Frontline workers and field officers say too little has changed since their work in contributing to the final report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody thirty years ago.
Sarah Collard

15 Apr 2021 - 12:27 PM  UPDATED 15 Apr 2021 - 12:39 PM

Throughout the eighties, Cathy Eatock campaigned for the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody as a member for the Committee to Defend Black Rights, working with grief-stricken families who had lost loved ones. 

The Kairi and Gubbi Gubbi woman told NITV News her work with the Committee was all-consuming. 

“Families were angry. Many of the deaths were preventable, they were the result of medical neglect, targeting of Aboriginal people, over policing and excessive force,” she says. 

“We called for a royal commission to demand justice for the families.” 

The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody: timeline of events and aftermath
Twenty-five years after the findings of the Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody were handed down, there are still calls for most of the recommendations to be implemented. Learn more about the origins and timeline of the Royal Commission here.

Ms Eatock said not enough action had been done to stop preventable deaths in custody.

“The families were angry then, as they are now. These are the same calls for justice that are occurring today.

“We can’t wait for the next 30 years for change. There hasn’t been the political will over the past thirty years,” Ms Eatock said. 

The Royal Commission made 339 recommendations aimed at reducing the numbers of First Nations people in prisons, from improved housing, economic opportunities, legal access and reconciliation. 

“Many of the recommendations haven’t been implemented and the government acknowledges that only 64 percent have been fully implemented,” she said. 

Richard Frankland was a field officer during the Royal Commission who’s harrowing work including piecing together the moments leading up to people’s deaths. 

“It was all consuming for me. The job entailed, knowing everything about them,” Mr Frankland told NITV News. 

Mr Frankland is now a filmmaker, playwright, musician and academic but said his work with families as a field officer for the inquiry left an indelible mark. 

“You live with those memories and you live with the secrets of the dead...But you never lived with as much grief and tragedy as the family members of the deceased,” said Mr Frankland. 

The Gunditjmara man said while he had hoped the inquiry would bring about lasting change there is still much more work to be done. 

“I'm going to continue on for the dead. And I'm going to continue to fight like hell for the living. I'm going to change this nation. And I ask every, every good Australian black or what to stand up." 

The final report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was handed down on April 15, 1991, with the inquiry probing the deaths of 99 Indigenous men and women who died in custody. 

Since the findings were tabled, Indigenous people detained in prisons have nearly doubled - around 14 per cent in 1991, now nearly 30 per cent. 

It's estimated at least 470 First Nations men and women have died in prisons, watch-houses and policy custody since 1991 — including five people since March. 

Aboriginal people keep dying in police custody: More than half are accused of a minor crime
Nearly a quarter of all Aboriginal people that died in police custody were suspected of committing a ‘good order offence’, such as alcohol related offences, disorderly conduct or unpaid fines.