Deaths in custody: Killed by a racist state

Aboriginal people are being locked up and killed in custody in increasing numbers, as government policies become more brutal and repressive, writes Jasmine Ali

Despite a Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody in 1991 and numerous well publicised cases since, Aboriginal people continue to die in police and prison custody in Australia at shocking rates.

Since 1991 an outrageous 400 black people have died in custody and since 2008 there have been 147 deaths. Aboriginal people have the highest incarceration rate of any group of people in the world. These statistics are driven by systemic racism, interwoven into the fabric of Australian capitalism, a system built on stolen land that continues to dehumanise and brutalise Aboriginal people.

The figures above come from a recent, in depth report by The Guardian called the “Deaths inside Database”, which examines all deaths in custody over the past ten years.

The most significant causes of death in this period were “medical issues”. Chronic racism leads to a basic disregard for the wellbeing of Aboriginal prisoners. Prison management, guards and health services have too often left Aboriginal people to die for want of basic medical care.

In 2012, NT police slammed Kwementyaye Briscoe’s head into a desk and then dragged him into a cell in the Alice Springs watch house. He was left for hours without a cell check, despite being unconscious, and suffocated in the position they left him.

In September this year, Nathan Reynolds died from an asthma attack in a minimum security prison in Western Sydney. Cell mates say they had been buzzing and screaming out for assistance, but it took 40 minutes before medical help arrived.

Negligence is particularly acute towards Aboriginal women on the inside. Of the 16 female deaths in custody since 2008, 50 per cent did not receive appropriate care, compared with 33 per cent of males.

This was the case with Ms Dhu, who died on remand after 48 hours in custody in Western Australia in 2014. She was arrested for unpaid fines. Police dismissed her as “faking it” when she complained of pain due to advanced septicaemia from a broken rib. Despite being taken to hospital three times, doctors failed to realise the seriousness of her condition, once even failing to take her temperature.

Racism and negligence from custodial authorities also leads to self-harm and suicide in the prison system, accounting for 19 of the 147 deaths in the past decade.

An Aboriginal woman (“TLI”), who died in Townsville Women’s prison in 2010 is illustrative. After complaining for weeks of severe pain from a tooth abscess and car accident, TLI was denied pain medication, and eventually died from self-harm. Treatment and communication with doctors was botched and delayed. The ongoing pain, ignored by authorities, was a contributing factor to her despair.

Public knowledge about the systemic negligence towards Aboriginal people in custody is not new. The Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody in 1991 found that the overwhelming majority of deaths resulted from a failure of custodial authorities to exercise proper duty of care.


Many deaths inside result from straight out brutality on the part of police or prison guards.

One recent high profile case is the death of David Dungay Junior at Long Bay jail in NSW. Following an altercation with staff over a packet of biscuits, David was so severely restrained by a pack of guards that he died from asphyxiation. Footage shown at the inquest showed David in his last moments calling for help, as he repeated, “I can’t breathe”.

Similarly, in 2016, Wayne Fella Morrison died while on remand in Yatala Prison in South Australia. After an altercation with police Morrison had been severely restrained and pushed down by up to 14 guards, including with “handcuffs, flexi cuffs, and a spit mask”, and put in a van. During the inquest, it was found that a delay in receiving CPR caused his death.

In 2018, Patrick Fisher fell from the thirteenth floor of a balcony at a public housing block in Waterloo, Sydney after police raided his house in relation to two outstanding warrants. Fisher’s family told SBS that he would not have attempted to flee unless he felt fear of being bashed by police.

In September this year, police in WA chased two Aboriginal youth to their deaths. The boys were so terrified of the thought of being brutalised in custody they tried to escape by jumping into the Swan River, where they drowned.

Colonisation, racism and the police

The rate of black incarceration in Australia is obscene and getting worse every year. Aboriginal men are 14.7 times more likely to be imprisoned, women 21.2 times more likely and black youth 25 times more likely to be locked up than their non-Indigenous counterparts.

These statistics have their roots in the genocidal colonisation of Australia. In a number of areas, police units were established specifically to dispossess Indigenous people. Stories of mass murder of Indigenous families by the police exist as fresh memories in communities across Australia.

Throughout the 20th century, police played a central role in enforcing the “Protection” and “Welfare” regimes that controlled every aspect of Aboriginal life and stole children in large numbers.

The hyper-surveillance and indiscriminate punishment of Aboriginal communities by police has never ended.

In NSW more than half of the youth on a secret police list, the “suspect target management plan”, are Aboriginal. This list identifies youth as potential “future offenders” who are closely monitored, stopped and searched for no reason. The NT Intervention in 2007 imposed special repressive laws targeting Aboriginal people, such as allowing police to raid houses on Aboriginal land without a warrant.

The Intervention is the most explicit example of a national policy environment where racism, punishment and control over impoverished communities intensifies, while services are cut back.

Since the Intervention began, black incarceration has more than doubled and NT prisons are 90 per cent overcapacity. Mandatory sentencing has made the situation much worse, and “paperless-arrest laws” are also filling up police cells.

The recent introduction of harsh bail laws by the NSW Liberal government in 2014 has doubled the number of unsentenced black prisoners. There is now a presumption against bail.

In Victoria, “law and order” panic has further fuelled the push for incarceration. Despite a major government inquiry decrying the large-scale incarceration of black youth, the only legal service designed specifically for Aboriginal children, Balit Ngulu, has been forced to shut down this month due to a lack of funding.

This closure will also lead to more Aboriginal children being forcibly taken from their families and put into foster care. Victoria has the highest child removal rate in the country. A recent report into young people sentenced or on remand in Victoria in 2015-2016 showed that 45 per cent had been subject to a previous child protection order. On top of this, the Victorian state government plans to build a new $288 million, high security youth detention facility at Cherry Creek.

Nationwide the majority of deaths covered by the Guardian investigation were of people who had not been sentenced for any crime—they were either on remand, in “protective custody” or killed during police operations. “Deaths Inside” records the case of Eric Whittaker, a 36-year-old man who was refused bail because he lacked a fixed home address. An “unspecific incident” in Whittaker’s isolation cell led him to be hospitalised, where gruesomely he was shackled for two days while on life support.

No justice

While even former Attorney-General George Brandis decries the rates of black incarceration as a “national tragedy”, all levels of government have systematically refused to implement the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC) released in 1991. Indeed, a number of recommendations designed to reduce incarceration have been openly flouted by recent “law and order” reforms.

The recommendations of RCIADIC emphasise the need for self-determination and justice.

Restoration of land and investment in community controlled development to lift communities out of poverty was seen as crucial—the polar opposite of the policy approach being adopted today.

Reactionary policies driving escalating black incarceration are part of a more general assault on democratic rights and social services in Australia.

The NT Intervention took place at the same time as the Howard government’s attacks on trade unions, which include special police powers to target construction unionists. Anti-terrorism laws are used to persecute Muslim communities. Refugees are dying in offshore detention centres in circumstances of inhuman medical neglect that mirror experiences of black people in custody.

And the “law and order” push across Australia has led to increases in the prison population everywhere, to warehouse both Indigenous and non-Indigenous homeless, mentally ill and unemployed people.

The fightback against deaths in custody can link up with these wider struggles and build support for demands for justice and Aboriginal self-determination. The Victorian Australian Education Union’s opposition to the Liberal Party’s proposal to embed full-time police officers in schools is a welcome stand against the “law and order” agenda.

There are many Aboriginal families fighting hard to win justice for their loved ones, protesting during coronial inquests and beyond.

No custodial officer has ever been convicted for a death in custody. In the case of Ms Dhu, two of the police officers involved with her treatment subsequently received promotion. At the inquest currently underway for Wayne Fella Morrison, the seven prison guards involved in driving the van have refused to provide statements and answer questions about what happened in the critical few minutes before Morrison’s death.

Justice will not come without a serious fight against a system built on racism, which continues to see Aboriginal life as expendable.


Solidarity meetings

Latest articles

Read more

Labor governments set to throw more Indigenous kids in prison

State governments nationwide are stepping up their war on Indigenous kids, with measures that will see more children in jail.

Charges against police possible over Jai Wright death

Criminal charges are being considered against a police officer over the death of 16-year-old Jai Wright, after the NSW Coroner suspended the inquest after two days on 30 January.

After the Voice, Albanese’s inaction on Indigenous rights is exposed

The failure of the Voice to Parliament referendum has exposed Anthony Albanese’s commitment to racist policies and severe neglect in Indigenous Affairs.