A statement released on Thursday by Minister Scullion claiming that many of the royal commission’s 339 recommendations have been implemented by state and territory governments, and acknowledging the ‘success in bringing down the rate of deaths in custody for First Australians’, has been slammed as inappropriate and false by advocacy groups.
“I don’t think that response reflects the seriousness of the matter,” says Noongar lawyer and deputy chair of the Deaths in Custody Watch Committee of WA (DICWCWA) Hannah McGlade.
“We have an epidemic of Aboriginal incarceration and Aboriginal people dying in custody in a manner that is completely unacceptable, men women and children being incarcerated to the extent that it’s become an international shame.”
The royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody released a report in 1991 with 339 recommendations to reduce Indigenous deaths in custody, after analysing the circumstances of 99 Indigenous deaths in custody between 1980-89.
Amnesty International says that the Minister's claims of 'progress' in rates of Aboriginal deaths in custody since the report are 'misleading' and 'glossing over failures'. The rights groups also say that there has been no overall drop in the reported numbers of Indigenous deaths in custody since the release of that report.
Statistics from the Australian Institute of Criminology show that in the 2012-13, 13 Indigenous people died in prison and police custody - an increase from eight deaths in 1990-91.
A spokesperson for Minister Scullion told NITV that “notwithstanding the high incarceration rates, there has been progress over the past 25 years – and that is the point the Minister is making."
Both Amnesty International and DICWCWA also refute the Minister's claim that ‘many of the Commission’s recommendations have been implemented’.
“We know that key recommendation have not been implemented- the recommendation of incarceration as a measure of last resort is being undermined by mandatory dentition laws, there are Aboriginal youth dying in cells that have hanging points and young Aboriginal women dying for unpaid fines,” says Dr McGlade.
Amnesty International point to a 2015 report by law firm Clayton Utz that found the Federal State governments have failed to implement key recommendations. The say the very first recommendation, requiring federal and state government to report annually on their progress, has not been followed through.
“The inaccuracies in the minister’s statement continue the dodging of responsibility we have seen for 25 long years since the Royal Commission,” says Julian Cleary, Indigenous People’s Rights campaigner at Amnesty International.
Dr McGlade also questioned why the minister did not mention the drastically increasing rates of Indigenous incarceration - which have doubled since the time of the report.
“How can we talk about deaths in custody and not acknowledge that we have a national crisis on our hands?” she says.
“In WA we are leading the way national and internationally in regards to the incarceration of indigenous people- the Chief Justice of Western Australia describes Aboriginal women in western Australia as one of the most incarcerated people in the world.
“The increasing rates of incarceration needs national attention and it is not a particularly inspiring statement to hear from the minster who has an incumbent duty to show vision and leadership for Aboriginal people.”
A spokesperson for Minister Scullion told NITV that, "the minister has long recognised Indigenous incarceration rates are far too high and this is reflected in his statement.”
"Any death in custody – whether it be a First Australian or non-Indigenous Australian – is tragic and one too many."