Academic Anthony Dillon has spoken out to tell the truth about Aboriginal deaths in custody. Picture: AAP Image/Glenn Hunt.
Academic Anthony Dillon has spoken out to tell the truth about Aboriginal deaths in custody. Picture: AAP Image/Glenn Hunt.

Time to tell the truth about ‘crisis’

OPINION

Proponents of the Uluru Statement from the Heart want a process of truth-telling about Australia's history and colonisation. I am fine with that, so long as the accounts of the past are not some sanitised version, but are a warts'n'all account.

Given that this month marks the 30th anniversary of the final report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, I think it's time we had some truth telling on this subject; because there is a lot of misinformation out there, leading some to refer to it as a "festering crisis."

During March and up until recently, I saw several interviews or articles focusing on recent Aboriginal deaths in custody. This was mostly due to there being a spike in March in Aboriginal deaths in custody, and so rightly attracted a lot of attention. However, the responses were far from objective, and used to promote the false narrative that Aboriginal people in custody are at an elevated risk of dying than non-Aboriginal people in custody. They are not.

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Crowd at the Black Lives Matter protest held at Djabarrgalli (Sydney Domain). Picture: Jonathan Ng.
Crowd at the Black Lives Matter protest held at Djabarrgalli (Sydney Domain). Picture: Jonathan Ng.

It has been known since the early days of the royal commission, that Aboriginal people in custody do not die at a higher rate than non-Aboriginal Australians.

In an article in The Canberra Times, David Biles a criminologist, who for three years was the head of the criminology research group of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, stated: "in the early days of the royal commission, when I and a small team of researchers were able to prove unequivocally that Aboriginal people were slightly less likely to die in prison or police custody than non-Aboriginal people, we were met with derision and disbelief. We were even accused of disloyalty to the royal commission."

The latest available information from the Australian Institute of Criminology shows that this is still the case. In 2018-19 there were 16 Indigenous deaths in prison custody. The death rate of Indigenous prisoners was 0.13 per 100 prisoners while, comparatively, the death rate of non-Indigenous prisoners was 0.23 per 100 prisoners.

Despite this truth, some see Aboriginal deaths in custody as a crisis, with some claiming it is clear evidence of racism. While masquerading as a crisis, I think it's actually a distraction from discussing the elevated death rates of Aboriginal people in communities. I would welcome some truth telling on that.

We pay a dear price when Aboriginal people in custody are portrayed as being at an increased risk of dying. When Aboriginal people are endlessly bombarded with the poisonous message that frontline workers are racist, then don't be surprised if they are reluctant to access their services when needed.

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Protest in Brisbane over a black death in custody at Queensland Police Roma Street Watchhouse in September 2020. Picture: Richard Walker
Protest in Brisbane over a black death in custody at Queensland Police Roma Street Watchhouse in September 2020. Picture: Richard Walker

For example, in The Australian newspaper this past March, Rachael Marin, the principal solicitor at Wirringa Baiya Aboriginal Women's Legal Centre, was reported to have said that due to the four Aboriginal deaths in custody in March, these statistics were stopping women from reporting their abusers. Ms Marin is quoted in The Australian as saying: "The fear is that once they're in that system that there will be poor mistreatment, and that there will be possibly a death in custody."

My concern is that if abusers are not locked away, their women will be at risk of death.

An even sadder story, is of the two Indigenous teenagers who tragically lost their lives in Perth's Swan River while trying to evade police in 2018. It is no surprise, that this death has been used as an opportunity to implicate "systemic racism" as a contributor to their unfortunate deaths. Interested readers can read my previous writing on this tragedy in The Herald Sunin March.

The only thing I find sadder than the deaths of these boys, is that their deaths are now being used by some to push their agenda that racism against Aboriginal people is rampant.

So what's next? While Aboriginal people in custody do not appear to be at an elevated risk of dying, they are at an elevated risk of incarceration, and reducing this risk should be a priority. However, we don't just want Aboriginal people not entering prison, we want them as productive members of society, as many of them are already. I think a good start would be to look at those Aboriginal Australians who are doing well. What has been the key to their success?

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Dr Anthony Dillon wants more truths to be told about Aboriginal deaths in custody.
Dr Anthony Dillon wants more truths to be told about Aboriginal deaths in custody.

First, I think the advice of my father, Australia's first Aboriginal police officer, is valuable: "People who keep making excuses and justify poor behaviour, rarely aspire to worthwhile goals in life." Let's stop making excuses.

Second, the Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, provides an important clue: "Education creates the opportunity to be empowered, take charge of our future and shape our destiny … I've been a battler for most of my life but I have always driven myself to be successful in order to achieve my dreams. Education was the pathway that changed my life and it's the key to success for any young Australian."

The words of these two Aboriginal men are a reminder that the keys of success for Aboriginal Australians are the same as those for non-Aboriginal Australians.

Anthony Dillon is an academic and commentator on Indigenous affairs. He identifies with both his Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal ancestry | @Anthonywodillon

Originally published as Time to tell the truth about 'crisis'

 



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