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Act now on enduring disgrace of Indigenous deaths in custody

There is little doubt that the final report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, delivered in April 1991, was a turning point for our nation.

Established in October 1987, the commission investigated the circumstances surrounding the deaths over a 10-year period of 99 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people while held in detention. It yielded more than 5,000 pages of documents and a list of 339 recommendations.

Senator Pat Dodson, the Albanian government’s envoy for reconciliation, has called for immediate action to prevent indigenous people from dying in custody.Credit:Rhett Wyman

Robert Tickner, then Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, could not have been clearer when he presented his findings to Parliament. “The reports I just submitted are historical documents,” he said. “They need to attract the attention not only of Australia’s governments and parliaments, but of the nation itself.”

Ultimately, Tickner said: “The report documents, in a manner never before achieved, the impact of European settlement on Australia’s Indigenous peoples, their dispossession and subordination within a dominant and often hostile society often driven by self-interest, the development of racist attitudes. both overt and covert and the way in which these attitudes became institutionalized in the practices of legal, education, welfare and Aboriginal relief authorities.


The recommendations and findings, he said, set “an agenda for the nation for the next decade.” It was a clarion call.

But as that decade passed, and another, and another, Indigenous Australians died in a staggeringly disproportionate number in custody. In fact, in the years since the royal commission released its findings, the number has averaged 16.6 deaths per year since 1991 compared to 11 deaths per year between 1980 and 1989 – more than 525 in all. According to the Australian Institute of Criminology, Indigenous Australian men are nearly 10 times more likely to die in prison than non-Indigenous men.

In 2021, 16 Indigenous people died in custody in NSW alone, the highest annual total for the state on record. Meanwhile, Victorian coroner Simon McGregor found in January that the 2020 death in custody of Veronica Nelson, a woman from Gunditjmara, Dja Dja Wurrung, Wiradjuri and Yorta Yorta, not only could have been prevented, but that her treatment by prison staff was “cruel and humiliating”.

Whistleblowers have subsequently come forward accusing companies that run Australian prisons of medical neglect and indifference to the welfare of vulnerable people, particularly Indigenous prisoners. They made this known in a joint study The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age And 60 minutes of prisoners dying by suicide despite warnings from family, illegal drug handling and people left in their cells with life-threatening illnesses.