Hear the families’ calls for justice, 30 years and 474 black deaths in custody since the Royal Commission

15 Apr 2021

If we collectively support the families’ calls and call on governments to act, we can end this injustice once and for all. We cannot, and must not, wait another generation for change.

Aunty Tanya Day’s favourite colour was pink (55 years old). Nathan Reynolds was a huge fan of the Sydney Roosters (36 years old). Wayne Fella Morrison loved fishing (29 years old). Aunty Sherry Fisher-Tilberoo was very giving, she always gave whatever she had (49 years old). Whenever Chris Drage was in the bush riding his dirt bike, he felt free (16 years old).  

Every week there is a birthday, an anniversary of their death, a coronial inquest, a legal battle, another death in custody, for the families of at least 474 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have died in custody since 1991. The ongoing violence and grief is relentless for these families. They are grieving, and yet they are constantly advocating, fighting the system, engaging in countless inquiries, trying to stop this from happening to any other family.  

“It is critical that there is urgent systemic change – there must be justice and we must keep fighting so this never happens to another person again.” – Makayla Reynolds, Nathan Reynolds’ sister.

 “If Joyce got the care she needed she would be here with us today. She left her son and family behind and we miss her.” – Aunty Anne on behalf of Joyce Clarke’s family

Today is the 30 year anniversary of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. Yet the last month has been devastating for our communities, with the horrific news that five of our people have died in custody since March. Thousands of people marched the streets this weekend in outrage and calling for change. It is heart-wrenching. These were siblings, aunties, uncles, parents, children, cousins, Elders. 

The 474 deaths include four fatal police shootings of our people in 2019, with two murder trials underway for the deaths of Kumanjayi Walker and Joyce Clarke. Over the past 30 years, these violent and mass-scale deaths have occurred under the duty of care of governments and yet there has been little government action or accountability. Not a single police, medical or prisons officer has been held criminally responsible. 

“The system killed our son… the pain never goes away, it’s still raw… These deaths won’t stop until there is an independent body to investigate police and prisons.” – Tane Chatfield’s family. 

“Accountability means justice. We will continue the fight until those involved with David’s deaths are criminally prosecuted and this corrupt system is changed.” – Paul Silva, statement on behalf of David Dungay Jnr’s family.

Yet, nation-wide, governments have had the answers and still refused to take action to prevent these senseless deaths and to stop the systemic racism in the justice system that is killing our people. Today, April 15th 2021, it is 30 years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody handed down its 339 recommendations, which was a clear roadmap for structural change. 

A deeply flawed and widely critiqued Deloitte report commissioned by Minister Scullion (which did not include any community consultation, only a desktop review and government information) states that most of the Royal Commission’s recommendations are implemented. But the uncomfortable truth of it is if Black Lives Mattered in this country, governments would have stopped this injustice long ago. Successive government leaders have deliberately chosen not to make it a priority. During this time, some families have lost multiple loved ones, like the family of Cherdeena Wynne and her father Wayne Cooper, who both died in custody 20 years apart.

If recommendations were implemented, their loved ones would still be here today. After extensive campaigning from Aunty Tanya Day’s family, when laws were introduced this year to abolish the discriminatory offence of public drunkenness in Victoria, her family said: 

“The Victorian Parliament has finally done the right thing passing these reforms, but this is also a day tinged with much heartache and sadness for our family and community… It has been a long road for us to get to this point and it is devastating to know that if these racist laws were abolished 30 years ago, our Mum and others would still be with us today.” – Statement from Aunty Tanya Day’s family

For these reasons, the systemic and direct racism, the legacy of colonisation and the foundation of police and prisons in Australia, has to be addressed and dismantled. In 2018, Christopher Drage and Trisjack Simpson were only 16 and 17 years old when they drowned in the Swan River after a police chase. 

“Most Aboriginal kids, especially teenage boys, are scared of police. I’m scared now for my 14-year-old to just walk down the street and go down the shops.” – Winnie Hayward, Christopher Drage’s mother.

Instead, over the past 30 years, government investment into the violent institutions which are causing these deaths – namely police and prisons – has skyrocketed, the Productivity Commission noting an 18% increase in the past 5 years alone. Prisons and police have proved since colonisation that they cannot be reformed, racism is built into their very foundations. We need governments to stop building or expanding prisons, to instead be actively working to close prisons and defunding police. 

“[Coronial] recommendations are largely made to change practices within the prison and strengthen the prison’s ability to accommodate more Aboriginal peoples, rather than abolish the systemic racism that supports the prison industrial complex in the first instance.” – Latoya Rule, Wayne Fella Morrison’s sibling. 

The Guardian’s Deaths Inside project documented that most Indigenous people who died in custody were on remand, that one or more police/prison procedures had not been followed, or they had not received adequate medical care. Racism in the intersections between the health and justice systems is rife and well proven.

“Police Officers at South Hedland left my granddaughter to die alone, ‘shame’ on them. The medical staff never listened to my granddaughter, she was moaning in pain and crying out for help, they never helped her, they left her to die. After 30 years plus the system is still killing our people and we need justice.” – Aunty Carol Roe, grandmother of Ms Dhu

Families whose loved ones have died in custody are taking matters into their own hands. They know firsthand the change that is needed. Aunty Tanya Day’s daughter Apryl Watson, along with four other families whose loved ones have died in custody, have founded a charity run by families, to provide strategic and culturally safe support for families, the Dhadjowa Foundation. A group of 15 families working in partnership with the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services have launched a petition calling on the Prime Minister to meet with them and set out their 10 demands. And countless more families, stemming back to John Pat’s family (who was 16 years old when he died in custody, kick-starting the Royal Commission), have continually fought for and too rarely won changes or compensation, like Ms Dhu’s family who were awarded compensation and achieved fine default reform in Western Australia, Rebecca Maher’s family achieving expansion of the Custody Notification Services to protective custody, or Lex Wotton’s successful racial discrimination case on the police response after Mulrunji Doomadgee’s death in custody on Palm Island. 

The Prime Minister needs to urgently meet with these families to hear their voices, and to involve them meaningfully in leading change to end this injustice once and for all. Latoya Rule recently asked why this has not occurred on ABC’s Q&A. Earlier this year, he met with Stolen Generations survivors, and more recently, the organisers of March4Justice. Why are these families not being given the same level of priority? This is a national concern. It is such a basic request, one that only requires the Prime Minister to see their humanity and give them that respect they deserve, having experienced such grievous breaches of human rights and loss of life.

“The system failed our dear Aunty Sherry’s basic human rights… the tyrannical nefarious systems of government in particular (QPS) can continue to dispel systemic racism & over policing as a myth, but Aunty Sherry was a victim of the very system that victimised her basic right to live.” – Troy J Brady, Nephew of Aunty Sherry Fisher-Tilberoo

“We vowed to make the Western Australian Police and all Government agencies accountable for any cruel and inhumane treatment of my 11 year-old son and nephew.” – Aunty Suzette & Aunty Rosemary Roe on behalf of GJ Roe’s family.

The courage and determination of these families is beyond words. I urge everyone to platform the families’ voices and demands today and always. Sign their petition. Donate to their fundraisers. Share articles and news videos with their stories. Read their 10 demands in full.

If we collectively support the families’ calls and call on governments to act, we can end this injustice once and for all. We cannot, and must not, wait another generation for change. 

We demand that governments:

  • Implement all recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody meaningfully, with the involvement of all the families who have lost loved ones in custody.
  • Replace the practice of solely internal police and prison inquiries by implementing an independent investigative body to inquire into police, prison officer and other employee conduct in relation to deaths in custody.
  • All levels of government to urgently prioritise the reallocation of public funding away from violent, punitive policies or on the expansion of prisons (particularly for-profit prisons), and rather focus on strengthening and improving our communities with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-led, grassroots solutions. We need more excellent schools, community healthcare and healing programs by and for our people to be funded nationally, and within states and territories.
  • Police services need to allow all of our people access to Custody Notification Services, without exception or delay. These services must be fully publicly funded and properly resourced. It must be mandatory for police to immediately notify ATSILS when an Aboriginal and/ or Torres Strait Islander person is in custody for any reason, including “protective” custody.
  •  End the physical restraint, abuse, torture (including spit hooding and solitary confinement) of all people in police and prison cells through legislative safeguards and by urgently establishing independent bodies to monitor the conditions and treatment of people detained; in accordance with our obligations under the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture (OPCAT) and the Prevention of Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (SPT) subcommittee.
  • Families deserve to know that if their loved one dies in custody they will be heard; that a timely, thorough, independent investigation will occur, and they will be told of the progress of this inquiry. They deserve to witness any public investigation of their loved one’s death. This includes being provided with the means to attend all hearings. Families also deserve to know that their deceased family member’s body is being treated in a culturally competent and respectful manner, and where possible that they have access to their loved one’s body to conduct ceremonial arrangements in a timely manner.
  • Reduce imprisonment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples by repealing punitive bail laws, mandatory sentencing laws, and decriminalising public drunkenness. Likewise, place a moratorium on building new prisons, growing bed capacity and redirect operational funding from prisons to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-led community-controlled health, housing, youth, and legal services to ensure the contingency of a self-determined and empowered future.
  •  All levels of government across Australia to commit to raising the age of criminal responsibility to at least 14 years of age, as well as implement a minimum age of detention of 16 years. Moreover, all governments must end the criminalisation of our children and young people in out-of-home “care” and child “protection” residencies, and provide a range of culturally appropriate programs and other alternatives to imprisonment.
  •  All Australian governments, in partnership with our people and our organisations, must urgently implement decarceration strategies including:
  •  Ending the imprisonment of our people, including children, who have not been sentenced for a crime.
  • Ensuring that our communities have easy access to income support- including keeping the higher rate of JobSeeker, providing appropriate healthcare, and prioritising the provision of affordable basics like medications and nutritious food in rural and remote areas.
  • Ending homelessness in Australia by increasing affordable public and community housing placements, and by upgrading and maintaining existing homes. This includes ending the policing of homeless people in spaces like parks and reserves, ending punitive dry-zone legislation and ending imprisonment for unpaid fines relating to the criminalisation of poverty.
  • Strengthening justice reinvestment programs and place-based interventions by prioritising public spending on communities and culturally safe support services that are strong in our culture and led by our Elders.
  • Increased funding and support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community-led prevention and early intervention efforts to reduce violence against our women who come into contact with the legal system.
  • Ending the removal of our kids from our communities and supporting our families to take care of their needs. There must be proper resourcing and supports directed at the kinship care system and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander carers, to keep our kids connected and end the abuse of our kids in out-of-home residencies.
  • Federal funding for policing and prisons must be repurposed to meet the needs of all communities, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Such as housing, raising Newstart to $80 a day, health and other community needs in place of western socio-legal-based programs. 

The families involved in the petition and demands include:

Family of Cherdeena Wynne and Warren John Cooper 

Family of Christopher Drage and family of Trisjack Simpson

Family of David Dungay Jnr

Family of Gareth Jackson Roe

Family of Joyce Gladis Clarke

Family of Ms Dhu

Family of Nathan Reynolds

Family of Raymond Noel Thomas

Family of Stanley Inman

Family of Tane Chatfield

Family of Aunty Tanya Day 

Family of Aunty Sherry Fisher-Tilberoo

Family of Wayne Fella Morrison

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