One thousand demonstrate in Australia about Aboriginal deaths in custody

Ms. Dhu

Across Australia around one thousand people are estimated to have taken part in rallies protesting about the death of a young Aboriginal woman in custody in Western Australia and hundreds of such Aboriginal deaths which have increased over the years. The 22-year-old Yamatji woman, referred to as Ms Dhu, died in August. She was being held at the South Hedland watch house, “paying down” about $1,000 in unpaid parking fines. Ms Dhu was taken to hospital from her cell twice after she complained of ill health, but was deemed fit to be returned to custody both times. Indigenous persons make up 26 per cent of the prisoner population but only 2.5 per cent of the Australian population. Below is a commentary by Ray Jackson, president of the Indigenous Social Justice Association. 


The national day of action for ms. dhu and other death in custody families was a spectacular success however you want to judge it. seven rallies around the country, possibly eight with news of a rally in canberra. what i have seen of the rallies were that the numbers were good, despite 2 other rallies for medicare and coal seam gas in sydney we had roughly a hundred here whilst in melbourne they had near 300 attendees. i would debate the point that across australia some thousand or more rallied to a morning or lunchtime rally to add their voices calling on the wa barnett government to stop arresting and gaoling the poor.

this dickensian and brutally uncaring process of gaoling the poor is a most ridiculously cruel one. those who cannot pay the fines placed upon them are doubly punished by being sent to gaol or a police cell to 'cut out' the fines at, reportedly, #250 a to cut out a total of $1000 in fines ms. dhu, and others, would be locked up for 4 days. to be locked up for 4 days costs money for food and drink at least. should one go to gaol the costs are higher as added to sustenance costs must be added gaol clothing, toiletries and other day to day items that are included in the needs of a day.

this is nothing but bureaucratic madness! the fine defaulter cuts out the fine whilst taxpayers are paying the inflated costs to keep them in gaol. so the fine defaulter pays nothing in real terms whilst it costs double or more to keep them in gaol or police cells. and the wa government thinks this works to their 'lock-em-up' advantage. the first thing that those who have done crimes and been sent to gaol is to call in all their fines and cut them out as they do their time. the whole fine system and its management is an exercise in custodial insanity. there are more productive methods, and less personally demeaning methods of working with fine defaulters as premier bob carr found out when in 1988 he stopped fine defaulters from being arrested and sent to gaol after young jamie partlic was sent to long bay gaol for unpaid fines in 1986 but he left long bay in a coma after being viciously attacked and possibly raped by other inmates.

none of the above detracts in any way from what happened to ms. dhu however. the police on duty over the time she was in the cell must be closely questioned and if culpability is found then they must be legally dealt with for their distinct lack of duty of care to those whom they have control over. duty of care is not just some precious words in the royal commission recommendations, they are writ large in every police commissioner's instructions that whilst considered to be the police 'bible' is ignored and flouted as often as the recommendations are. we are all too well aware of the facts of what was done to and not done for ms dhu but until the family and their legals are shown the results of the questionable police-on-police investigation they will not know how the public facts reflect the police facts. interesting times indeed!

there also are, of course, the examples of an  equally distinct lack of duty of care by the clinic staff who dealt with or rather did not deal with ms. dhu. all that is known publicly at this point in time is that twice she was presented for medical care only to be rejected twice by one or possibly two nurses. we are left to conjecture the possible reasons for these two refusals. was it a case of outright racism because ms. dhu is a yamatji women? could it have been for reasons that her state of health would have necessitated a greater effort of care? perhaps the clinic was full or they were understaffed and would not have received the required treatment? so much to know of the clinic circumstances. but both nurses, if indeed two nurses are involved and for whatever reason, have breached their duty of care. what will the police investigation find here?

will the police investigation find that the nurses are more culpable than the police officers using the tired old argument that they are not sufficiently trained in medical matters to be held responsible. twice they took ms. dhu to the clinic and they had no other option than to return her to the cell but this is very much wrong-headed thinking. on the second day of taking her to the clinic with the same result common decency would more than suggest that they, the police, should have demanded that a doctor see ms. dhu forthwith. maybe they did, maybe not. we will need to wait for a public release of the police investigation that has led to the brief of evidence that the coroner will base his case on. of course it is up to the family's legal team to pull it to pieces and arrive at the truth.

our support remains with the family for as long as they may require it.

it is strangely quixotic and definitely ironic that as hundreds were marching around this country to raise our concerns of the outrageous number of death in custody of aborigines an unnamed 31 year old aboriginal man is reported to have suicided in causerina gaol in wa. the 'official facts' have yet to be made public so we need to bide our time to be able to learn of the circumstances of his death. we will also wait for some identification to occur before isja pays their respects and condolences to his family, his friends and his community.

there is, however, a need to look at the gaol systems across australia and their criminal indifference to the removal of hanging or ligature points from all the gaol cells.royal commission recommendation 165 states, inter alia, steps should be taken to screen hanging points in police and prison cells. the removal of these points is a very contentious issue by the commissioners in charge of the gaols.

one excuse told to me is that to remove evident hanging points will not reduce the practice of suiciding in cells. now whilst this may be true in its effect it is not a reason for doing nothing. it is a fact of death that one can, if determined enough, hang from a door-knob, a chair whilst sitting on the floor or such other actions. but removal of the hanging points will save lives. another puerile excuse for doing nothing is that removal of those points from the 'colonial' gaols cannot be done as they are 'heritage buildings.' here in nsw our colonial gaols at grafton,maitland, (which is shut down) parramatta, long bay, goulburn and bathurst have prominent hanging points in their cells because apparently white history trumps black lives. and others too.

what madness we are forced to exist under!


ray jackson
indigenous social justice association

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Aboriginal man dies in Casuarina Prison as hundreds rally around WA to protest deaths in custody
By Graeme Powell
Thu 23 Oct 2014, 6:18pm

A 31-year-old Aboriginal man has died in a Perth prison, as hundreds rally around the state to protest Aboriginal deaths in custody.
It is the second death in custody in WA in three months.
Protesters rallied in Perth, South Hedland and Geraldton to demand answers over the death of a 22-year-old Aboriginal woman in police custody in August.
Ms Dhu, 22, died after being locked up in the South Hedland Police Station over unpaid fines.
She complained of pain while being held in a police lock-up and was twice taken to the Hedland Health Campus before being released and returned to custody.
In a letter obtained by the ABC, the district medical officer said on a third visit Ms Dhu arrived unconscious, without a pulse, and not breathing.
An internal police investigation is underway into Ms Dhu's death and a report is being prepared for the Coroner, but today the calls continue for an independent inquiry as well as strategies to help avoid deaths in custody.
WA Premier Colin Barnett was booed and heckled by several hundred people outside State Parliament.
Mr Barnett told the crowd he would personally take on the task of trying to reduce the number of Aboriginal people dying in custody.
Ms Dhu's mother broke down in tears as she addressed the protesters, saying she needed answers as to why her daughter died.
She said she did not understand why her daughter went to the lock up and never returned.
The Premier said a police investigation into the death would be finalised in the next few days and all details would be released to her family.
Geraldton, Port Hedland protesters call for action
Photo: Protesters in central Geraldton behind a row of crosses representing deaths in custody. (ABC News: Gian De Poloni)
More than 150 people marched in the Geraldton city centre, while more than 80 people rallied in the Pilbara town of South Hedland
Charmaine Green, who attended the rally in Geraldton, said she is calling for a royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody.
"Sadly overnight we've had another death in custody. We've had a 31-year-old man die in the Casuarina prison," Ms Green said.
"This is the second death of custody in the last three months. It's totally not acceptable."
Ms Dhu's aunty, Vanessa Brockman, says it is critical a timely coronial inquest is conducted into her niece's death.
"Everybody seems to forget that the hospital and the Department of Justice are responsible for what happened," Ms Brockman said.
"She was taken to the hospital three times, three times, and they sent her home.
"She was sent back to the lock-up and declared fit to be kept in custody.
"If she was fine she'd be standing here today.
"They breached their duty of care, they've done it now and they'll do it again."
There is something terribly wrong with our system, particularly in relation to prisons, but also in police custody.
Marc Newhouse, Deaths in Watch Committee
The Department of Corrective Services released a statement confirming the death of the man in Casuarina prison.
"It is with deep regret that I confirm the death of a 31-year-old Aboriginal prisoner in custody," Commissioner James McMahon said.
"The man was found unresponsive in his cell at Casuarina Prison during a routine check by prison officers at around 9.30pm last night.
"The prison officers immediately carried out CPR. Ambulance officers called to the prison were also unable to revive him.
"The Department has a duty of care to protect prisoners and offenders from harm or injury.
"The loss of a life in custody or in the community is tragic. I offer my sincere condolences to the man's family and friends in their grief."
Mr McMahon said a coronial inquest would be held to determine the circumstances and cause of death.
Deaths in Watch Committee wants answers
Head of the Deaths in Watch Committee Marc Newhouse said people want answers.
"It's devastating and this tells us and the Government knows this — that there is something terribly wrong with our system, particularly in relation to prisons, but also in police custody," Mr Newhouse said.
"Our condolences go out to the family of the person who is deceased."
Mr Newhouse said he was told the prisoner had taken his own life.
"The Royal Commission [into deaths in custody two decades ago] made recommendations around removal of all ligature points in prisons and police lock ups. Clearly that has not occurred in this case," he said.
"This is appalling and needs to be addressed immediately.
"We don't have any detail, but we are very, very concerned and we are going to get to the bottom of this. The Government needs to act.
"Today at Parliament we'll be presenting immediate demands about what needs to change so that these sorts of deaths in custody end."
Mr Newhouse said one of the main problems with Aboriginal deaths in custody related to visitation rights from family of the inmate.
"The Aboriginal visitor scheme is in complete disarray and it has been raised in parliamentary inquiries by us and others," he said.
"The Aboriginal visitors scheme has the potential to prevent these sorts of deaths and that is the very reason it was set up, but it's in complete disarray.
"I think the problem is that is comes under the Department of Corrective Services and that needs to change. It needs to be under an independent body."


Two more reports about the rally are at




For more background also visit and



Marianne McKay speaks out on Deaths in Custody!

Hear her at



Take an Aboriginal passport to show respect on your travels

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the first is the international report from teleSUR english.


“No room for racism.” Protesters in Sydney demanded action on Indigenous deaths in custody on October 23. (Photo: Peter Boyle/ Green Left Weekly)
Published 26 October 2014
The suicide of an Aboriginal man in a Western Australian prison has sparked renewed controversy over the decades old issue of Indigenous deaths in custody. To find out more, teleSUR English spoke to the head of the Indigenous Social Justice Association, Ray Jackson.


Indigenous leaders in Australia have warned that the levels of Indigenous deaths in custody remain at “outrageous” levels, more than 20 years after a royal commission sought to end the tragedies.


“There is, however, a need to look at the jail systems across Australia and their indifference to the removal of hanging points from all the jail cells,” Ray Jackson, of the Indigenous Social Justice Association told teleSUR English in an exclusive interview on Saturday.


In 1991 a royal commission into spiraling rates of Indigenous deaths in custody demanded prisons across the country examine cells for points where prisoners could hang themselves, and remove them.


The royal commission was established in 1987 in response to an outcry from the public over allegations Indigenous Australians were dying in prisons at a vastly higher rate than non-Indigenous prisoners.


Although the commission found no evidence Indigenous prisoners died at a higher rate than the wider prisoner population, it did conclude Indigenous Australians are imprisoned at a far higher rate than the general population.


Many Indigenous deaths were attributed to self-harm and suicide. The commission issued over 300 recommendations to prison authorities to reduce deaths, but still today Indigenous rights advocates say many recommendations have gone unheeded, and Indigenous deaths in custody have only increased since the commission.


In 2013, the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) found Indigenous deaths in prisons had spiked over the five preceding years, despite deaths in custody for non-Indigenous prisoners remaining stable.


The AIC found most deaths were caused by heart conditions and other medical problems, though self-harm remained high.


The latest death occurred on October 22, when an Indigenous man referred to only as Mr Wallam hung himself in Perth's Casuarina Prison.


Mr Wallam cannot be further identified for cultural reasons. According to a report by The Australian on Sunday, Mr Wallam was just three months away from being released.


News of the man's death hit local media as thousands of Australians were taking part in marches to protest Indigenous deaths in custody on October 23.


“It is ironic that as hundreds were marching around this country to raise our concerns of the outrageous number of death in custody of Aborigines an unnamed 31 year old Aboriginal man is reported to have suicided in Casuarina Jail,” Jackson said.


Jackson argued prison authorities urgently need to take action to curb Indigenous deaths, and he isn't alone. Peter Boyle from Australia's Green Left Weekly newspaper told teleSUR, “There have been 340 Aboriginal deaths in custody since the end of the royal commission.”


“Most could have been prevented if the (commission's) recommendations were all implemented,” he said.


Head of the Deaths in Custody Watch Committee Marc Newhouse told The Australian newspaper there were allegations prisoners at Casuarina were mistreated, and that the prison was overcrowded.


“Two decades after the royal commissions, why are there still hanging points in jails?” Newhouse asked. During the protests the day after Mr Wallam's death, Western Australian premier Colin Barnett told crowds in Perth he would make a “personal commitment” to reduce Indigenous prisoner deaths.


“I will do that, you then judge me on whether I succeed or not, but I give you that commitment today,” Barnett stated, according to the UK's Guardian newspaper.


However, Barnett's comments weren't in response to Mr Wallam's death, but yet another Indigenous prisoner in the state.


Julieka Dhu died on August 4 while being held in custody at the South Hedland Police Station in Western Australia.


Dhu was being held in a process referred to as “paying down” fines. She reportedly carried around AU$1000 (US$880) in unpaid parking fines, which she was paying off by serving time in prison.


While other states such as New South Wales have long abandoned forcing people to pay off fines they can't afford with prison time, as Jackson put it, in Western Australia “the old law still stands.”


One in seven prisoners in Western Australia between 2008 and 2013 were incarcerated purely to pay off fines, according to a report by The West Australian newspaper.


“It's doubly wrong because the state and the taxpayer are losing the revenue from the fines and the individuals who are making no contribution are actually costing us. It costs to put people in prison,” the state's shadow corrective services minister Paul Papalia said, according to the newspaper.


However, Jackson argued the measure amounts to a “Dickensian and brutally uncaring process of jailing the poor.”


“Those who cannot pay the fines placed upon them are doubly punished,” he stated.