Aboriginal deaths in custody: the product of a racist system

On March 14 another Aboriginal person died in custody, this time in a Perth police watchhouse. He was 33 years old. His completely preventable death is one of over 300 that have occurred since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody issued its final report, with 339 recommendations, in April 1991. This latest victim of the racist “justice” system became quite ill in the watchhouse and was taken to hospital, then dragged back to the watchhouse, taken to hospital for a second time only to be brought back again to the cell where he would die.

In February, an 18-year-old Aboriginal man was on remand at Brisbane’s Arthur Gorrie high-security prison on misdemeanour charges when he became ill and later died in hospital. After initially receiving a headache tablet, he was repeatedly refused medical attention by prison staff and suffered in agony for 10 days. Other prisoners had to carry him around and when they protested to prison guards, one of the guards made the comment: “If he can go to the toilet, there’s nothing wrong with him.” It was only when the teenager became unconscious and fellow Aboriginal prisoners kept yelling and bashing on walls that he was taken to hospital. He died four days later on February 20. The cause of death has not been released.

At a 200-strong March 11 rally outside Queensland’s parliament the deceased’s mother told reporters: “I was treated badly at the hospital, very bad. I was sleeping on the floor in the hospital and then I was sent away from his bed the night before I lost him.” When asked by a reporter if this was by health workers or by prison officers she replied, “By the prison officers”.

March 11 was also the day when a new coronial inquest began into the 2004 death of 36-year-old Cameron Doomadgee (also known as Mulrunji) in the Palm Island watchhouse. This new inquest for the benefit of the Queensland Police Union has been called to officially and legally rewrite history. In 2006, acting state coroner Christine Clements found Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley was responsible for Mulrinji’s death. Two autopsies found that Mulrinji had died from internal bleeding due to a ruptured liver and speen. He also had four broken ribs. These are the kind of injuries normally seen after a high-speed car crash.

A year later Hurley won an appeal against Clement’s findings in the Townsville District Court, which ordered a new coronial inquest. Last June, the Queensland Court of Appeal ruled Clement’s findings be set aside, but it also found the process of the decision made by the Townsville court was “flawed”.

The Mulrinji case demonstrates that little has changed since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. The commission found that while black prisoners did not die at a higher rate than whites, Aboriginal people were much more likely to be incarcerated in the first place. While Aboriginal Australians comprise 2% of the general population, they make up about 20% of the prison population. “In every single Aboriginal death in custody since 1991, police officers across the six [Australian] states and two territories routinely and fundamentally ignored the royal commission’s key recommendations”, Sam Watson, deputy director of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Unit at the University of Queensland, told the media.

The police in every state and territory were built in part on the dispossession, harassment, murder and attempted genocide of Aboriginal people. The police and prison guards are armed bodies of people that systematically harass and repress Aboriginal people. This situation is not unique to Australian capitalist society. The racist oppression of indigenous peoples by law-enforcement agencies is a common feature in the developed capitalist “democracies” that grew out of British capitalist settler colonies.

US government studies, as well as those of US and international civil and human rights organisations, have consistently found that Native Americans are disproportionately subject to human rights violations at the hands of law enforcement officers, ranging from pervasive verbal abuse and harassment, racial profiling, routine stops and frisks based solely on race to excessive force, unjustified shootings and torture. The Ojibwe News reported on January 31, 2003, how a police car pulled into the parking lot of a public housing project in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and police officers dragged two Native Americans, a man and a woman, out of the squad car. The officers physically abused them both, beating the man until he lay unconscious then left both of them outside in the parking lot in subzero weather. Witnesses reported that the man’s chest and head had been urinated on during the incident.

The American Friends Service Committee has reported that indigenous women detained in a Maine jail were routinely subjected to visual body cavity searches as a matter of policy whereas similarly situated white women were not. One US federal court of appeal has described the practice as “demeaning, dehumanizing, undignified, humiliating, terrifying, unpleasant, embarrassing, repulsive, signifying degradation and submission” — requiring women to bend over and expose their genital areas to officers, and were routinely accompanied by sexual and racist verbal abuse.In Canada, at a prison 200 km north east of Toronto on October 3, 2006, a native prisoner, Martin Blackwind, cut a major artery in his left arm. He pressed his cell emergency button, which brought him to prison officials’ attention. They provided no first aid and took ten minutes before calling an ambulance. Blackwind remained locked in his cell bleeding to death. The May 21, 2008 Intertribal Times reported that both corrections staff and fellow inmates have said that Blackwind’s race played a role in his death.

On December 5, 1998, Frank Joseph Paul, a 47-year-old native Canadian living in Vancouver, was arrested by two Vancouver police officers for being intoxicated in a public place. He was taken to a Vancouver police department jail but instead of being put in the jail’s sobering up facility, he was removed from the lockup, placed into a police van, and left soaking wet in an alleyway in East Vancouver. Paul’s body was found in the same alley the following morning. He had died of hypothermia. It took almost 10 years of campaigning to get Paul’s case investigated. When the inquiry concluded in 2009 it admitted that the “justice system failed Mr. Paul”. It made some recommendations but just as these inquiries go in Australia or the US, they are purely to protect the system, not indigenous people, by appearing to take action.

At the beginning of the Paul inquest in 2007, journalist and author Warren Goulding warned: “Inquiries, in particular, are expensive, unwieldy devices that generally do little more than pad the bank accounts of lawyers. It’s a mechanism used by government when it is no longer possible to ignore the issue or the injustice that has been done. There’s little to fear from most inquiries. They are conducted with a great deal of civility and faithful servants recycle previous recommendations and tender a few new ones that are too unrealistic to be implemented, too wishy-washy to be of any real value or, almost always, simply shoved under the carpet. Occasionally, government gets lucky and is able to boast about implementing a specific recommendation simply because it’s something they’ve had on the table anyway.”

Aboriginal leaders in Australia are again calling for a new royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody. A new royal commission might put the spotlight on the systemic murder of Aboriginal people in custody and reveal it to a wider audience, but Goulding’s warning about such inquiries in Canada should be kept in mind. No-one should have any illusions that the results of a new royal commission will be any different from the one that concluded in 1991. Its well-meaning recommendations have simply been ignored by a police force and a prison system that enforces the racist oppression of Aboriginal people that is endemic to Australian capitalist-ruled society. As Malcolm X said shortly before his assassination in February 1965: “You can’t have capitalism without racism.”