• People gathered in the heavy rains in Sydney to protest Indigenous deaths in custody. (Sarah Collard)Source: Sarah Collard
A parliamentary inquiry hears that Black deaths in custody should be independently reviewed by First Nations investigators.
Sarah Collard

26 Oct 2020 - 6:32 PM  UPDATED 26 Oct 2020 - 6:34 PM

A parliamentary inquiry has heard that Black deaths in custody should be independently reviewed by First Nations investigators with levels of Indigenous people behind bars at ‘inhumane’ levels. 

The inquiry is in its first day of examining the high rates of overrepresentation of Indigenous peoples in jails across the state.

Tony McAvoy, with NSW’s Bar Association and Australia’s first Indigenous silk, told the parliamentary inquiry that independent oversight is needed to improve accountability on Indigenous deaths in custody.

Mr McAvoy said an independent Indigenous commissioner could work alongside coroners investigating deaths in custody. 

“If there is an independent investigation body established elsewhere that is a vast improvement on the current system," said Mr McAvoy.

“(Our) preference is that the coroner be resourced to do its job - that would mean resourcing the coroner's court with the investigative powers to do the investigation independently."

The inquiry heard there have been 50 separate reports on Indigenous deaths in custody, and Mr McAvoy said previous recommendations from dozens of reports and recommendations could hold the key for change. 

“There are a number of things that might be done. Including Amendment of the bail laws, investment of community based diversionary and prevention programs, Indigenous specialist courts."

Families of those who have lost loved ones in custody hope that this inquiry will bring about systemic change – with more than 120 submissions from families, advocates and legal experts.


At a rally in Sydney, families, justice advocates and supporters gathered to protest Indigenous deaths in custody - pleading for an end to preventable deaths in custody.

David Dungay Jr died in Long Bay prison hospital in 2015 after he was forcibly moved to an observation cell, restrained and sedated.

On Monday his mother, Leetona Dungay, renewed her calls for greater accountability for Indigenous deaths in custody.

“Over the last 30 years there have been over 440  Indigenous men and women die in police custody or in prison. Over 440  people die and no one has ever been held accountable," she said.

Nioka and Collin Chatfield told NITV News they support Indigenous investigators assisting coroners.

Their son Tane Chatfield died in custody in Tamworth in 2017 and the family’s grief is still raw.

“We are still going through a lot of trauma, experiencing nightmares, it has taken its toll on everyone in my family.” 

Mr Chatfield said he hoped there would be more investment to divert young people at risk away from the criminal justice system.

“We would like to see more communities and programs built, rather than prisons. We need healing if we as a country are ever going to stop Black deaths in custody,” said Mr Chatfield. 

Ms Chatfield said greater numbers of Indigenous people needed to be working in prisons and courts.

“There needs to be workers who look over these cases and know Aboriginal people on the inside in the system…They need to start working with the families and building up relationships with people.”

The inquiry is expected to hand down its findings by March 2021.

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