: Deaths in Custody

Deaths in Custody

Steven Castan
Western Australia

In a tragic follow up to issue 39(3) of WA DUAO, another Aboriginal death in custody in Western Australian Prisons has brought this issue to the fore. This is the second death in custody in three months and has triggered public outcry and rallies in Perth, South Hedland and Geraldton protesting what advocates say is a lack of action when it comes to protection of Aboriginal prisoners. Marc Newhouse, of the Deaths in Custody Watch Committee was quoted as saying ‘there is something terribly wrong with our system, particularly in relation to prisons, but also in police custody.’ The most recent case relates to a 31-year-old Aboriginal prisoner in custody who was found unresponsive in his cell during a routine check at Casuarina Prison. The WA Department of Corrective services have said that they regret the tragic loss and that a coronial inquest would be held to determine the circumstances and cause of death.

The rallies brought together family and supporters of Ms Dhu, who died at South Hedland lockup after complaining of pain and twice being taken to the Hedland Health Campus before being returned. On the third visit, Ms Dhu arrived unconscious and not breathing. An internal police investigation is underway and a report being prepared by the coroner but the rally called for an independent inquiry as well as development of strategies to help avoid deaths in custody. Some were calling for a royal commission into deaths in custody in Western Australia where the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody over 20 years ago have yet to be implemented — with dire results. Mr Newhouse raised an issue that needs to be addressed, where visitation rights from the family of an inmate have been shown to prevent deaths: ‘The Aboriginal visitor scheme is in complete disarray and it has been raised in parliamentary inquiries by us and others,” he said.

In other quarters, the issue of the high rate of Indigenous people in jails due to unpaid fines has also been raised.

Ms Dhu’s death has prompted calls for an urgent end to the policy of jailing people for unpaid fines in WA. Indigenous advocates say that most states in Australia largely stopped jailing fine defaulters in the late 1980s because it was seen as too dangerous and only punished the poor, underprivileged and Indigenous. Many have suffered bashings, ill-treatment or death once in jail for failing to pay outstanding fines.

But the Barnett government’s hardline stance on fine defaulters has seen the number West Australian’s jailed for not paying fines, soar upwards 10 times and the Western Australian Attorney General has flagged that he will not back down on the policy which he says is the only deterrent for non-payers of fines. This is despite calls for the harsh system to be dismantled. Says Ray Jackson from the New South Wales Indigenous Social Justice Association, ‘To have that system still operating in Australia is beyond comprehension … it doesn’t deter anyone’.

At the Perth Rally, the Premier of WA Colin Barnett expressed his condolences to Ms Dhu’s family and made promises to get to the truth of what happened. ‘The full truth will come out, I will make sure of that.’ Yet he was adamant that an independent inquiry would not be necessary. In addition to an independent inquiry into South Hedland police and Hedland Health Campus, the Dhu and Roe families are calling for an end to imprisonment for non-payment of fines; a 24-hour mandatory custody notification service; 24-hour medical coverage at all lock-ups; independent oversight of all lock-ups in the state; and justice reinvestment into communities, not prisons.

In other prison news, a recent case has come to light further highlighting the urgent need for reform in relation to overcrowding and management of Western Australian prisons. A 19-year-old first-time prisoner was raped by two inmates at Hakea maximum security prison in Perth. Corrective Services Minister Joe Francis was reported to have stated that the incident was unacceptable. The Opposition corrective services spokesman, Paul Papalia, said that he was horrified by the case and noted, ‘this is confirmation that our prisons are massively overcrowded under the Barnett Government.’ Hakea prison is currently overcrowded by at least 400 inmates, as confirmed by the Department of Corrective Services, however a spokesman claims that every prisoner had a cell and the incident was not caused by overcrowding.

STEVEN CASTAN is a WA-based barrister, and nationally accredited mediator.

(2014) 39(4) AltLJ 277
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