Thirty years after a major reform aimed at ending the abuses of aboriginal tribes in Australia, recent deaths and an increase in the number of indigenous people in prison illustrate its shortcomings.
Detention from the age of 10 and repeated racist behavior are described by tribal leaders as “national disgrace”. Since 1991, more than 450 indigenous people have died in prison since the State Commission’s report on the deaths of detained tribesmen, especially five since the beginning of March.
In the face of this growing number, there is an outcry that there is no charge against the police or prison authorities in connection with these deaths. Nyoka Chadfield has not recovered from the loss of her 22-year-old son Dan, who fainted in his cell while in pre-trial detention. He died at the hospital.
“It is a painful and tragic experience that we, the aborigines of Australia, have to endure,” he told the AFP. “This has been going on since Captain Cook came here. Our grandmother escaped from the police on horseback. Now our children are fleeing from (police) cars even though there is nothing to do.”
A 1991 census revealed that members of the tribal community were proportionally more likely to die while in detention. The tribes and aborigines of the Strait of Torres then made up just over 14% of the adult prisoners. According to official figures, aborigines make up almost 29% of Australia’s population, making up only 3% of Australia’s population.
The situation is even worse for the children of the tribal community, who represent about 65% of the detained youth. Many of these deaths are attributed to pre-existing health conditions, self-harm or improper medical care. An official investigation last year concluded that Dan Chadfield had committed suicide after suffering from depression and taking drugs.
But in the eyes of his family, this young father was the victim of this organization. About fifteen families who lost a loved one are calling for major reforms in the penal system. We need to create an independent body to investigate these deaths, put an end to mistreatment and increase the age of criminal liability from 10 to 14 years.
Their demands are supported by the tribal communities and associations responsible for judicial reform. France, Canada and Germany have urged Australia to raise the age of criminal liability to 14 in line with UN recommendations. However, work on the issue was halted last year. Opposition Senator Patrick Dodson, a tribal man, called the death toll “a national disgrace.” “Only national will and fundamental political changes will prevent this crisis,” he wrote on Twitter.
According to a report prepared by Deloitte for the Prime Minister’s Office in 2018, 35% of the State Commission’s 339 recommendations, including consideration of the damage suffered by the natives, have not yet been fully implemented.
Talia Anthony, a law professor at the University of Technology in Sydney, believes the reforms “could have saved lives.” The government appears to be deaf to these calls, and has recently proposed tougher bail laws for young people to fight the rise in crime. Indigenous children are incarcerated 17 times more often than other children, and the tribal organization called these new programs “dangerous” to “change the record.” Admitting defeat, the Australian government has promised to reduce the prison rate for aborigines to 15% and the youth detention rate to 30% by 2031. Indigenous Affairs Minister Ken Wyatt, the first Indigenous member of a government, said the government should work together to reduce the number of indigenous peoples who interact with the judiciary “at all levels.”
For many activists, including Colin, the father of Dan Chatfield, the root of the problem is the lingering racism in Australian society. “If we do not get rid of racism, we will not get rid of deaths in custody.”