Advocates say the “heartbreaking” deaths of two Aboriginal people in custody within days of each other in Western Australia over Christmas should jolt state and federal governments into urgent action.
A 41-year-old First Nations woman died in a Perth hospital on Christmas Eve after suffering a “medical episode” in Wandoo rehabilitation prison 13 days earlier.
Three days later, on Tuesday, a 45-year-old First Nations man died after he collapsed playing basketball at Grenough prison near Geraldton .
The WA Department of Justice said reports would be prepared for the coroner and mandatory inquests will be held.
Maggie Munn, an Indigenous rights campaigner for Amnesty International Australia, said the deaths are a gut-wrenching loss to the community.
“It’s incredibly tragic to wake up to this news of more Aboriginal deaths in custody, again, in what should be a joyful time of year,” Munn said.
“For us, as Aboriginal people, each time one of us dies we all feel that because it’s a constant reminder to us of where we sit in this place.”
Munn said state, territory and federal governments must implement all 339 recommendations from the 1991 royal commission, as a matter of urgency.
According to the Australian Institute of Criminology, there were 516 Indigenous deaths in custody between the royal commission handing down its report in 1991 and June 2022.
“If the federal, state and territory governments are really serious about preventing black deaths in custody, then this is where they need to start,” Munn said.
“It’s really mind-blowing that something like swearing or drinking in public … can cost an Aboriginal person their life.”
Dr Hannah McGlade, a Noongar woman and associate professor at Curtin University, said little has changed when it comes to the incarceration of First Nations people in the decades since the royal commission.
“We know that key recommendations were ignored – in particular that Aboriginal people be incarcerated as a measure of last resort,” McGlade said.
While she would not comment on the deaths currently under investigation, McGlade said there are long-term problems in the system. “People are dying as a result of institutional systemic racism and discrimination that is normalised and naturalised by white society,” she said. “And governments are failing to respect and uphold their duties under human rights law.”
There were 106 deaths in custody in Australia between July 2021 and June 2022, including 16 First Nations people, according to a report by the Australian Institute of Criminology.
McGlade said while the federal Labor government is championing an Indigenous voice to parliament, it needs to urgently raise the age of criminal responsibility to 14 and act to prevent deaths in custody. The national council of attorneys general has resolved to investigate raising the age and the ACT and the Northern Territory have passed laws to do so, but other states are yet to act.
“We’ve got a new government that’s showing strong commitment and leadership on Indigenous affairs,” McGlade said.
“But the fact remains that people are dying in the meantime. There needs to be more urgency to justice reinvestment and addressing this horrific abuse of Aboriginal people through the criminal justice system.”
The minister for Indigenous Australians, Wiradjuri woman Linda Burney, said the rates of incarceration and deaths in custody for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were a “national shame”.
Burney said the Albanese government was committed to working in partnership with First Nations people to achieve better justice outcomes, in line with closing the gap targets.
“We have committed $99m towards our First Nations justice package, including $81m for justice reinvestment initiatives,” she said. “Justice reinvestment needs to be community-led and include holistic approaches to keep Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people out of the criminal justice system.”
The founder of Sisters Inside, Debbie Kilroy, has assisted many families who have been affected by deaths in custody. She said there are often similarities between cases.
“We’re not linking up the horrendous systemic failures of the carceral system, across each jurisdiction,” Kilroy said. “[If you] sit in these coronial inquests … often it’s the same story again and again.”
She warned there will be further deaths in custody if governments “keep bolstering up cops and prisons” rather than focusing funding on community-led programs.
“Money needs to go to the community to undertake work in regards to transformative justice,” she said. “We do not need more police.
“Implementing programs, services, housing and food, these are all the things that organisations like Sisters Inside does that keep girls out of the system.”
The WA justice department was contacted for comment.