Today marks 30 years since the release of the Report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC). There have been at least 474 deaths in custody since the release of the Report in 1991, 5 of those since the beginning of March this year.
This is not a numbers game. These are people, Aboriginal people, whose lives have been snuffed out in the ongoing machinery of colonisation and the carceral State.
These people didn’t just die.
On Saturday the 9th April I, like many others, attended the national day of action to draw attention to and ultimately stop Aboriginal deaths in custody. On the same day, social media and the news was flooded with information regarding the death of Prince Philip. Where is the news coverage when our mob are dying? Where was the news coverage of the strong mothers, aunties, uncles and fathers who spoke to the crowds of protestors about the murder of their loved ones? Where is the public outrage?
And then, on Monday 12th April the State Coroner Teresa O’Sullivan released a statement on Indigenous deaths in custody. She spoke of the importance of self-determination for our communities, and shared the words from the Uluru Statement from the Heart that she draws upon when writing up coronial findings following the death of an Aboriginal person in custody. State Coroner O’Sullivan went on to state that 27 Aboriginal people died in custody in NSW between 2008 and 2018; 57% of these deaths were found to be of ‘natural’ causes. The ongoing effects and structures of colonisation that see us dying so much earlier than the rest of the population are not ‘natural’. The over-policing that saw those men and women locked up in the first place were not ‘natural’. The complete apathy of police, corrections officers, and too many healthcare professionals toward Aboriginal people is not ‘natural’. Of the 55 recommendations made following those deaths, most pertained to improving mental health training, improved medical care and additional training for those managing the healthcare of inmates. What about recommending that those involved are held accountable for these deaths?
When State Coroner O’Sullivan was appointed, there were many that thought perhaps this would signal a new era of coronership. Here was someone with years of experience with the Aboriginal Legal Service. Perhaps we might start to see a shift in the way the deaths of Aboriginal people, particularly those in custody, were narrated. But we haven’t, not really. Instead, a new protocol for managing mandatory inquests into the deaths of Aboriginal people in custody is being drafted. The key functions of the protocol will be to ‘ ‘ensure all coronial investigations and mandatory inquests into deaths in custody of First Nations People are conducted in a timely and culturally appropriate manner; and the families of First Nations People who have died in custody are provided with timely and appropriate information and material regarding the status of the investigation into the death and the coronial process’. While these are certainly important, and my own research supports these aims, this does not go far enough. Families and communities want the people responsible to be held accountable for these deaths. Otherwise what’s the point?
Until we have accountability, until Aboriginal lives matter as much as non-Aboriginal lives, until the families of those who have died can speak and actually be listened to, there can be no justice. Just us. And we will keep fighting.
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