Archived News Item

Aboriginal deaths in custody: 16 years on

“Asking an Aboriginal what he or she regards as the important factors underlying deaths in custody often elicits as a first reply “˜racism’… it is an uncomfortable subject which tends not to be talked about very openly and the existence of which is vigorously denied by those who are its most obvious practitioners.” Hal Wootten, Royal Commissioner into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. Final Report from the Royal Commission, signed April 15, 1991.


As we approach the sixteenth anniversary of this report’s release, it is helpful to look at the situation of Aboriginal people in custody in 2007.


The death in custody in Queensland of Doomadgee Mulrunji and the announcement by the Director of Public Prosecutions that no charges would be laid against the police officer involved, followed by a finding of an independent inquiry that the matter was to be further investigated, raises questions about the effectiveness of the implementation of the recommendations from the Royal commission of 1991. On Australia Day 2007, the Queesland Government announced that Justice Street had completed his review and Sergeant Chris Hurley would face charges in relation to the death of Mulrunji Doomadgee. This is the first time ever that a police officer has faced charges for an Aboriginal death in custody.


One of the issues brought to our attention in the Deaths in Custody report was the much higher rate of detention of Aboriginals in prison compared to the rest of the community. In 1991, when the report was handed down, 14.3% of prisoners were Indigenous. In 2005 this had risen to 22%. Further statistics reported by the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Committee) show that the rate of female Indigenous incarceration has increased between 1993 to September 2005 by a staggering 420% leading to an imprisonment rate for Aboriginal women of 20.8 times that of non-Indigenous women. Indigenous juveniles are also found in detention in juvenile facilities at a much higher rate than non-Indigenous young people. The Indigenous juvenile detention rate is 312.9 per 100,000 compared to a rate of 12.2 young people per 100,000 non-Indigenous population.


Further statistics of interest can be found at the following website:


The original report into deaths in custody found that with the Indigenous people who had died, there were similarities in their life. “Almost half had been taken as children from their families by State authorities, most were unemployed, and nearly all had had repeated contact with the justice system from an early age.”


A question must be asked about any changes we can identify in our treatment of Indigenous people to redress this situation of their high representation in the prison system.


A report funded by the Attorney General’s Department on the impact of cognitive disabilities of Indigenous juveniles and the criminal justice system points to the fact that more research is needed in this area and puts forward a number of suggestions including the need for specific training for field officers and staff dealing with Indigenous young people with cognitive disabilities in the justice system. Two other suggestions were for culturally sensitive assessment tools to be developed for use with these young people and that adequate funding be provided for programs improving the social and emotional wellbeing of all Aboriginal & Torres Strait Island children. For the full report see:



§          Become familiar with the statistics related to Indigenous people and the justice system and remind others of these at every opportunity. 

§          As opportunities arise, support education and social initiatives that will improve the lot of Indigenous children. Have you ever thought of being a tutor for these children? Volunteer to support a family with social skills. Be alert for opportunities in your local area or support other people who already are involved.


Deaths in Custody in Australia

Series of reports (PDF format) published by the Australian Institute of Criminology from 1992 to 1996 with statistics and related research on Indigenous and non-Indigenous deaths in custody.


Fact Sheet 112 – Royal Commission on Aboriginal Deaths in Custody

National Archives of Australia


Royal Commission on Aboriginal Deaths in Custody

Full text 97 Volumes of Reports – national regional underlying issues and individual death reports. (Reconciliation and Social Justice Library – on AustLII)



Democrats Senator Andrew Bartlett has tabled draft legislation calling for compensation to be paid to Aboriginal people from the Stolen Generations. Senator Bartlett says he has released the bill for comment to assess the level of public support for the issue. He says it is nearly 10 years since the Stolen Generations report was handed down and it is time for action. “A key section of those recommendations went towards reparations and that’s something that’s never been acted on,” he said. “Indeed it’s been explicitly rejected by the Federal Government. “I think with the 10th anniversary of the report coming up, it’s a good time to table draft legislation to seek community comment about the nature and structure of it and see what people think.” Source:


Detailed report:



Sisters of Mercy are encouraged to “Show your support for the Indigenous Health Challenge”


The Institute has already signed onto this campaign on the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission website. Will you give your individual support?


“It is a national scandal that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people live 17 years less than other Australians and that their babies die at almost three times the rate of non-Indigenous children,” said Tom Calma, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Social Justice Commissioner.


“I am recommending that the governments of Australia commit to achieving equality of health status and life expectation between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous people within 25 years.” Tom Calma, Social Justice Commissioner, 2005


The Health Status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islaner Peoples: Health Statistics


OXFAM are also highlighting this issue via “CLOSE THE GAP” campaign.


From: Specific Issues Committee, Indigenous Concerns (Sisters Liz Rothe, Rose Glennen)

The Committee warmly invites your response to the article or the issue.



Contact: Carmel Heagerty RSM, Institute Justice Co-ordinator