Australia’s Black Lives Matter Movement has prompted the New South Wales Parliament to launch a cross-party parliamentary inquiry into the processes involved in state investigations of deaths in custody.

The motion, moved by the Greens party, acknowledged the “unacceptably high level of First Nations people in custody in New South Wales” and was amended by the Opposition and supported by the Government.

As it stands, in NSW there are six bodies that oversee and review management and behaviour in the state’s prisons. None of these six bodies have authority to send independent investigators into prisons. This inability contributes to a lack of evidence for death in custody cases.

Many families of those who have died in custody have expressed their distrust of independent investigations. With that in mind, the inquiry aims to cement a credible, independent and properly resourced authority to investigate NSW deaths in custody.

“This is an important first step in a more transparent process that builds confidence in investigating deaths in custody and ensuring reform,” said Professor Larissa Behrendt.

Professor Behrendt is a Professor of Law and the Director of Research at the Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning at the University of Technology Sydney.

“Throughout this inquiry, we will continue our advocacy for the establishment of an independent body tasked with investigating deaths in custody [that operates] with a commitment to principles of self-determination, with a central role for First Nations people in investigating the treatment of our people,” she said.

The Professor noted the power of the activism of those who have experienced the loss of a family member at the hands of the justice system.

“This is also a moment to acknowledge the consistent frontline work done by First Nations families who have had family members die in custody who have been determined that other families not go through the same thing.”

Environmental and social justice activist, spokesperson for Aboriginal Justice, and Greens MP, David Shoebridge, commented on the power of those who took to the streets recently in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and to protest Australian deaths in custody.

“Tens of thousands of people took to the streets in Sydney earlier this month to protest Aboriginal deaths in custody and this inquiry is a first step towards addressing their demands for justice,” he said.

An advocate for peaceful protest, Shoebridge was arrested at a climate change rally in December last year after allegedly disobeying police direction to move on from the Prime Minister’s Kirribilli residence.

“After a week of distraction and debates about statues, it gives me hope that Parliament was able to come together and acknowledge we need to act to address the gross overrepresentation of First Nations people in custody in NSW,” said Shoebridge.

“This is a win for those brave families and Aboriginal communities who have campaigned for decades and demanded that politicians listen to them.”

By Rachael Knowles