Analysis: The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody 30 Years On

The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC) was initiated in 1987 ‘in response to a growing public concern that deaths of Aboriginal people in custody were too common and public explanations too evasive to discount the possibility that foul play was a factor’. Indigenous organisations including Aboriginal Legal Services and the Committee to Defend Black Rights, as well as the families of those who died in custody, agitated for the establishment of an investigation into these deaths through a public campaign and political lobbying. The Royal Commission finalised and released its findings by way of a report thirty years ago, in 1991. This report found that Indigenous people faced significant disadvantage resulting in increased contact with the criminal justice system, and that the deaths investigated by the RCIADIC were not found to be the result of deliberate violence or brutality, but were instead the result of systemic failings to uphold a duty of care to Indigenous people in custody.

The Royal Commission made over 300 recommendations, many of which directly addressed police training, prison and coronial procedures, as well as broader areas of social, health and educational services. Three key recommendations were for imprisonment to be considered only as a last resort, public drunkenness to be decriminalised, and arrest rates for minor offences be reduced. With the exception of Victoria recently repealing public drunkenness laws in the wake of Tanya Day’s needless death and the tireless effort of her family seeking justice, very few of these 300 recommendations have been implemented by any State or Federal government.  Meanwhile, Indigenous deaths in custody have increased, in line with increased sentencing, incarceration and contact with the criminal justice system.

Despite the PR, policing and the judicial system have never been about protecting citizens so much as protection of the state.  We’ve seen this play out time and time again when the police use violence to smash pickets, when they attack peaceful demonstrations and civil rights movements, and every time the crimes and violence of bosses on workers is ignored, crimes which destroy lives and livelihoods. Police forces do not inherently act in our interests, and when we hear a government start talking about “law and order”, we can be sure of one thing - that policing will step up in marginalised communities; Indigenous people, people of colour, migrants, youth, the disabled and the disadvantaged. Day to day policing focuses on those who have the least resources available to defend themselves, communities who have been systemically failed by our state institutions, and who are least able to create political backlash.   

If death is seen as the rare and often accidental result of the failings of custodial systems on Indigenous people, what happens when these systems succeed?"

This focus on marginalised communities directly results in more interactions with the police, and with increased interaction, comes increased risk of death. The findings and recommendations from the RCIADIC directly seek to interrupt the processes and failings of the criminal justice system in order to preserve life. Without these recommendations implemented, Indigenous deaths in custody have risen over time. You may have heard about individual campaigns seeking justice for Indigenous people who have died in custody before. Tanya Day. Fella Morrisson. Ms Dhu. These deaths are far from individual tragic events, but should instead be seen as a greater picture of systemic failure. 

We can also be sure that with increased death comes increased violence - If death is seen as the rare and often accidental result of the failings of custodial systems on Indigenous people, what happens when these systems succeed? Indigenous kids are often locked away in remand for months if not years, awaiting court proceedings.  High rates of child removal, high rates of incarceration, high rates of direct violence and harassment are also experienced by Indigenous people when compared to non-Indigenous people. 

In 2020, 28.6% of the male prison population in Australia was Indigenous - yet Indigenous adults only make up around 2% of the Australian population. In 1991, when the RCIADIC report was released, this same prison population statistic was 14.3%. In 2020, we also see that almost a third of Indigenous defendants are given custodial sentences, compared to only a fifth of non-Indigenous people. Over policing of Indigenous people combined with more punitive outcomes in courts see these numbers keep growing, and ultimately, result in a greater number of deaths in custody.

The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, like all Royal Commissions, is a bureaucratic tool, a process that can be used as point scoring propaganda by the government of the day, a catalyst for change, or simply be ignored. The Royal Commission doesn’t have the power to enact its own recommendations, but instead produces the documentation that can be used as an instrument for change by a government that is either willing to do so, or succumbs to pressure to do so. In the case of the RCIADIC, neither has occurred and the findings remain largely ignored.

The RCIADIC, though 30 years old now, contains the blueprint for preventing Indigenous deaths in custody, and should be campaigned around as a starting point for Indigenous justice. This requires concerted, organised social pressure on our State and Federal governments. We’ve all seen what the union movement can achieve when advocating for social change. The strength of our collective power has the ability to make the world a better place, and to force injustices to be addressed. While it’s a disgrace that these recommendations are still largely not enacted, the Indigenous community cannot afford to wait for another milestone anniversary to see movement on the Royal Commission recommendations. It’s time for workers to step up and take this campaign on, to create and amplify the social pressure needed to see these recommendations finally implemented.

What You Can Do

Seek out, listen to and engage with Indigenous workers and leaders

Raise this issue with your union branch, support discussions with Indigenous voices and leaders in the branch and the workplace to learn how to support and facilitate change

Think, and discuss, how actions in your workplace can provide support for the movement to stop Indigenous deaths in custody. If your workplace is one that has interaction with people in custody through provision of services, prioritise discussion about treatment, unconscious bias, and importantly, what role and influence police may have in your provision of services.

And importantly, prompt your branches to have the hard conversations about the role of police in Indigenous deaths in custody; their lack of accountability, their role as enforcers for the government of the day, and ultimately, their place - or not - in the workers’ movement.