Aboriginal deaths in custody must end

Aboriginal deaths in custody must end

This article was first published in The Australian.

There is a suffocating sense of grief as we sit drinking tea in the backyard of Carol Roe, Julieka Dhu’s grandmother. Carol raised Julieka. She called the police twice to check on her granddaughter during the three days Julieka was in South Hedland police custody before she died. On both occasions she was told Julieka was fine.

There is probably no more torturous a way to die in this country: a young Aboriginal woman, alone, in pain, twice discharged from the Hedland hospital back into custody, critically ill, on the concrete floor of a police cell, crying for help from strangers in uniform.

Equally, there is probably no more devastating way to lose a young family member: at the hands of the state, with no one providing answers and no formal apology. The family has been left to mull over the endless possibilities of how this happened.

Last week, in rallies across the country, Julieka’s family and the wider community called for justice, accountability and no more Aboriginal deaths in custody.

Tragedy has thrust Julieka’s family into the spotlight of a decades-long “stop Aboriginal deaths in custody” campaign. They didn’t choose this role. Carol’s father served in the navy in World War II — he hoped his children and grandchildren would have a better life than he did.

Western Australia has the highest Aboriginal imprisonment rate in the country; Aboriginal people are about 21 times more likely to be imprisoned, with about one in 20 Aboriginal men in jail.

The rundown prisons in the Kimberley, Roebourne, Bunbury, Albany and Perth are overcrowded with Aboriginal people and the numbers are increasing. Carol asks: “Why build prisons when we can build communities?” Julieka was locked up for not paying $1000 worth of fines. It makes no sense for the state to spend money imprisoning someone because it’s owed money. More importantly, prison should be a last resort, reserve­d for the most serious offen­ders, not a 22-year-old woman who hasn’t paid her fines.

The Aboriginal Legal Service of Western Australia is representing Julieka’s family at the upcoming coronial inquest.

Its lawyers are critical to ­ensuring Aboriginal people are represented well. Despite this, they receive no funding from the state government.

The ALS was involved in the coronial inquest and prosecutions for John Pat’s death in Roebourne prison in 1983 which triggered the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. It represented the family of Mr Ward, the elder who died while being transported in the back of a police van in 2008. It is representing the family of a woman who died in Broome­ prison two years ago.

While much has changed over the ALS’s 40-year history, there is a continuous theme of bad government policies disproportionately impacting on Aboriginal people, and the ALS has become expert at ­representing Aboriginal families at coronial inquests.

The coronial inquest into the death in custody of Julieka should be listed as soon as possible. It offers­ the best chance of providing answers to her family. The evidence will determine whether the conduct of the state and its offic­ials was cruel and inhumane, negligent, a series of mistakes, or a combination of these.

The coroner can also recommend changes to ensure a tragedy like this doesn’t happen again. It’s here that the process falls down.

The state is not legally required to comply with the coroner’s recommendations so that fewer Aboriginal people are imprisoned. It’s because the state isn’t required to change that the ALS has such a busy coronial practice and Carol Roe is begging us, “no more, enough is enough”.

Last week, after yet another Aboriginal death in custody, in Perth’s Casuarina Prison, West Australian Premier Colin Barnett committed to reducing the number of Aboriginal people in custody and the number of deaths in custody. This is significant and welcome but should have been done much earlier.

Twenty years ago, the royal commission made more than 300 recommendations to stop Aboriginal deaths in custody. At their heart is a call to reduce the number of Aboriginal people in custody. These recommendations give Barnett a road map on how to make good on his commitment.

He must ensure custody is a last resort. No more families should have to go through the desperate grief Julieka Dhu’s family lives with. Carol Roe is right when she says: “It’s not OK to be treated like this. We all need equal justice and equal rights.”

Ruth Barson is a senior lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre, twitter @RuthHRLC.