numbers of health related deaths in custody continue apace. the death of mark holcroft who died of a heart attack whilst being transported from bathurst gaol to mannus gaol is a classic case in point. not only was he refused his medication at bathurst gaol and told to wait until he got to mannus gaol the transport officers refused to stop when informed by other inmates of his heart attack. callously they drove past one hospital, possibly two, until they reached mannus some two hours later. mark was dead. yes, of natural causes but also of unnatural circumstances when the transport officers dropped their duty of care to mark to allegedly protect themselves from possible attack, and the escape of, the other non-dead inmates. rubbish. their own rule book states that in emergencies, especially of the medical kind, they can stop at any police station and seek assistance. they read that as emergencies, medical or otherwise, strictly for themselves. as is their understanding of their duty of care.

i believe that this is still to go to the coroner so we wait with interest the cover-up and whitewash of this case.

i argue that there are very few real natural cause deaths in police or prison cells.

i fail to see the real value of a political enquiry basically looking, inter alia, at the faults of previous governments and their departments. no justice there, jerry. i realise no one body outside of australia would be listened to and that leaves only an internal review. perhaps each state and territory could formulate their own citizens councils made up of eminent jurists, like street who looked at the mulrungi killing, unaligned pathologists and doctors, i can think of some, and our now retired aboriginal police officer from queensland and eminent aboriginal personages of whom i could name quite a few. we would need to have representatives for the non-aboriginal deaths. i admit that i am quite open to discussion on the final make-up of this body.

i could go on but enough already.

i thank jerry for his work in raising these events once more and offer him any small assistance that i can give.


ray jackson
indigenous social justice association

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