Act on Indigenous Deaths in Custody: Australia

Human Rights Watch

The Australian government’s continued failure to address Indigenous deaths in custody tarnishes the country’s rights record and global standing, Human Rights Watch said today. April 15, 2021, is the 30th anniversary of the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, which contained numerous recommendations for reform.

An Indigenous man held in Casuarina Prison in Perth died on April 3 after being transferred to the hospital, the fifth Indigenous death in custody in just over a month. The Guardian’s Deaths in Custody tracking project reported that since the 1991 Royal Commission, more than 470 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have died in custody in Australia. Some of these deaths were clearly preventable, from suicide, violence, or a lack of prison support.

“Three decades since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, First Nations people in Australia are still unacceptably being incarcerated and dying in prison,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch. “Given the recent spate of Indigenous deaths in custody, it’s clear that this is a national crisis.”

The 1991 Royal Commission noted that more Aboriginal people were likely to die in custody partly because they were incarcerated at disproportionate rates. At the time, Aboriginal people made up about 14 percent of Australia’s prison population. Thirty years on, the rate of Indigenous incarceration has doubled, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people comprising 29 percent of the adult prison population but just 3 percent of the national population.

In a 2020 report, Human Rights Watch documented the serious risk of self-harm and death for prisoners with mental health conditions, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners, in Western Australia. Between 2010 and 2020, about 60 percent of adults who died in prisons in Western Australia had a disability.

The 1991 Royal Commission made 339 recommendations in its final report. Among the commission’s findings were serious concerns regarding the “extreme anxiety” caused by solitary confinement, which was noted to have a particularly detrimental impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners.

The Australian government should make a commitment to fully implement the Royal Commission recommendations. Aboriginal people should be imprisoned only as a last resort, and general and mental health services in prisons should be culturally appropriate. The government should make it a priority to end solitary confinement for people with disabilities and raise the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to at least 14, Human Rights Watch said.

“Thirty years since the Royal Commission, there is still a pressing need for adequate and culturally appropriate mental health support for prisoners,” Pearson said. “Instead of focusing on changing the physical infrastructure of prisons to make it harder for people to harm themselves, the Australian government should act to end preventable prison deaths by improving services and support.”

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