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Dying in police custody

By Harry Throssell - posted Thursday, 28 June 2007

The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody of 1987-1991 was established by Prime Minister Bob Hawke in response to growing public concern that “deaths in custody of Aboriginal people were too common and public explanations too evasive”.

Chief Commissioner J.H. Muirhead QC examined all 99 deaths in State or Territory custody between January 1980 and May 1989, 88 males and 11 females aged 14 to 62 years.

A significant finding was the high rate of Aboriginal deaths in custody was “not because Aboriginal people in custody were more likely to die than others in custody, but because Aborigines were grossly over-represented in the numbers”, with Aboriginal admissions 29 times more common than others in spite of being less than 3 per cent of the population. Muirhead acknowledged this finding “could disappoint those who anticipated foul play” but he also found there was insufficient dedication by authorities to the duty of care of those in custody.


The deaths were by hanging (30), head injuries (12), gunshot wounds (4), other external trauma (7), substance abuse (9), and natural causes (37).

Of these 99 prisoners 83 per cent were unemployed when detained, only two had completed secondary school, 43 had experienced separation from their natural families through intervention by authorities, 43 had been charged with an offence by age 15, all cases involved alcohol.

The standard of health varied from poor to very bad, economic situations were “disastrous”, social position was “at the margin of society”, and of the 22 deaths by hanging 19 had a blood alcohol level of 0.174 per cent or more.

Government control

“Aboriginal people have a unique history of being ordered, controlled and monitored by agents of the State”, the Commission reported, tracing the familiar pattern of control from birth including adoption; forced removal from parents with mixed racial origins; described as truant, intractable and unteachable at school; court appearances; “dismissive entries” in medical records like “drunk again”; and standard notes like “no suspicious circumstances” when police investigated death in a cell. “All too often the files disclose the prejudices, ignorance and paternalism of those making the record.”

Commissioners felt important aspects of Australian history, including two centuries of European domination, had an important bearing on behaviour in an individual’s last hours. Aborigines were often dispossessed of their land without compensation, suffering brutality and bloodshed when they showed resistance to losing the basis of their hunting and foraging culture and economy. Then there were “dramatic effects of introduced disease” to which they had no resistance.

Having reduced many to a condition of abject dependency the colonial governments decided upon a policy of protection. Aboriginal people were “swept up into reserves and missions where they were supervised as to every detail of their lives and there was a deliberate policy of undermining and destroying their spiritual and cultural beliefs”.


Another aspect of that policy was removing Aboriginal children of mixed race from their family and placing them in institutions to grow up as “good European labourers or domestics”. Even those outside reserves were “under the eye of the non-Aboriginal police”. Although legislation varied over place and time the effect was the same: control over personal lives, with institution supervisors and missionaries having all the power. A person needed permission to live on a reserve, leave or return, have a relative visit, work - usually under supervision - and there were special laws about alcohol.

These practices were based on the theory that “full blood” Aboriginal people would die out and those of “mixed blood” would be bred out. When this didn’t happen assimilation was tried, the hope being that children removed from their families would disappear by becoming culturally indistinguishable from the dominant Westerners.

Land dispossession made Aborigines dependent upon government or employer for rations, blankets, living conditions. Deliberate disempowerment meant decisions were imposed, usually by non-Aborigines. An Aboriginal woman living with a non-Aboriginal man was outlawed. “With loss of independence goes loss of self esteem.”

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About the Author

Harry Throssell originally trained in social work in UK, taught at the University of Queensland for a decade in the 1960s and 70s, and since then has worked as a journalist. His blog Journospeak, can be found here.

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