Sad reflections on 30 years of too many deaths in custody

The opening paragraph of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody final report says:

Between 1 January 1980 and 31 May 1989, ninety-nine Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people died in the custody of prison, police or juvenile detention institutions. They were eighty-eight males and eleven females. Their approximate average age at death was thirty-two years… Their deaths were premature. The circumstances of their deaths were extremely varied… However, an examination of the lives of the ninety-nine shows that facts associated in every case with their Aboriginality played a significant and in most cases dominant role in their being in custody and dying in custody.”1

April this year marked a significant milestone – 30 years since that final report was tabled in Parliament.

The Guardian newspaper has subsequently reported on figures from the Australian Institute of Criminology in December 2020 saying that there were 455 Aboriginal deaths in custody between the royal commission findings in 1991 and 30 June 2019”.2

Sadly, this number has increased to 474 as of 9 April this year, with seven Aboriginal deaths in custody or other, since March 2021.3

On Tuesday 4 May, Queensland Law Society hosted an event reflecting on the past 30 years and particularly the increase of deaths since the Royal Commission’s report.


It was an insightful and thought-provoking morning that saw First Nations panellists – Mununjali and South Sea Islander woman Dr Chelsea Watego, Wakka Wakka and South Sea Islander man Kevin Yow Yeh – share their professional perspectives and first-hand experiences of the systemic racism underpinning Aboriginal deaths in police custody.

Keith Hamburger AM discussed and proposed some suggestions aimed at addressing these systemic issues, with the panel chaired by Professor Elena Marchetti.

Mr Yow Yeh bravely shared his experience of growing up without a grandfather who had died in custody at the age of 34, reportedly due to a heart attack, notwithstanding that his grandfather was believed to be healthy, having played as an elite rugby league player in the early 1970s.

Yet, the family have not had any kind of investigation or closure on the passing of their loved one whilst incarcerated.

Dr Chelsea Watego, who has extensive experience studying race and racism, referred to the Channel 7 news report that went to air on the 30th anniversary featuring a “montage of our kids getting put in police cars”.

Dr Watego reminded listeners of ‘place’, where Queensland for instance is “particularly violent to our youth”, evidenced by recent amendments to the Youth Justice Act. She noted the “harsh penalties against our kids, where the police were very clear about who they were targeting”.


As history demonstrates, it is clear that 30 years on from the Royal Commission’s final report, First Nations people are still being perpetrated as the problem.


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