Australia’s shocking treatment of Indigenous people has been laid bare with the publication of new figures by the Guardian showing 147 Indigenous people – some of them children – have died in custody in the past 10 years.
Opposition parties have declared it a “national shame” and Aboriginal groups have demanded the government immediately allow independent monitoring of all detention centres, with Indigenous prisoners as the priority.
Just 2.8% of the Australian population identifies as Indigenous. Yet Indigenous people make up 27% of the prison population, 22% of deaths in prison custody and 19% of deaths in police custody.
Guardian Australia’s investigation into 10 years of deaths in custody cases found serious systemic failings:
- 407 Indigenous people have died since the end of a royal commission that outlined ways to prevent Indigenous deaths in custody almost 30 years ago.
- Indigenous people are dying in custody from treatable medical conditions and are much less likely than non-Indigenous people to receive the care they need.
- Agencies such as police watch-houses, prisons and hospitals failed to follow all of their own procedures in 34% of cases where Indigenous people died, compared with 21% of cases for non-Indigenous people.
- Mental health or cognitive impairment was a factor in 41% of all deaths in custody. But Indigenous people with a diagnosed mental health condition or cognitive impairment, such as a brain injury or foetal alcohol syndrome disorder, received the care they needed in just 53% of cases.
- Families waited up to three years for inquest findings in some states.
An Aboriginal woman with a chronic injury and a tooth abscess was denied pain medication for six weeks after being transferred to Townsville women’s prison in 2010. Her medical records had not arrived with her and, apart from issuing Panadol, authorities did not believe she was in need of pain relief. Six weeks after transfer, she took her own life. The coroner said the pain was “a contributing factor in her despair” during her final weeks.
An Aboriginal man suffering a cardiac arrest was made to walk to a guard station to use a portable oxygen unit before an ambulance was called.
Another Aboriginal man died of heart disease lying on a concrete bench in a Darwin police watch-house cell. The coroner said “a sick middle-aged Aboriginal man was treated like a criminal and incarcerated like a criminal; he died in a police cell which was built to house criminals … In my view, he was entitled to die as a free man.”
An inquest is under way in South Australia into the death of Wayne Morrison, who died in hospital three days after an altercation with corrections staff at an Adelaide prison left him braindead. “Precisely what occurred in the van is unknown as seven of the eight prison staff who accompanied Mr Morrison on the journey have declined to provide police with statements,” counsel assisting the coroner, Anthony Crocker said.
His family told Guardian Australia they did not receive a formal notification that he had been injured and were denied entry to the hospital for more than 10 hours.