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 16-year-old John Pat in a police cell in Roebourne, Western Australia, after a fight with five off-duty police officers in 1983.

The Royal Commission made 339 recommendations on how to address the ongoing problem of deaths in custody. The majority of the recommendations dealt with the custodial issues leading to harm or death for imprisoned people. A large number also addressed wider societal and cultural issues, most of which remain challenges today. The second of the 339 recommendations made by the Royal Commission specified that ‘there be established in each State and Territory an independent Aboriginal Justice Advisory Committee to provide each Government with advice on Aboriginal perceptions of criminal justice matters, and on the implementation of the recommendations of this report’.

To this end, a coalition of concerned parties set up the Deaths in Custody Watch Committee in WA in 1993. Participants included various church bodies and representatives, unions, lawyers, politicians, Aboriginal organisations, other non-government organisations and prominent individuals such as Judge Hal Jackson, the late Jack Davis and the late Sir Ronald Wilson. Family members of those who had died in custody also took an interest in the Watch Committee’s formation and activities.

Following from the Royal Commission’s second recommendation, the DICWC’s specific aim has been ‘to monitor and work to ensure the effective implementation of the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody’. The DICWC (WA) has worked almost exclusively on West Australian issues, especially given that this state has some of the worst statistics in regard to Aboriginal over-incarceration and deaths in custody. During the 1990s it was largely successful in keeping these issues on the agenda and in helping to realise some specific reforms within the WA Police department, the justice system, and most importantly some change in the culture and attitudes within these systems. 

Between 1993 and 2005 DICWC worked both in and out of prisons. It conducted prison visits and aided prisoners’ access to legal support. It drew attention to prison overcrowding, prisoner mistreatment and inhumane punishment as well as deaths in custody. The DICWC also had officers employed to help with broader societal inequities that affected communities, including health and housing claims.

In 2005 the federal government withdrew funding to the DICWC. Nevertheless, Western Australia continues to have one of the highest incarceration rates in Australia, and in particular troubling over-representation of Aboriginal prisoners, and especially Aboriginal women. The DICWC decided to continue its work as a not-for-profit, community-based organisation. It is run by volunteers rather than paid staff, and funded solely from donations rather than government support. Today, the DICWC is the last remaining Watch Committee in the nation. It continues to work with the families of those who die in custody and draw attention to the conditions that endanger people under state care. Until all 339 recommendations of the RCIADIC are implemented and deaths in custody no longer occur, the DICWC will remain a necessary organisation in Western Australia.

One of the core functions of the group is to highlight inequities in our criminal justice system as well as the broad structural forces in which criminal justice is embedded. Today’s prison system adversely affects Aboriginal people through radically disproportionate rates of incarceration, systemic institutionalised racism and, ultimately, deaths in custody. We work at the invitation of the family members who have lost someone in custody, supporting them in any way we can to ensure they receive justice and prompt and adequate representation before the law.