explainer

400 deaths, zero convictions: Australia's national shame.

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that the following article contains names and descriptions of people who have died.

On January 2, 2020, Veronica Marie Nelson Walker died in a Victorian prison less than two days after being locked up.

The 37-year-old had been arrested for alleged shoplifting, and the ABC reports she died withdrawing from drugs.

Four months on, her family is still waiting for a definitive cause of death, even though inmates reported hearing her screaming for help.

Veronica loved art, poetry and talking about her Indigenous culture.

She is also one of more than 400 Indigenous Australians who’ve died in custody since the end of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1991.

We explored this injustice in an episode of The Quicky, Mamamia’s daily news podcast, earlier this year. Post continues after audio.

In that time, close to 30 years, there have been zero convictions as a result of these deaths.

In November last year, Kumanjayi Walker was shot dead by a police officer 300km from Alice Springs.

Constable Zachary Rolfe, 28, has been charged with his murder, and granted bail with his pay suspended. His trial has been adjourned until June 25, 2020, due to COVID-19.

When the young officer was charged there were cheers from protesters across the country. Because like Veronica, Kumanjayi’s death has left his loved ones with so many unanswered questions.

The 19-year-old was shot on his girlfriend’s grandparent’s property, allegedly for breaching conditions of a suspended sentence for break and enter.

It took 10 hours for police to confirm he was dead.

KUMANJAYI WALKER
19-year-old Indigenous man Kumanjayi Walker was shot dead by police in Yuendumu in Central Australia on Saturday, November 9. Image: AAP Image/Supplied by Family.
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In 2017, Tanya Day died in a police cell after being arrested for public drunkenness.

The 55-year-old was left alone in a cell for four hours, despite repeatedly falling and hitting her head.

She died after suffering catastrophic brain injuries.

A coronial inquest was held last year into whether systematic racism was a factor in the way she was treated by authorities. In April 2020, the coroner referred the case to prosecutors for further investigation stating that "there was the possibility an indictable offence had occurred," the ABC reports.

Tanya, Kumanjayi, and Veronica's stories are just three of hundreds.

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To make matters worse, 1991 wasn't even the first royal commission that had been held in regards to Aboriginal deaths in custody.

In 1987, a commission looked back at First Nation deaths in custody over a 10-year period, and gave 330 recommendations, most of which are still valid today.

Very few, however, were ever implemented.

It's the same story for the 339 recommendations that came from the 1991 investigation.

In fact, Aboriginal deaths in custody are only rising.

An analysis by Guardian Australia of Indigenous deaths in custody in the 12 months between August 2018 and August 2019, found the proportion of deaths where "medical care was required but not given" had increased from 35.4 per cent to 38.6 per cent.

It also found Indigenous women were "still less likely to have received all appropriate medical care" prior to their death, and that in cases where an Aboriginal woman had died in custody, authorities were "less likely to have followed all their own procedures".

In April 2020, a coroner ruled that Jonathan Hogan - who died by suicide in prison in February 2018 - received "inadequate treatment" for mental health issues in the months leading up to his death.

Deputy NSW coroner Harriet Grahame said Mr Hogan’s death could not be treated as an “isolated tragedy”.

It's a story that just keeps on repeating itself.

January 26 is one of the most complex dates on the Australian calendar. Post continues after video.

Video by Mamamia

Dr Peter Lewis is the National President of ANTaR, which has been working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations and leaders on rights issues for two decades.

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He told Mamamia's daily news podcast, The Quicky: "The royal commissions gave hope of many reforms. State governments underwent a process of trying to implement those recommendations at varying levels of success. Probably the most success was in Victoria, but then again we still have issues with incidents occurring. Obviously a lot more needs to be done."

Dr Lewis says the arrest in Kumanjayi's case did give the community back some hope.

"It's a foothold into that trust. But it all depends on what happens. One of the other issues around the original royal commission is that it didn't lead to anyone being charged over the deaths," he explained.

One of the most infamous deaths in custody cases is that of TJ Hickey, who died in 2004, after crashing his bike and impaling himself on a metal fence post while being pursued by police.

His death sparked a nine-hour riot, with Sydney's Redfern railway station set on fire, and 40 police officers injured.

An inquest into TJ's death found it to be a "freak accident" and police were found to be not responsible. But to this day, the 17-year-old's family leads a protest every year against racism in the criminal justice system in honour of him.

Protesters Call For New Inquest Into TJ Hickey Death
Protests are held every year in honour of TJ Hicky who died in 2004. Image: Don Arnold/Getty.

Ultimately, there are a disproportionate number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in our prison systems.

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The most recent national snapshot shows they make up more than a quarter — 28 per cent —  of Australia's total prison population, even though Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people make up just three per cent of the broader population.

In 2018, an inquiry by the Australian Law Reform Commission described the over-representation as a "persistent and growing problem" and a "national disgrace".

Keenan Mundine, founder of Deadly Connections Community and Justices Services, is trying to fight this issue, having experienced it first-hand.

The Biripi and Wakka Wakka man went to prison for the first time when he was just 14.

He's now in his 30s and back living a fulfilling and successful life in the community, but has spent half his life behind bars.

He explained to The Quicky that he was taken aback by the blatant racism he experienced behind bars.

"It was a difficult process for me to understand. When I got into the adult system, I didn't know how notorious they are about profiling inmates, and housing inmates by their cultural identity. So I was only housed with other Aboriginal inmates, and I was really, really shocked by that," he said.

Since getting out of prison, Mundine is determined to provide an alternative solution to the Indigenous incarceration crisis (one of the many commission recommendations that hasn't translated into real positive change).

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Deadly Connections is just that - positive change in the form of a community-led solution.

Mundine is doing his part, but says widespread change is what's needed to really make inroads and change this narrative.

He has this message for the Australian justice system:

"Take a more humanistic approach. Stop policing Aboriginal communities with an outlook that you're bound to find crime. If you patrol any community long enough you'll find some kind of crime. It's about working together and giving both sides a seat at the table to be aware of the impact that policing has, and to give our people and our community the understanding of what good policing actually looks like."

Feature Image: Facebook/Getty/Facebook: Justice For Tanya.

This post was originally published on January 26, 2020, and updated on May 29, 2020.

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