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Four Aboriginal deaths in custody this March



Four Aboriginal people died in custody in Australia this month, March 2021. Those first three First Nations prisoners died in a six day period.

Protesters show their support during the Black Lives Matter Rally at Langley Park on June 13, 2020 in Perth (Paul Kane/Getty Images)

On 2 March, a man in his 50s died in Long Bay Prison Hospital, NSW. On 5 March, a 44-year-old woman died in Silverwater Women’s Correctional Centre, NSW. On 7 March, a man died in the Ravenhall Corrections Centre in Victoria. And on 18 March, 37-year-old Barkindji man Anzac Sullivan died during a police pursuit in Broken Hill.

So why are we not horrified? Recent SBS coverage showed justice campaigners rightly asking the question, ‘where is the outrage?’

At the same time as these multiple deaths in NSW and Victoria, a coronial inquest’s findings were released into the 2018 death of Nathan Reynolds who died in a Sydney jail. The Aboriginal man had a long history of asthma and died gasping for air on the prison floor with urgent medical assistance taking ‘an unreasonably long time’ to reach him. The nurse on duty in the facility took 22 minutes to deliver aid.

Deputy state coroner Elizabeth Ryan concluded: ‘Nathan’s medical crisis on the night of 31 August [2018] required an emergency response. But the response he received fell well short of this. It was confused, uncoordinated and unreasonably delayed.’

As his sister Taleah Reynolds summarised: ‘It’s just no care. No duty of care.’


'No wonder individual countries, the UN and Amnesty International are shocked that here in Australia including in my own state of South Australia we continue to imprison children, largely Aboriginal children, as young as ten years old.'


There are a number of current issues within our present Australian political system, issues we need to remedy brought to light with strong media attention.  

But in contrast, how much media attention is being paid to this ongoing scandal of First Nations peoples who, while representing just 3.3 per cent of the population, now represent an extraordinary 30 per cent of the nation’s prison population? 

In rallies held across the world last year after the death of George Floyd in the United States, Australians were reminded that since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody released their 339 recommendations in 1991, a frightening number of First Nations deaths had occurred in Australia.

Since 1991, the number of Aboriginal deaths in custody has risen to 455. Obviously nobody knows the number of such custodial deaths since colonisation.

In a previous article in Eureka Street, I described the shattering reading at the Sydney Town Hall of the 99 First Nations custody deaths from January 1980 to May 1989. These were the deaths ultimately investigated by the Royal Commission, announced by Prime Minister Bob Hawke on 10 August 1987, after pressure from many quarters, including a national tour of relatives and other rallies across the nation.

In the 1980s, three Aboriginal deaths in custody occurred in one state, WA, in just over a year: John Pat in police custody, Roeburne (28 September 1983); Robert Walker in Freemantle jail (28 August 1984); Charles Michael in Bartlett Mill prison (9 Oct 1984).

The most well known of these nationally was that of John Pat. Aged 16, Pat was found dead in the station lockup an hour after his arrival. Five (allegedly drunken off duty) police, in sight of 57 witnesses in his local town, had subjected John Pat to severe beatings both before he was thrown into the police van and again after he was taken out of the van. All five officers were deemed not guilty and reinstated.  

The death of South Australian man Robert Walker was also caused by severe beatings and was also witnessed by as many as 30 people: Freemantle prisoners. At the time it seemed extraordinary to lay people like his family and people like myself that the prison officers could refuse to give evidence on the grounds it might incriminate them.

There were other deaths of course in other states. But it was three Aboriginal deaths in custody in one state in just over a year that caused widespread outrage. Now, in March 2021, there were three Aboriginal deaths in custody in NSW within three weeks.

After the latest 2021 deaths in custody, Cheryl Axelby, CEO of South Australia’s Aboriginal Legal Rights Movement and co-chair of the Aboriginal justice coalition Change the Record, made the stark comment: ‘going to prison should not be a death sentence for our people.’

Nolan Hunter, a Bardi man from the Dampier Peninsula in WA and Amnesty International’s Aboriginal lead for Australia’s Indigenous campaign, said ‘we have seen other outrages being expressed in Australia about the number of people being killed in other circumstances. Where is the outrage about this, as a consistent practice for this country, where it is okay for Aboriginal people to be killed in custody?’

And ‘even more worrying is that nothing is done about it and that it's coming across as acceptable that's the message being sent in this country to Aboriginal people.’

It is astonishing that the three strike mandatory laws still exist in WA despite the Law Council of Australia’s ongoing assertion that this undermines the rule of law. It can make sickening reading to discover the implications in individual cases: an 18 year old man sentenced to 90 days in prison for stealing 90 cents from a motor vehicle.

A criminal conviction, even though decades old, and even for such sometimes trivial offences, can have severe ongoing implications in the life of a person in regard to employment and even membership of boards and councils, including community boards.   

In the March edition of the Columban Society’s Far East journal, Fr Shay Cullen names the successful ongoing struggle in the Philippines to keep the age of criminal liability for children as 15 despite efforts to lower it to 12 years. No wonder individual countries, the UN and Amnesty International are shocked that here in Australia including in my own state of South Australia we continue to imprison children, largely Aboriginal children, as young as ten years old. Despite heavy pressure from overseas and national bodies, to date, the ACT is the only Australian jurisdiction to seriously indicate a move to change.

In the present crisis, Labor Senator Pat Dodson has called on Home Affairs Minister Mr Dutton, whose portfolio has oversight of the Australian Federal Police, to bring together state and territory stakeholders — their police officers, police ministers, head of their police departments, attorneys-general of those jurisdictions, along with Aboriginal legal services — to deal with the issue.

On 11 March, Aboriginal/Indian lawyer Meena Singh from the Human Rights Law Centre, threw out the challenge: ‘We need more than only Aboriginal people to be angry and fight for change.'

There remains the question: are the rest of us up for it?



Michele MadiganMichele Madigan is a Sister of St Joseph who has spent over 40 years working with Aboriginal people in remote areas of SA, in Adelaide and in country SA. Her work has included advocacy and support for senior Aboriginal women of Coober Pedy in their successful 1998-2004 campaign against the proposed national radioactive dump.

Editor's note: This article was amended to reflect confirmation of the death of the fourth man, Anzac Sullivan, who died in police custody.

Main image: Protesters show their support during the Black Lives Matter Rally at Langley Park on June 13, 2020 in Perth (Paul Kane/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Michele Madigan, Aboriginal, deaths in custody, Black Lives Matter, First Nations



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Existing comments

Great article, Michele. It’s good to get some concrete suggestions as to how to provide equity, mandated surely by the rule of law in Australia, for a very vulnerable part of our population. The question of why there’s such an imbalance in incarceration rates is answered by reference to socio-economic imbalance. The question about the death rate in custody is different. While many people die in custody, mainly for natural causes, we need to know why indigenous people die more. Know, and stop. This is not an indigenous’ issue, it’s an Australian one.

Joan Seymour | 25 March 2021  

Umm... well, the various statistics could lead to any number of "conclusions"; if the aboriginal representation in convictions is so out of kilter perhaps their choice of legal counsel is problematic? I'm not familiar with the authors pleaded case of the "18 year old who only took 90 cents" but venture that the actual crime was break into a vehicle and the situation that only 90 cents was recovered was because that's all that was there to be taken. I can't imagine any magistrate soaking up the relevance of meager criminal gains but it makes good reading. Convictions aside, perhaps the aboriginal communities need to get together and finance their own bail system to identify at risk persons and at least be able to support a bail application on behalf of those who cannot fund it themselves. They will also need to plan some suitable means to accommodate any applicant. Much as its not cheap to hold someone in remand at the various company-run facilities there's a vested interest to keep the occupancy rates high enough to ensure a return for investors...but if activism reduced incarceration by 30% not everyone will be happy. Disappointing the author strayed off-topic to age of criminal liabiliy...

ray | 25 March 2021  

"Where is the outrage about this, as a consistent practice for this country, where it is okay for Aboriginal people to be killed in custody?’ " That is simply wrong. It is dishonest to imply that deaths in custody - white or black - are 'killings'. The Australian Institute of Criminology publishes the details of deaths in custody: people die from cancer, heart attacks, liver failure ... all sort of things. It's a false and terrible slur on prison officers to suggest that all the Aborigines that died in custody have been killed.

Russell | 25 March 2021  

This is a most important article and I thank Michele for it. It is a compendium of crimes against our own - those who we refuse to own. Australia is not yet big enough to face its own guilt.

Susan Connelly | 25 March 2021  

We must distinguish between deaths in custody and killings. The deaths of women in remote communities, at the hands of men, are much greater. Where is the outrage about this?

Tony JcMahon | 25 March 2021  

Thanks Michele for your article. It shines a light on a the terrible imbalances suffered by Aboriginal people. How can we not think of a better solution than locking up children? I shudder to think of police severely beating a 16 year old because he is resisting arrest. Why is this heartlessness so entrenched? To Government Ministers I say, address the underlying issues causing desperate and criminal behaviours. Consult with Elders! Stop this happening. Genevieve Ryan 26th March 2021

Genevieve | 26 March 2021  

I have to admit I am really quite surprised by some of the responses to the situations outlined in the article. Perhaps pressing on links provided would help in more familiarity with the trivial offences that in the case particularly with Aboriginal people can lead to custodial sentencing. Perhaps also misunderstood by perhaps a quick reading that the concept of mandatory sentencing as legislated by the WA parliament means that the legal profession is rendered powerless to exercise their own judgement - the Parliament overriding the Court system. St Thomas Aquinas was clear that no offence is committed by a hungry person stealing bread. And of course some of the deaths in custody are health related. But the point made by the NSW deputy coroner quoted in the article outlines the custodial responsibility for duty of care not as in Nathan Reynolds' case 'confused, uncoordinated and unreasonably delayed.’ Sadly, noting the custom still in Australia of incarcerating children as young as 10 is anything but having 'strayed off topic'- everything is connected. The fact that once a child is exposed to the system and known to have a criminal conviction, obviously life changes

Michele Madigan | 26 March 2021  

I think your article was great Michele I think the reason why there is no outrage is because a lack of empathy it’s as if we have just accepted this as part of the cultural attitude to First Nations. It’s no even ill will we just have a cultural blind spot . How many citizens interact with aboriginal peoples . I might indicate way back in the 2000s I was a solicitor for 3yrs at Moree with the ALS

Terence Duff | 26 March 2021  

Thank you Michele for this timely article about a shocking situation that should have been dealt with ages ago. I knew Elliott Johnston - the Commissioner of the 1991 Royal Commission into Black Deaths in Custody that Michele refers to - and he was bitterly disappointed that very few of the 339 recommendations that the Commission had ever been adopted by state and federal governments. He died in 2011 at 93 and was mourned greatly - especially by the Aboriginal community and progressive Australians. I think it is very shameful that Australian governments show such little respect for Aboriginal people that so little has been done to adopt strategies to prevent these needless and tragic deaths, Now I see that the Northern Territory government wants to build more facilities to detain young offenders. This is a very retrograde step. Given that many of the deaths have occurred after Aboriginal people in custody have been bashed by police personnel, it seems to me that more should be done to monitor the applicants for police forces to ensure that no racists or people who display thuggish behaviour are employed as police There also needs to be an overhaul of the training to ensure that young officers are thoroughly aware of the need to show respect to all and that thuggish behaviour will mean that perpetrators will face criminal charges and expulsion. In addition, we should all be clamouring for the 1991 Royal Commission's recommendations to be adopted by all governments and for a national Aboriginal consultative body to be re-established so that Aboriginal people can advise governments on how to overcome these tragedies. I find it galling that a young Aborigine can die in custody after being detained for very minor misdemeanors while executives responsible for many deaths because they refuse to adhere to health and safety laws (eg James Hardie executives) avoid imprisonment.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 27 March 2021  

The author replies: " And of course some of the deaths in custody are health related." No, wrong. Not some of the deaths but almost all of them. Look at the AIS reports. And it's not as Terence thinks, that we've given up on this issue. In the last several years W.A. brought in a mandatory notification scheme as another way to avoid deaths in custody, and, the law was changed to try and keep fine defaulters out of gaol - this was specifically aimed to benefit Aboriginal people. This is what a lot of activists don't acknowledge: that we keep on trying, things improve, there is conscience and there is goodwill.

Russell | 27 March 2021  

Thank you Michele. This article needs to be read more widely - especially perhaps by Politicians. But thanks for the challenge too - are we ordinary Australians up for it?

Sr Elizabeth Morris rsj | 30 March 2021  

Hello Michele: thank you. Some of the comments go a long way in explaining why this injustice continues.

Fosco | 03 April 2021  

The recent landmark Sewell report in the UK, which can be read for free in its entirety online, shows that race essentialism is not a good predictor of disadvantage.

roy chen yee | 04 April 2021  

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