Indigenous Deaths in Custody Double Over The Decade

Since 2007 Indigenous deaths in police custody have doubled with 2023 as the deadliest year on record for First Nations people in prison. The recently published report released by The Australian Institute of Criminology, shed light on this, with over 556 Indigenous deaths in custody in the 32 years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. 

Between July 1, 2022, and June 30, 2023, a total of 21 Indigenous prisoners lost their lives while incarcerated. This marks the highest death-in-custody toll since 1980. Further, this report highlighted the deaths of 11 individuals who were unsentenced at the time of their passing. 

The report has additionally highlighted that New South Wales is the most likely place for someone to die while being arrested, held or pursued.

Ashleigh Buckett - an associate legal director at the National Justice Project said that the government was slow to respond to a royal commission on Aboriginal deaths in custody and emphasised the necessity for change. 

"There have been over 500 Aboriginal deaths in custody since 1991, but only a handful of prosecutions," she said.

"The government already has the recommendations to guide its response, the question now is whether it has the will."

These findings have sparked calls from human rights campaigners to address and reduce incarceration rates across the nation. 

The National Justice Project and around 40 other groups are pushing for reforms, basing their recommendations on those introduced in Denver, Colorado, where licensed mental health clinicians work in partnership with the Denver Police Department, responding to calls involving people who suffer from mental illness and/or co-occurring substance use issues.

Additionally, human rights groups have highlighted the great toll these deaths have on families and communities. 

Narungga woman Cheryl Axleby, co-chair of Change the Record has also commented on this report: 

“First Nations people are dying in police and prison cells because of discriminatory policies, which see us arrested at extraordinary rates, and the discriminatory treatment we are subjected to by police and prison authorities”

Lawyer George Newhouse also from the National Justice Project has stated:

"Police are not equipped or trained to de-escalate sensitive situations, their culture and training is focused on law enforcement," Mr Newhouse said.

"Often this is done through the use of force, violence and weapons, which has led to a spate of deaths this year.

"Although the findings may be that the police response was justified, such high numbers of deaths in custody suggest that there's something systemically wrong with policing in this nation."