Deaths in custody: Action on justice needed

Proportionally, we are the most incarcerated people on the planet. We are not an innately criminal people. Our children are alienated from their families at unprecedented rates. This cannot be because we have no love for them. And our youth languish in detention in obscene numbers. They should be our hope for the future.

These words from the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart could have been written at any time in the past 30 years—at any time since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody released its final report in 1991.

30 years on, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people make up almost 30% of the total Australian prison population, while comprising just over 3% of the general population.

The fundamental driver of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths in custody is still the significant rates of incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia.

There will not be a reduction in deaths in custody until the over-incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people stops.

Unfair laws and policies are still in place that disproportionally target Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, like laws that allow children between the age of 10 and 13 to be sent to prison, and mandatory sentencing.

The 2021 State of Reconciliation in Australia report emphasises that acting on the many justice issues that have been the subject of significant government inquiries, must be a priority in order to improve the relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, government, and government institutions. This includes:

  • Addressing justice issues like over-incarceration, rates of family violence, and children in out-of-home care that have a devastating impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, families and communities.
  • Governments, working in genuine partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, must address each of the social and economic gaps impacted by these issues.

According to the Guardian Australia’s Deaths Inside database there have been 474 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who have died in police and prison custody since the Royal Commission.

The Royal Commission’s recommendations provide the answers. More work must be done by federal and state governments to properly resource and oversee proper implementation of these recommendations.

This report led to the nation’s first formal reconciliation process between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the broader community with the establishment of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. Reconciliation Australia continues this work today.

Reconciliation Australia supports the aims of the Change the Record campaign, and reaffirms earlier calls for governments to Raise the Age by raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility to at least 14 years for all offences.

Actions on the 30th Anniversary of the Royal Commission’s report release

  • Email your State MP to change the laws that disproportionately push Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and children, into prisons. Also ask them to implement the Royal Commission’s recommendations, and for independent oversight and accountability that could save lives.
  • Join the call to #RaiseTheAge of criminal responsibility from 10 to at least 14.
  • Help to strengthen communities and young people through Amnesty’s Community is Everything Indigenous youth inequality campaign.
Paul House with gum leaves and smoke
Paul Girrawah House

Paul Girrawah House has multiple First Nation ancestries from the South-East Canberra region, including the Ngambri-Ngurmal (Walgalu), Pajong (Gundungurra), Wallabollooa (Ngunnawal) and Erambie/Brungle (Wiradyuri) family groups.

Paul acknowledges his diverse First Nation history, he particularly identifies as a descendant of Onyong aka Jindoomang from Weereewaa (Lake George) and Henry ‘Black Harry’ Williams from Namadgi who were both multilingual, essentially Walgalu-Ngunnawal-Wiradjuri speaking warriors and Ngunnawal–Wallaballooa man William Lane aka ‘Billy the Bull’ - Murrjinille.

Paul was born at the old Canberra hospital in the centre of his ancestral country and strongly acknowledges his First Nation matriarch ancestors, in particular his mother Dr Aunty Matilda House-Williams and grandmother, Ms Pearl Simpson-Wedge.

Paul completed a Bachelor of Community Management from Macquarie University, and Graduate Certificate in Wiradjuri Language, Culture and Heritage and Management from CSU.

Paul provided the Welcome to Country for the 47th Opening of Federal Parliament in 2022. Paul is Board Director, Ngambri Local Aboriginal Land Council, Member Indigenous Reference Group, National Museum of Australia and Australian Government Voice Referendum Engagement Group.  

Paul works on country with the ANU, First Nations Portfolio as a Senior Community Engagement Officer

Acknowledgement of Country

Reconciliation Australia acknowledges Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing  connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures; and to Elders past and present. 

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples should be aware that this website contains images or names of people who have passed away.

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