• The Department of Justice has confirmed an Aboriginal man has died at a Perth prison. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
John Pat died in custody 34 years ago, one of many Aboriginal detainees who have lost their life in Australia's prisons.
Natalie Cromb

28 Sep 2017 - 12:50 PM  UPDATED 28 Sep 2017 - 1:04 PM

Warning: This article has content that some readers may find distressing and contains names of deceased people. 

Yindjibarndi man John Pat (Murruwardu) would have been 50 today, but on this day in 1983 the 16-year-old was ‘found’ dead in a police station lock-up in Roebourne. He died of head injuries sustained during a fight with off-duty police officers outside the local Victoria Hotel. According to witnesses, the teenager was struck in the face by a policeman and fell backward, hitting his head on the roadway. Another police officer then approached and kicked him in the head. He was then dragged to a waiting police van, kicked in the face and thrown in the back of the paddy wagon.

Along with three other Aboriginal people, he was driven to the Roebourne police station and observers across the street from the station recounted – at trial – how they saw the detainees systematically beaten as they were taken from the paddy wagon into the station.

The court heard that one after another, the prisoners were dragged from the van and dropped on the cement pathway. Each was picked up, punched to the ground and kicked. The observers recounted that none of the prisoners fought back or resisted. A short while late, John Pat was found dead.

Although initially charged with manslaughter – again, at trial – all officers were acquitted.

While this information is distressing, this institutionalised violence in the criminal justice system is something Indigenous people are all too well aware of. In one way or another, we are all touched by the criminal justice system and its failure to administer justice when it comes to our community.

The harsh reality is, despite the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, not much has changed.

The harsh reality is, despite the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, not much has changed. We continue to see black deaths in custody, as many as 340 individuals since the 1991 Commission, and we continue to see little to no accountability for black deaths in custody.

Without consequence – there is no incentive for perpetrators to change.

The Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) has completed studies which check the pulse of the criminal justice system and while they have found that the overall rate of deaths in state and territory prisons has remained relatively steady over the last 20 years, there has been a telling spike in the number of Indigenous deaths in custody.


The 339 recommendations from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody have largely been ignored and we face the bleak reality where only days ago there was another Indigenous death in custody in Tamworth. A 22-year-old man was ‘found’ dead, two weeks from his release, in what the community says is very suspicious circumstances, with the family seeking answers as to what exactly happened. Given the history and regularity of police brutality in Australian prisons, one can understand why his family is questioning the cause of death while in custody. 

Indigenous Australia is being failed by the criminal justice system and, more broadly, by the Australian system of governance. It is a system built on ethnocentrism and reinforced by whiteness. The continued overt system failures are tearing families apart with gut wrenching sorrow as they lose loved ones and often never knowing the critical details of what happened to their loved ones.

Indigenous Australia has far too many dates to mark with sorrow. Far too many of our people are taken through violence doled out by those in positions of power and those perpetrators of violence so often receive no consequence. How then, are Indigenous people supposed to trust the criminal justice system and by large, how on earth are Indigenous people supposed to ‘reconcile’ with non-Indigenous Australia?

Non-Indigenous Australians need to see that their system is oppressing and killing. They need to show that they neither stand for, nor condone this violence. I ask non-Indigenous Australia to call out your own. Call out your governing structures and systems of justice and demand better.

Anything less is complicity. 


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