Emma Garlett: Thirty-three years on, Aboriginal people are still dying in custody

Headshot of Emma Garlett
Emma GarlettThe West Australian
Nadene Dodd
Camera IconNadene Dodd Credit: Don Lindsay/The West Australian

This week marks the 33rd anniversary of the final report into the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

The final report was handed down in 1991 and outlined the fundamental changes needed to address and prevent Aboriginal people dying in jails, police watch houses and the backs of roasting prison vans. Many of the recommendations centred on policing as well as reducing the over-representation of Aboriginal people in incarceration in the first place.

That royal commission examined the deaths of 99 people in custody between January 1, 1980, and May 31, 1989. That these deaths were the result not of police violence, but from suicide, physical trauma and disease “in no way diminishes the seriousness of the problem of Aboriginal deaths in custody”, the report found.

It made 339 recommendations.

Get in front of tomorrow's news for FREE

Journalism for the curious Australian across politics, business, culture and opinion.


Since the royal commission, there have been 562 Indigenous deaths in custody. And since January 1 this year, there have been 19 deaths in custody. Four of those who have died this year were First Nations people.

Indigenous people make up 30 per cent of Australia’s prison population, despite being only 3 per cent of the national population. Far from falling since the royal commission, Indigenous people as a proportion of the prison population has doubled.

What has gone wrong?

Why, after 33 years of policies and practice, are we still going backwards?

The fact is that very few of the royal commission’s recommendations have been implemented.

Some policy positions directly contravene the recommendations and as a result, outcomes have worsened. In 2018 Deloitte Access Economics undertook a government-ordered review of progress made on the royal commission’s aims.

It found that 64 per cent of recommendations had been full implemented, 14 per cent mostly implemented, 16 per cent partly implemented and 6 per cent not at all.

Sixty-four per cent. That’s a (low) pass mark.

Except many in the Indigenous sphere — leaders and academics — said that the “misleadingly positive” review was “largely worthless”. An open letter, published by the Australian National University’s Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, said that the review was a smokescreen for a lack of progress.

No wonder we still have alarming numbers of deaths in custody.

WA recently recorded a grim milestone.

Sixteen-year-old Cleveland Dodd became the first child to die in WA youth detention when he took his own life in Casuarina Prison’s Unit 18 in October.

Cleveland had made eight threats to self-harm in the hours before he was found unconscious by a youth custodial officer.

He later died in hospital.

The subsequent inquest just last week was told Unit 18 was “inhumane” and like a “war zone”.

In a statement read by her solicitor, Cleveland’s mother Nadene spoke of her desire for justice.

“The system, like my heart, is broken,” she said.

“Children do not belong in adult prisons. I am hopeful that Cleveland’s death is the catalyst for an overhaul of youth justice in WA.”

Three decades have passed.

How much longer do we have to wait?

Get the latest news from thewest.com.au in your inbox.

Sign up for our emails