“To monitor and work to ensure the effective implementation of the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths In Custody”
The Royal Commission Into Aboriginal Deaths In Custody began in 1987, and continued until the release of its final report in 1991. It followed a spate of violent and untimely deaths in custody, such as that of the 16-year-old boy John Pat in a police cell in Roebourne WA after a fight with five off duty police officers in 1983.
There were 339 recommendations made by the Commissioners, many dealing with the custodial issues leading to harm or death, but a large number also addressing wider societal and cultural issues, most of which still remain as issues and challenges faced today.
The DICWC in WA was set up by a Coalition of concerned parties in 1993. This included various Church bodies and representatives, unions, lawyers, politicians, Aboriginal organisations, other NGOs, family members related to people who had died in custody, as well as other prominent individuals such as Judge Hal Jackson; the late Jack Davis; and the late Sir Ronald Wilson.
The Committees specific aim is to monitor and work to ensure the effective implementation of the Royal Commission Into Aboriginal Deaths In Custody, and during the 1990s it was largely successful in keeping these issues on the agenda, and in helping to realise some specific reforms within the Police Department, the Justice system, and most importantly some change in the culture and attitudes within these systems.
While the Royal Commission was a national inquiry, it recommended Deaths In Custody Watch Committees be set up in each state. The DICWC of WA has focused and worked almost exclusively on WA issues, especially given that this State has some of the worst statistics in regard to these issues.
WA continues to incarcerate people at a rate far higher than any other state, and in particular has a huge over-representation of Aboriginal prisoners, with the result that they make up just over 40 percent of deaths in custody.
Findings of the commission
The Royal Commission examined the deaths of 99 people who had died in custody between 1 January 1980 and 31 May 1989. It looked into both the causes of the deaths and the prevention of future deaths and tried to answer the question: Why are so many Indigenous people in custody? Why were they treated that way?
The Commission's findings:
The conclusion was that too many Aboriginal people are in custody too often. In its report the commission made 339 recommendations, for example
87. Arrest people only when no other way exists for dealing with a problem.
92. Imprisonment should be utilised only as a sanction of last resort.
339. Initiate a formal process of reconciliation between Aboriginal people and the wider community.
The last recommendation led to the establishment of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. However, levels of female Aboriginal prison rates have increased by a third between 2002 and 2007, and the number of Indigenous men by one-fifth, while police custodial rates remain as high as before.
“The beginning of the cause of deaths in custody does not occur within the confines of police and prison cells or in the minds of the victims.
Initially it starts in the minds of those who allow it to happen.”
– Aboriginal Elder, the late Dr. Jack Davis AO, BEM.