Content Warning: This article contains subject matter that some readers may find distressing.
The deaths of Black citizens at the hands of police gained worldwide notoriety last year, but Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been fighting for recognition around the issue for decades.
A bittersweet milestone was marked this year: 30 years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody handed down its final report. Dubbed "the most comprehensive investigation ever undertaken into the deep disadvantage experienced by Indigenous people as a result of colonisation," this report was a landmark event for Australia.
Young John Pat
In September 1983, four drunk police officers in Western Australia's Roebourne caused a disturbance after racially abusing Aboriginal customers of the Victoria Hotel.
After the police officers became violent, a fight broke out in the street between them and locals.
One of those locals was John Pat, a 16-year-old Jinjibandji boy, who was arrested during the fray and locked in a juvenile police cell.
By the next morning, he would be dead.
An autopsy revealed extensive and brutal injuries, including a fractured skull, haemorrhage and swelling.
All of the officers involved were acquitted in court of any charges related to the young man's death.
Pat's family and Indigenous activists began a fight for justice, attempting to bring more attention to the issue of Blak deaths in custody.
Establishing the commission
John Pat was one of 99 First Nations people who died while in police custody, or in the process of a pursuit, between 1980 and 1989.
Community outrage grew ever more prominent, even making it to the international stage in 1986. Yinggarda and Bibbulman woman Helen Corbett, co-founder and chairperson of the Committee to Defend Black Rights, took the case of Indigenous deaths in custody to the halls of the United Nations in Geneva.
It was shortly after this that the then federal Labor government under Bob Hawke could no longer avoid the calls for an investigation into the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men dying in police custody.
The commission was established in October 1987.
Terms of Reference
Federal judge James Muirhead, QC was appointed Chair of the Commission.
Initially, Muirhead was the only commissioner (which is why it is sometimes referred to as the Muirhead Commission), and the brief was to investigate the circumstances surrounding Blak deaths in custody during the 1980s.
However, that changed dramatically as the number of deaths under investigation exploded from the initial figure of 44 (eventually reaching 99).
This lead to the appointment of five extra commissioners, including Yawuru Elder Pat Dodson, the only Indigenous commissioner.
Perhaps most significant was the expansion of the terms of reference: the commission was not only to look at the circumstances of individual deaths, but the broader social conditions that contributed to the issue at large.
The Damning Truth
The commission ran for four years, and in April 1991 delivered its final report. The findings of the commission were broad, and damning.
While they found that the 99 deaths were not the result of "unlawful, deliberate killing of Aboriginal prisoners by police and prison officers," they nonetheless concluded that "there appeared to be little appreciation of and less dedication to the duty of care owed by custodial authorities and their officers to persons in custody."
The commission found that the Aboriginal people were equally likely as their non-Indigenous counterparts to die while in custody; but the damning truth was that Aboriginal people were far more likely to end up in police custody in the first place.
Those higher levels of imprisonment were found to have a direct correlation with being removed from the family home as a child, what later came to be termed the Stolen Generations.
In total, the commission made 339 recommendations. The central thrust of the changes proposed was to avoid incarceration altogether, thereby lessening the risk of death in custody.
Though the RCIADIC has been dubbed "the most comprehensive investigation ever undertaken into the deep disadvantage experienced by Indigenous people as a result of colonisation", key recommendations remain unimplemented across Australia's nine state and territory jurisdictions.
The result has been fatal for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. A running total kept by news outlet Guardian Australia estimates there have been 474 Indigenous deaths in custody since the commission handed down its report in 1991.
There have been incremental and patchwork efforts around the country at the implementation, but some low-hanging fruit remains frustratingly untouched.
The crime of 'public drunkenness' was found to disproportionately affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to a severe degree, and the commission recommended scrapping the law altogether.
This was only fulfilled by the Victorian parliament in February this year, in a win for the family of Tanya Day.
Into the future
After the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in May last year, protests spread around the world, including here in Australia.
Though some families of those who had died in police custody were frustrated that it had taken a death overseas to raise awareness at home, the momentum behind calls for action was welcome.
2021 has seen an unwelcome continuation of Blak deaths in custody: between March and July, 10 First Nations people died in police custody.
Pat Dodson has said he senses the same storm brewing that he felt more than 30 years ago, before the Royal Commission was established.
He said it was successive governments' shame that the problem continues unabated today.
"All governments have failed to address the commission’s fundamental conclusion that so many Aboriginal people were dying in police and prison custody because too many were being locked up in the first place. The situation is even much worse today."
Groundbreaking documentary, Incarceration Nation premieres Sunday 29 August at 8.30pm
Those feeling affected by this content are encouraged contact the following services for assistance:
Lifeline (24/7) — Call 13 11 14 or chat online
NACCHO community health service