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Adjournment speech: Aboriginal Deaths in Custody

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 16 Jun 2014

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (22:09): Last Thursday, 12 June 2014, I participated in a moving but troubling event: the 33rd anniversary of the death of a 21-year-old rugby league player Eddie Murray which occurred at a police station in Wee Waa in northern New South Wales. At that event, I met Anne Murray, the last person in his family to see Eddie alive. At the time, Anne was 15. She spoke movingly of that day and of what has happened to her family since, how close she was to her brother and of the need for closure for her family. She made a very clear call for there to be an independent inquiry. For 33 years, the Murray family and their supporters have been making this call.

Eddie Murray was detained on that day for being drunk and disorderly. Police claimed that Murray was found hanging in his cell at 3.30 on a Friday afternoon in 1981. However, the coroner later ruled that the young man died at the hands of a person or persons unknown. A subsequent second autopsy in 1997 found that Murray's sternum was broker, an injury deemed by the forensic pathologist to have been sustained prior to his death. Unconvinced that their son's death was suicide, Leila and Arthur Murray tirelessly campaigned for a proper investigation. Their work was instrument in leading to the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, along with the work of so many other families who had gone through similar tragedies.

The report from the royal commission was released in 1991 and recommended an independent investigation into Murray's death. That has never happened. Paul Whelan, a former New South Wales Minister for Police, referred the case to the New South Wales Police Integrity Commission in 2000, which, however, 'declined the case'. Anne Murray has continued her call for the independent inquiry. My Greens colleague New South Wales Legislative Council member David Shoebridge has a motion before the Legislative Council. He calls on that parliament to:

Take steps to reduce Aboriginal deaths in custody by implementing the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

Apologies unreservedly to the families of those Aboriginal people who have died whilst in police custody in this State.

This case is just one of many preventable Aboriginal deaths in custody in which there has been a shameful lack of proper independent investigation. Almost 1,400 deaths in custody have been recorded since 1980. An alarming proportion of these are of Indigenous Australians. More than two decades on, hardly any of the 339 recommendations of the royal commission have been implemented. Aboriginal deaths in custody have increased by 150 per cent since 1991. There continues to be one per month.

I congratulate Simon Luckhurst, who, in 2006 launched his book Eddie's country. I was privileged to speak at that launch. It is a detailed history of the complex social, historical and legal issues experienced by members of the Murray family. It attempts an unbiased and comprehensive exploration of this case. It is well worth reading because it is a reminder of the great wrongs which have occurred to this family. These great wrongs continue.

The 2004 death of Cameron Mulrunji Doomadgee on Palm Island and the death of Western Australian elder Mr Ward in 2008 in particular have highlighted public acknowledgement of the desperate need to seriously address this issue. Although the percentage of Aboriginal deaths in custody has decreased since the spike in the 1990s, their rates of incarceration have increased significantly. Indigenous people represent two per cent of Australia's population although they make up a staggering 25 per cent of the prison population. They are 15 times more likely to be imprisoned than non-Indigenous Australians.

 This means that the number of Aboriginal deaths in custody is rising. A study by the Australian Institute of Criminology in 2013 found that Aboriginal deaths in custody had increased significantly over the previous five years. Although the overall rate of deaths had remained steady, the almost twofold increase in the number of Indigenous Australians in state and territory prisons contributed to this jump.

On 25 September 2013, the Western Australian parliament unreservedly apologised to the family of John Pat, a 16-year-old who also died in police custody. I am calling on the New South Wales government to do the same for the family of Eddie Murray and other Indigenous people who have died in police custody or in jail. This is one aspect of David Shoebridge's motion to the New South Wales parliament. Australian governments must desperately address both the fundamental causes of distressingly high rates of Indigenous incarceration and the treatment of people in the custody of Australian police or corrective services.

It is vital that there is improved scrutiny of the treatment of people in police and corrective services custody. Some positive, albeit basic, measures have been implemented following the royal commission's findings. Queensland heeded recommendations regarding facilities by removing bars on cell windows. Victoria has implemented a policy of building safe and livable cell environments. Nevertheless, it is essential that basic provisions for ensuring fundamental wellbeing and preventing prisoner suicide be implemented in correctional facilities across Australia.

In both South Australia and New South Wales, the state coroner continues to request to have hanging points removed from prisons. It is absolutely inexcusable that this still has to happen. Between 2001 and 2009, New South Wales coroners investigated more than 40 hanging deaths in New South Wales jails, yet the issue of hanging points was raised in the written findings of less than half the inquests and formal recommendations were made in only seven cases.

Furthermore, whilst some policies have been implemented to better address the needs of Aboriginal men in prison, women and juvenile prisoners remain particularly vulnerable. Of the women who died in custody between 1980 and 2000, 32 per cent were Aboriginal, compared with 18 per cent of men who died in custody. A study of incarcerated women revealed that 67 per cent of all Aboriginal women in prison had been incarcerated previously, while almost half this number of non-Aboriginal women had a history of incarceration.

The 1991 royal commission highlighted the issue of a lack of accountability and transparency in relation to the investigation of Aboriginal deaths in custody. Commissioner Johnston observed that:

In many instances, custodial authorities have been secretive and defensive about a death in custody, rather than recognising the fact that relatives and the public have a right to know what happened.

Currently, coroners in all but two Australian states and territories have no legal obligation to look beyond the immediate cause and manner of death. Australia needs an impartial statutory authority responsible for investigating deaths in custody in order to remove defensive action by custodial authorities and avoid potential conflicts of interest. The Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland is a good model for such a body which works effectively.

The increasing push to entrust prison management to private contractors in Australia is also of significant concern. Deaths in custody in private prisons are twice as high as in government-run facilities. The coronial inquest into Mr Ward's death in 2008 found that G4S and the Western Australian Department of Corrective Services contributed to his death. This is the same security contractor which presided over the Manus Island detention centre, where recently we have seen riots that resulted in the death of a young Iranian asylum seeker, Reza Barati.

There simply must be proper processes for the investigation of deaths in custody. There must not be another case like Eddie Murray's. I pay my tribute to the Murray family. I acknowledge the enormous work that his parents did. They have both died now, but they worked tirelessly to have such an inquiry, which we continue to call for. I also paid tribute to the work of Ray Jackson from the Indigenous Social Justice Association who has stood with his family and many others for decades.

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