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Grave concerns - Aboriginal deaths in custody

For a moment, even the West Australian State Coroner, Evelyn Vicker, was helpless. Just after she handed her report of the inquiry into the death of Donald Keen to the family – murmuring ‘I am sorry’ – she left the courthouse with tears in her eyes. For Linda, the young deceased’s mother, it was yet another disappointment. ‘Nothing’s changed. We [Aboriginal Australians] never win,’ she sighed.

Donald Keen was only 18 when he entered Hakea Prison. Unlike the juvenile detention centres where he had spent much of his young life, this was an adult prison with mostly convicted criminals. The photo in Linda’s hands of her son shows a young boy with soft skin, a gentle look and shiny hair: too fragile for the environment he was in. Donald was sexually abused by his father and was afraid of being abused again by the elder inmates. Auditory hallucinations caused him to hang himself in his cell. The Coroner’s report details Donald’s cries for help: the times he had shown signs of self-harm. It also sets out the chain of events within the system that failed to prevent his death.

Reports about how Aboriginal people die within the justice system have to date had little impact on the problem. In 1991 – after a five-year inquiry – the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody issued 339 recommendations, and many reports have been written since then. Yet too little has changed. Aboriginal people are still over-represented in the criminal justice system, being over 20 times more likely to be taken into police custody than a non-indigenous person who has committed a similar offence. According to the Australian Institute of Criminology, 91 people died in all forms of custody in Australia during 2000, a 40-per-cent increase since 1990. Over a third of the dead were Aboriginal – completely disproportionate to their presence in the community (less than three per cent of the Australian population is Aboriginal).

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