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Aboriginal Australians are Still Dying in Police Custody

Last month, a 22-year-old Aboriginal woman was arrested for unpaid fines. After three days in police lockup, she was dead. How far has Australia come in 30 years?

by Lauren Gillin
Sep 11 2014, 12:26am

Miss Dhu, 22, was held in lockup at South Hedland Police Station for three days before dying at a nearby hospital. Photo via

Way back in 1983, a 16-year-old Aboriginal man called John Pat died of massive head injuries after being taken into police custody in Western Australia. His death, along with several others, sparked the historic Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. The commission eventually delivered 339 recommendations, including that police only take Aboriginal people into custody as a last resort.

More than three decades later, it seems that Australia has learned very little from its history. 

In 2014, we’re locking up Indigenous Australians at an increasing rate, and some states are not even taking basic steps to keep people alive while they’re behind bars. Aboriginal Australians continue to die seemingly preventable deaths under the watch of Australia’s police forces and custodial services. Case in point: Western Australia. 

Miss Dhu was 22 years old when she was taken into custody on August 2, reportedly as a result of unpaid fines. According to WA Police, she was due to be released from South Hedland Police Station three days later, but after complaining of being ill, she was taken to the Hedland Health Campus. Her condition then “deteriorated and she passed away”.

In a statement to the media, the WA police said Miss Dhu complained of feeling unwell on two occasions while in lockup, and was taken to the Hedland Health Campus on both August 3 and 2. They maintain that on both occasions, medical staff provided police with a Medical Fitness to be Held in Custody certificate, before she was returned to the lock up.

Miss Dhu’s boyfriend, who was detained with her, told The Australian a starkly different version of events. Dion Ruffin told the newspaper that his deceased girlfriend was about to see a doctor for a suspected leg infection, but was then arrested and taken into custody. Once she was behind bars, she started to experience vomiting, fever, and worsening pain and paralysis in her face and legs.

Dion says he and Miss Dhu begged for her to be taken to hospital. “She was in so much pain and was vomiting, it got worse and worse until she couldn’t move her legs and was slurring,” he said.

The police said Miss Dhu eventually died in hospital. Dion says she died behind bars. “On the last day, she was hysterical, saying she felt like she was dying and we were begging the police to take her back to hospital,” he said. “When the cops finally agreed to take her to hospital the last time, they were laughing and saying she was acting. I saw her being dragged out of the cell by her arms, her chin was on her chest and I cried out to her, but she was staring down, blank.”

This isn’t the first time that there’s been concerning evidence about a lack of access to medical care in the state’s lock ups. Last year, WA Parliament’s In Safe Custody inquiry found that staff in some lockups lacked the expertise to properly screen detainees for medical issues, and didn’t have timely access to medical professionals. 

The inquiry also recommended that WA introduce a mandatory custody notification service for Indigenous detainees, such as Miss Dhu and her partner. The state’s government has yet to act on this recommendation.

New South Wales already has such a service. Kate Finlayson from the Aboriginal Legal Service in NSW and the ACT explained how it works to VICE. “When an Aboriginal man, woman or child is taken into custody the police, by law, must ring the Aboriginal Legal Service. A lawyer is available 24 hours a day,” she said. The person is then advised of their rights, and can contact family and friends via their lawyer. Since NSW introduced this service 15 years ago, there hasn’t been a single Indigenous death in custody. The WA figures are not readily available.

Back In 1991, when the Royal Commision delivered its findings, Indigenous Australians made up 14 percent of those behind bars. In the 20 years, that number has risen to 26 percent nationally and up to 90 percent in the Northern Territory. To put that into context: Indigenous Australian’s make up just two percent of Australia’s population. Aboriginal people in WA suffer the highest rate of over-representation compared to any other group in the OECD.

To help keep Aboriginal Australians out of jail and address their over-representation in prisons, one of the Commission’s recommendations was to not imprison people for unpaid fines. So why did Miss Dhu die in police custody?

The Western Australian Attorney General, Michael Mischin, defended the state’s policy at press conference on August 26. He said the threat of incarceration is needed to enforce the rule of law. “There are others ways that people can avoid being jailed. If they choose not to avail themselves of that, then there is nothing the government can do about it,” he said. 

The Attorney General said the state is owed over $350 million dollars in unpaid fines, so there has to be consequences for not paying. The price on Miss Dhu’s life was pocket change in comparison. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Mick Gooda, told VICE that it’s understood she was in custody for $1000 in unpaid fines. 

“The cost of Miss Dhu’s death is far greater,” said Gooda. He told VICE that jail should always be the last resort, and deaths in custody “continue to devastate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and communities” almost three decades after the Royal Commission. 

The Western Australian Shadow Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Ben Wyatt, echoed these sentiments to VICE. He said the government’s policy of locking people up for unpaid fines amounts to a revolving door for Aboriginal people. “If we are not going to offer alternatives to enforcement beyond jail, then we are going to effectively have a permanent underclass of Aboriginal people in particular who will be in and out of imprisonment simply to pay off outstanding fines”, he said.

Ms Dhu’s death isn’t the only case that’s challenged Western Australia’s ability to protect human life. Her death comes six years after respected elder Mr Ward died after being locked for four hours in an unairconditioned prison van in the state’s searing summer heat. Over in NSW, there’s also anger about another Aboriginal man who died in custody after driving without a valid licence.

For now, it looks like Australia is headed for yet another inquiry. Wyatt says he will be keenly awaiting the outcome of the coronial inquiry into Miss Dhu’s death. “There are an incredible amount of questions to be answered.” He says the most important questions are why she was incarcerated and, in particular, why she was given a clean bill of health and returned to police custody. A spokesperson for the WA Country Health Service, who runs the Headland Health Campus where Miss Dhu was seen, told VICE a preliminary review “has shown that on each occasion she received appropriate treatment”.

Ms Dhu’s death is being investigated by the Internal Affairs Unit of the Western Australian Police. A report is being prepared for the coroner. 

Follow Lauren on Twitter @theljg

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