Deaths in custody in Western Australia

The WA Department of Corrective Services (DCS) in its annual report publishes numbers of deaths in prison custody (not police custody or police-related operations). It also categorises these deaths according to natural or unnatural causes, before the coroner’s finding. The WA Police does not release data about deaths in police custody (e.g. in lockups). In the period between data being sent to the Australian Institute of Criminology and the release of its report (about two years), there is no State mechanism for the public reporting of deaths in custody as they occur. The situation was different when the First Nations Deaths in Custody Watch Committee and its sister organisations in other states were funded under ATSIC, as these organisations had to be notified whenever a death in custody occurred. Now it is often through word of mouth, through media or questions raised in Parliament that we hear about deaths in custody.

In response to question on notice 4556 in the WA Legislative Assembly (Hansard 20.10.2015), the Minister for Corrective Services said: ‘Neither WA Police nor the Department is obliged by legislation to release a statement on the occasion of a death in custody. There is an MOU between the Police and the Department which says that an initial statement be released by DCS stating there has been a death in custody, and that death will now be investigated by WAPOL and referred to the Coroner. More recent practice by the Department has been not to release an initial statement, and respond to media queries, if any. The Department and WAPOL are currently reviewing the MOU.’

In the same response, we learned that five deaths had occurred in Western Australian prison custody between 1 June 2015 and 17 September 2015, two of which were Aboriginal people. Dates of death were 15 June 2015, 3 August 2015, 5 August 2015, 19 August 2015 and 8 September 2015. This is a marked increase over the average one death in custody per month in the state.

Without a legislated obligation for the DCS or WA Police to notify the public when a death in custody has occurred, information about who has died in custody, when or how they died may not become available until the inquest into their death, which is on average between two and five years later. This equates to a lack of transparency. When a spate of deaths in custody occurs, such as happened in Western Australia between June and September 2015, the public cannot be alarmed because it is not informed.

On this page the First Nations Deaths in Custody Watch Committee is recording the date and details of deaths in custody since 30 June 2013, whether in prison, police custody or in a police-related operation in WA. These numbers are based on DCS annual reports, DCS media statements, questions raised in Parliament (Hansard), media reports and state coroner inquest reports. Note these numbers may be an underestimation of deaths in custody. If you have any further information please contact dicwcwa@gmail.com

 

Date of death

Location

Prison/
police custody

Aboriginal?

Male/female/
unspecified

Remand?

Source

1

8/09/2013

Casuarina

Prison

 

M

 

Inquest report

2

16/11/2013

Hakea

Prison

 

M

 

Hansard

3

21/12/2013

Casuarina / Royal Perth Hospital

Prison

Aboriginal

M

 

Inquest report

4

9/03/2014

Casuarina / Fremantle Hospital

Prison

 

M

 

Inquest report

5

5/01/2014

Karnet

Prison

 

M

 

Inquest report

6

9/03/2014

Casuarina / Fremantle Hospital

Prison

 

M

 

Inquest report

7

22/04/2014

Wooroloo Prison

Prison

 

M

 

DCS media release

8

4/08/2014

South Hedland lockup

Police

Aboriginal

F

 

Word of mouth, media reports

9

12/06/2014

Wangara / Royal Perth

Prison

 

M

 

Hansard

10

22/10/2014

Casuarina

Prison

Aboriginal

M

 

DCS media release

11

20/11/2014

Bunbury/ Bunbury Regional Hospital

Prison

 

M

 

Inquest report

12

17/02/2015

Casuarina

Prison

 

M

 

DCS media release

13

15/06/2015

Bandyup

Prison

 

F

Remand

Word of mouth, question in Parliament

14

03/08/2015

Hakea

Prison

 

M

 

Question in Parliament

15

5/08/2015

Casuarina/ Fiona Stanley Hospital

Prison

Aboriginal

 M

 

Question in Parliament

16

19/08/2015

Hakea/ Fiona Stanley

Prison

 

M

 

Question in Parliament

17

Aug/Sep 2015

Lockridge

Police

Aboriginal

 M

 

Word of mouth

18

8/09/2015

Casuarina

Prison

Aboriginal

M

 

DCS media release

19

14/10/2015

Casuarina / Fiona Stanley

Prison

 

M

 

Question in Parliament

20

2/11/2015

Casuarina

Prison

Aboriginal

M

 

DCS media release

21

Nov/Dec 2015

Perth lockup

Police

 

?

 

Word of mouth, not confirmed by DCS

22

16/12/2015

Broome lockup

Police

Aboriginal

M

 

Word of mouth, media reports

23

10/12/2016

Bandyup

Prison

Aboriginal

F

Remand

Media query, confirmed by DCS

 

The Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) was mandated by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC) to monitor deaths in custody nationally, relying on data supplied by state and territory governments. The RCIADIC definition of a death in custody includes deaths in police-related operations, such as car pursuits, while people who died in these circumstances were not considered under the Royal Commission. The AIC’s most recent report contains statistics of deaths by state/territory up to 30 June 2013.

The RCIADIC covered the period January 1980 to May 1989 and investigated 99 Indigenous deaths, in prison and police custody. There was a period of two years from when the RCIADIC stopped accepting submissions and making its final report on 15 April 1991.

In the post-RCIADIC decade, 1990 to 1999, there were a further 145 Indigenous deaths in custody (of a total 818 deaths in custody), including police-related operations. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner released a report on 96 Indigenous deaths in custody which occurred between May 1989 and May 1996. From 2000 to 2011, there 205 Indigenous deaths in custody. From 2011 to 2013, there were 144 deaths in custody in total, 21 of which were Indigenous people. From 1979–80 to 2012–13, a total of 2,463 deaths in custody occurred: 470 were Indigenous people and 1,993 were of non-Indigenous background.

Rates of deaths in custody

The AIC talks about rates of death per 100,000 persons. The prison population is always increasing so while rates of death may appear stable, the actual number of people dying in custody is increasing. The AIC notes that, ‘The proportion of Indigenous prisoners almost doubled over the 20 years since the RCAIDC (up to 2011)’. Because Aboriginal people are jailed at increasing rates (30% nationally, 40% in WA, 50% of women in prison in WA, and more than 70% of juveniles in detention in WA), the rate of Aboriginal people dying in custody is also disproportionate to the number of Aboriginal people in the Australian population overall (3%).