This piece was first published by The Sydney Morning Herald
Dragged from her cell. Handcuffed and paralysed. Hauled, dying, into the back of a police truck. This week Australia may be confronted, yet again, with images and footage of the justice system failing Aboriginal people, with devastating results.
Ms Dhu, whose first name is not used for cultural reasons, died slowly and alone on the concrete floor of a regional police cell at South Hedland police station in August 2014. She was 22 years old, had never been in custody before and was locked up for three days because she couldn't pay her fines.
The Western Australian Coroner presiding over the inquest into Ms Dhu's death in police custody will decide whether to publicly release harrowing footage of Ms Dhu, a young Yamatji woman, dying a cruel, unnecessary death.
We've witnessed the capacity of shocking footage to propel action and accountability after Four Corners aired footage from the Don Dale youth detention centre. Sometimes we have to see in order to believe.
I sat with Ms Dhu's family when the footage of her death was played in the Coroner's Court. They held their breath, watching their beloved daughter, sister, cousin and granddaughter crying out in pain, being dismissed and ignored by those who owed her a duty of care.
Ms Dhu's family wants the world to see this footage. They have tirelessly advocated for the past two years for us to see what they can never un-see. They want us to know what now haunts them and many other Aboriginal families every day: that prejudice and intolerance live and breathe in the very bones of the criminal justice system. And that accountability for this is rare.
As a teenager, Ms Dhu should have been cautioned and diverted for her low-level offending, rather than arrested by police and fined by a magistrate. As a young adult – poor and in a domestic violence situation – she should have never been taken into police custody and locked up for being unable to pay her fines. And in custody, she should have never been treated inhumanely and with such contempt for her wellbeing. Ms Dhu should never have died in custody.
Western Australia has the highest Aboriginal imprisonment rates in Australia; and Aboriginal women are the fastest-growing prisoner demographic in the country. Mick Gooda, the former Social Justice Commissioner, has called Aboriginal peoples' over-imprisonment a human rights crisis. The United Nations repeatedly hauls Australia over the coals for this injustice.
As a society, we have known these stark facts for some time, but we tend to live in a state of collective denial when it comes to racial prejudice and the criminal justice system.
Non-Indigenous people, like me, can largely choose the privilege of turning a blind eye. It is rarely our fathers, aunties, children or siblings who are punished by a justice system septic with discrimination. Australia now locks up more people than ever before, and it is marginalised people who suffer the brunt of this hyper-imprisonment culture.
So in truth, we should not be shocked by the brutality of Ms Dhu's death when for so long we, and our elected representatives, have ignored the evidence.
Twenty-five years ago the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody provided a road map for reducing imprisonment rates. Numerous national and state and territory reports have rehashed the importance of the royal commission's recommendations. But successive governments around Australia have chosen to ignore these recommendations. One was to use cautions and diversion wherever possible. Another was to avoid locking people up for unpaid fines. Another was to properly fund and consult with Aboriginal organisations.
The Western Australian Premier, Colin Barnett, made a personal promise to Ms Dhu's family that he would take meaningful action. But Aboriginal women in Western Australia continue to be locked up at unprecedented rates because they cannot pay their fines. The Aboriginal Legal Service is still not adequately funded. And punitive, "lock-em-up" policies and practices prevail.
Victoria is perhaps the only jurisdiction to have made a genuine, long-term effort to begin to turn things around. An Aboriginal Justice Agreement; Koori Courts; justice targets; recently improved fines laws; diversionary practices; and a Charter of Human Rights are all critical steps in the right direction. While still more can be done, this progress has required commitment and ongoing consultation.
If the Western Australian Coroner releases the footage to the public this week, it is incumbent upon us all to watch, to be outraged and then to demand change. It is well and truly time for us to insist that our elected representatives – and the laws and policies they enact – value the lives and liberty of Aboriginal people.
It has now been more than two years since Ms Dhu died. Her family is still awaiting answers. They will never stop grieving. They will never again celebrate Christmas in the same way because Ms Dhu's birthday is on Boxing Day. They are forever marred by an unimaginable suffering; compounded by an Australia that implicitly but repeatedly says that Aboriginal peoples' lives matter less.
We owe it to Ms Dhu and her family to stand by their side and demand accountability and change. Equality and justice should be hallmarks of our society, rather than reserved for those of us with the privilege to pretend they already are.
Ruth Barson is director of legal advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre.