• Labor Senator Patrick Dodson an called for national action to prevent Indigenous people dying in custody. (Sarah Collard: NITV News)Source: Sarah Collard: NITV News
Former commissioner for the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and current Labor Senator Patrick Dodson says continuing deaths in Australian prison cells are a national shame.
Sarah Collard

The Point
12 Apr 2021 - 4:05 PM  UPDATED 13 Apr 2021 - 2:25 PM

On April 15, 1991 the final report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was handed down; the commission had probed the deaths of 99 Indigenous men and women who died in police custody. 

The report’s tabling was a flashpoint for the nation - but First Nations people continue to be one of the most incarcerated peoples on earth, with numbers nearly doubling since the Royal Commission’s findings were tabled in Parliament three decades ago. 

The federal government, together with states and territories, has committed to reducing the rate of incarcerated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults by 15 percent in the next ten years.

470 deaths in custody since RCIADIC

Since the 1991 report, it’s estimated 470 Indigenous people have died in custody. Senator Patrick Dodson says it’s a blight on the country. 

‘I'm terribly saddened for the families that have lost their loved ones since the Royal Commission recommendations came down,” the Yawuru man told the Point.

"It’s galling and frustrating.” 

Senator Dodson says there has been a lack of leadership at both commonwealth and state jurisdictions to prevent Indigenous people dying custody.

“I am appalled at the lack of federal leadership,” Mr Dodson said. 

 “Not only from the Prime Minister, but his minister for police and his minister for First Nations affairs — they should be leading this charge,” Senator Dodson said. 

In just the past six weeks the toll rose sharply, with five more Indigenous people dying in custody, provoking an outpouring of anger and grief which culminated in nationwide protests over the weekend. 

Black Lives Matter movement 'result of frustration, desperation' 

Senator Dodson said the Black Lives Matter protests which reverberated around the world last year were a cry of anger, and represented a call for reforms. 

“It's really the end result of desperation and frustration with a policing system,with a state system that is non-responsive — that thinks that these lives just don't count.” Senator Patrick Dodson told the Point 

He said there is reason for hope and change but echoed calls for a full implementation of the Royal Commission’s 339 recommendations. 

“We can do better…I'm frustrated because these things are well known, well-expressed and in many occasions [are] in the public space and in the reports.”

Senator Dodson said the high rates of incarceration, child removal rates, family violence and suicide all too commonly experienced in Indigenous families are an indictment on Australia.

“Something isn't working in this society for First Nations people,” Mr Dodson said. 

He said an enshrined advisory body in the Australian constitution, as outlined in the landmark 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart, could provide a blueprint for the country's reconciliation process. 

“A voice to the Parliament to say ‘listen, you've got to do better here and this is how we think you can do better.’"

Senator Dodson said an enshrined voice was the only way forward - rather than what the Morrison government has committed to, a legislative voice in the current parliamentary term. 

“So we can't just be treated like rag dolls and flung away and picked up when it's convenient,” the West Australian senator said. 

He renewed calls for a truth telling commission as a way forward and to bring about lasting change. 

“We’ve got to solve these problems  — we just can't let them continue dripping on."

Senator Dodson said after more than a generation of inquiries, royal commissions, high court judgements and reports into land rights, deaths in custody, child removals and stolen generations, there needs to be tangible action. 

“There’s enough evidence, there’s enough knowledge about how the nation has behaved towards First Nations peoples —it's time for us to to take those lessons and make the reforms necessary”

'Nothing has changed': Calls for urgent reform following spate of deaths in custody
The peak Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander legal body is calling for urgent action following a fifth death in custody in just over a month.