In a well-written advocacy in The Saturday Paper supporting the Black Lives Matter protests on Saturday 6th June 2020, Amy McQuire wrote that “Since 1991, 432 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have lost their lives in custody.”
The clear impression given by McQuire and most other journalists was that the state was responsible for these deaths.
“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people make up 27 per cent of the national prison population, while only making up 3 per cent of Australia`s population. … Nearly three decades after the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody handed down its report, successive Australian governments have made no attempt to address its recommendations. With law and order policies electorally popular they have only made things worse.”
The Australian Institute of Criminology report on Indigenous Deaths in Custody written by Alexandra Gannoni and Samantha Bricknell dated February 2019 gives a different perspective than one might get by reading McQuire or listening to journalists reporting last weekend`s protest.
It was David Speers report on Insiders that Indigenous deaths represented only 19% of deaths in custody that sent me scurrying to the internet. His figure is correct. It is not only the indigenous who are dying in custody.
But it is the analysis of indigenous deaths in police custody that is most illuminating.
47% are from accidents – primarily motor vehicle pursuits
21% are from natural causes – primarily heart attacks
19% are self-inflicted – though hangings have been reduced to zero since 2008.
The causes of indigenous deaths in prison are equally enlightening.
58% from natural causes
The major problem is not that indigenous citizens are being killed in custody, it is the high percentage of indigenous people who are incarcerated, especially young people. As McQuire pointed out, this is out of proportion to their numbers in the community - nine times. Protesting that the police are racist will not solve the problem. It is not the cause.
Robert Tickner, who as Minister for Indigenous Affairs implemented the Native Title Act, was quoted in The Australian saying “We know conclusively that Aboriginal people are not dying disproportionately to their numbers in custody. The absolute outrage – the absolute national shame, the stain on our reputation, the failure of our governments – is that they have failed to turn around those incarceration numbers. And, in fact, they have got worse. … How do you turn around those numbers? Well, I`ll tell you what the royal commission said: it is about addressing the underlying issues. It was about health. It was about employment. It was about housing. It was about tackling substance abuse. It was about family breakdown. It wasn`t just a matter of governments spending money. What had to happen was the empowerment of Aboriginal people to have greater control over their own lives.”
The solution will require attention to the causes – in particular, the high levels of violence, domestic violence, drug and alcohol dependence, lack of work, and poor parenting in remote aboriginal communities.
Noel Pearson`s report Empowered Communities: Empowered Peoples written in 2015 may hold the answer. But the depressing fact is that little has advanced in five years since then.
Blaming others will bear no fruit. Being a victim maintains the status quo. As Pearson advocated, if we wish to solve this problem indigenous people will need to take responsibility for themselves and their communities. Black lives must matter to them too. And the rest of us should lend our support where we can.
For a more authoritative article on this theme, see Jacinta Price
Black Lives Matter masks the truth behind Aboriginal deaths.