Recommended Resources – The Stringer – Independent News, Investigative Journalism

Report on Deaths in Custody – people dying at high rates

May 24th, 2013

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Today, the Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus welcomed the National Deaths in Custody Program Monitoring Report (NIDCP) finding that deaths in custody rates have decreased significantly in the past decade. Let us have a look if this is really the case. The reality is that Aboriginal deaths in custody are one the rise.

The report is published by the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC).

“Twenty years after the landmark Royal Commission into Aboriginal  Deaths in Custody, the rates of deaths in custody for Indigenous and non-Indigenous prisoners, particularly suicides, are some of the lowest recorded,” said Mr Dreyfus.

The AIC report argues that between 2003 to 2011 most deaths in custody were due to natural causes. On May 20 The Stringer published Why are more prisoners dying from ‘natural causes’?

The AIC report found that Aboriginal people are now “less likely to die in prison (0.16 per 100 in 2010-11) than non-Indigenous people (0.22 per 100).”

The report found “that in the 20 years since the Royal Commission, the number of Indigenous prisoners has almost doubled.”

The report noted that between January 1, 1980 to June 30 2011 there have been 2,325 total deaths in custody across Australia and of these 450 have been Aboriginal deaths, therefore 19 per cent of the total custodial deaths. In this period, 1,397 of the deaths have been in prison custody, of which 238 have been Aboriginal, therefore 17 per cent of the total prison deaths. 905 were police custodial deaths of which 204 were Aboriginal deaths and therefore 23 per cent of the total police custodial deaths. There were 18 deaths of juveniles while in custody, of which eight were Aboriginal youth and therefore 44 per cent of the total deaths.

“Analysis of data captured by the NDICP over the last 32 years demonstrates that significant improvements have been made to prevent deaths in some areas, but that work should continue in order to reduce other forms of deaths in custody,” wrote Adam Tomison, the AIC director in the report’s foreward.

“First, it is of concern to see that the proportion of Indigenous prisoners has almost doubled over the 20 years since the RCIADC. In 1991, when the final report was handed down by the RCIADC, Indigenous people represented on in seven people in prison (14 per cent ABS, 1998) and one in seven deaths in prison custody.”

“In 2011, Indigenous people represented just over one in four people in prison and one in five deaths. Therefore, the number of Indigenous people in prison appears to have increased at a faster rate than the number of deaths of Indigenous prisoners.”

“Over the last eight years, the rate of death has been consistently lower among Indigenous prisoners than their non-Indigenous counterparts. It can be concluded that the headline finding of the RCIADC that Indigenous persons were no more likely to die in prison custody than non-Indigenous persons remains true today. At the heart of the problem is the over-representation of Indigenous persons at every stage of the criminal justice system. Any efforts to reduce the number of Indigenous deaths in custody must therefore incorporate a focus on reducing the number of Indigenous people who end up in prison.”

“A second point of concern is the relative age profile of Indigenous deaths in custody when compared with their non-Indigenous counterparts. Almost half of all Indigenous deaths (48 per cent) in prison custody were of persons aged 25 to 39 years, compared with less than two in five (38 per cent) for the equivalent non-Indigenous cohort. For deaths in police custody and custody-related operations, almost two in five (39 per cent) Indigenous deaths were of young persons under the age of 25 years, compared with just over one in four (27 per cent) for their non-Indigenous counterparts. Apart from dying at relatively younger ages than non-Indigenous persons, a greater proportion of Indigenous deaths are due to natural causes, “noted Mr Tomison.

In 2010-11 there were 85 total deaths in custody of which 21 were Aboriginal deaths and therefore 25 per cent. Therefore it appears that indeed Aboriginal deaths in custody appear on the rise rather than decreasing, and the significant reduction overall is not a significant one. The Aboriginal deaths in prison custody for the year accounted for 21 per cent of the prison population deaths, while Aboriginal deaths in police custody accounted for 26 per cent of the total police custodial deaths. Despite the disproportionate high arrest rates of Aboriginal people and the disproportionate incarceration rates of Aboriginal people these are horrific rates, both crude totals and in proportion to total numbers.

In that period there was also a death of an Aboriginal juvenile while in detention.

In terms of comparative long term trends the report noted “throughout the 1980s, the number of deaths in custody increased steadily from a low of 21 deaths in 1979-80 to a high of 83 deaths in 1989-90. During the 1990s, the number of deaths in custody continued to increase, reaching a peak in 1997-98 with 109 deaths. Since this peak, there has been a moderate decline in total deaths, reaching a 20 year low in 2005-06 of 54 deaths.

However, since this low, the number of deaths has again started to increase.”

The report noted that in the last decade “the number of deaths resulting from natural causes has surpassed self-inflicted deaths as the most prevalent type of death in prison custody.”

The number of Aboriginal “natural cause deaths in 2009-10 was the highest ever recorded and for non-Indigenous prisoners, 2009-10 was the second highest on record, with 2010-11 representing the  peak in the natural cause deaths among this group.”

Medical groups and prison reform advocates have long called for an inquiry into the rise into natural cause deaths.

A few years back the Australian Medical Association (AMA) then national vice president Dr Steve Hambleton supported the call for an investigation into natural cause deaths.

“The ages of Australian prisoners dying are alarming. The differentiation between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and other Australians makes it even more disturbing,” said Dr Hambleton.


The writer of the article, Gerry Georgatos declares an impartiality conflict of interest. He has completed two Masters which have topically included and analysed Australian Deaths in Custody and he is a PhD researcher in Australian Deaths in Custody and Australian Custodial Systems. He has written widely on deaths in custody and has called for an inquiry to better understand the rise in natural cause deaths. In Crikey, in 2011, he was quoted, “I have deep concerns about the attribution of manner and cause of death and therefore about the classification of deaths in custody. There is nothing natural about a person dying of causes that basic medical intervention could prevent. More than 50 per cent of Aboriginal folk who die in prison are classified as natural cause deaths but maybe what has occurred is that medical attention wasn’t flagged or their insulin dependency was not given proper care or they were maltreated or neglected.”


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