Content warning: This article contains reference to suicide. Please refer to the services at the bottom of this article for support.
Please note: This story contains reference to people who have died.
Shadow Minister for Indigenous Affairs Linda Burney has called on the Federal Government to “take leadership” regarding Indigenous deaths in custody after four Aboriginal people died in custody in March alone.
Speaking to ABC News Radio on Wednesday, Ms Burney said it was unacceptable that the Australian public relies upon the media to learn about deaths in custody.
She noted the “buck passing” from the Federal Government in Senate Estimates last Friday and is now calling on the Government to establish an agreement with the States and Territories around deaths in custody.
“I’m calling … for the Federal Government to take some leadership, show some leadership, get an arrangement in place with the States, where the States have to advise the Federal Government … when a death in custody takes place,” she said.
Ms Burney called for deaths in custody to be disclosed within 24 hours, asking for the Government to collate “real time data”.
Speaking to NIT, Ms Burney says the current system enables “absolute neglect”.
“If it had not been for the Budget Estimates process in New South Wales we would be none the wiser about the woman that took her own life on the 5th of March at Silverwater and the man that died in Long Bay on the 2nd of March,” she told NIT.
“We should not have to rely on the media to find out about these deaths in custody. I’m calling on the Federal Government to institute an arrangement with the States, show some leadership, so the States report every death in custody to the Federal Government in real time.
“The Attorney-General would be the obvious place for that to happen.”
Ms Burney also noted the Government needs to realise the human side to deaths in custody.
“When one of your relatives goes to jail, you need to know that they’re safe but that’s not the case,” she said.
“We hear about these things and some people may just think of it as another statistic. But there is a human side to this … it is someone’s son, brother, uncle, husband, father, someone’s mother, sister, grandmother or aunty.”
“When I think about the death in custody in Victoria, Tanya Day … her daughter had to fight and fight just to get the facts about what happened to her mum. That should never be the case.”
In the past month alone, the nation has lost four Indigenous people in custody, including one from hanging points in a cell. The removal of hanging points was a recommendation of the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.
“Clearly, one of the major recommendations from the Royal Commission 30 years ago was that hanging points be removed from jail cells,” Ms Burney said.
“That recommendation is 30-years old but still we have jail cells where people can take their own lives.”
Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service CEO Nerita Waight echoed the Shadow Minister’s comments.
“The fact that there is no regularly updated, publicly available, official accounting of Aboriginal deaths in custody at a State or Federal level shows that Black lives do not matter to our governments,” she said.
“This level of apathy is profoundly painful for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.”
“Governments have also never had an accurate, transparent, and independent process for implementing all of the Royal Commission’s recommendations.”
The National Indigenous Australians Agency (NIAA) told NIT that same-day reporting of Indigenous deaths in custody to the Commonwealth would be a matter of negotiation between State and Territory Governments through the “appropriate fora”.
Responding to Ms Burney’s concerns regarding hanging points in cells, the NIAA said the Australian Government has implemented 91 per cent of the recommendations for which it “had responsibility”.
“The recommendation to eliminate and/or reduce equipment that could be used for self-harm, including the screening of hanging points in police and prison cells, was directed to the police and corrective services authorities,” a NIAA spokesperson said.
Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt told NIT that under Australia’s federal system of government, the responsibility for criminal justice systems falls to the States and Territories.
“There is no requirement for States and Territories to provide the Australian Government with information on a death in custody,” Minister Wyatt said.
He also said since 1992, the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC), which is funded by the Commonwealth Government, has coordinated the National Deaths in Custody Program (NDICP).
“This program is responsible for monitoring the extent and nature of deaths occurring in prison, police custody and youth detention in Australia since 1980,” he said.
“Data utilised for the NDICP is based on two main sources: data provided by State and Territory police services and corrections departments; and coronial records accessed through the National Coronial Information System.”
The AIC falls within the Home Affairs portfolio and is a responsibility of the Minister for Home Affairs.
NIT questioned the appropriateness of Indigenous deaths in custody being a responsibility of Home Affairs, however, did not receive a response.
If you or anyone you know is struggling with mental ill-health, call or visit the online resources below:
- Spartan First Suicide Prevention Crisis Line – 1800 370 747
- Lifeline – 13 11 14, lifeline.org.au
- Beyond Blue – 1300 224 636, beyondblue.org.au/forums
- MensLine – 1300 789 978
- Kids Helpline 1800 551 800
- Suicide Call Back Service – 1300 659 467
- Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet – healthinfonet.ecu.edu.au
By Rachael Knowles