The Guardian 7 December, 2005

Deaths in Custody Watch Committee
faces closure

The Deaths In Custody Watch Committee (DICWC) of Western Australia may be forced to close its services within weeks following notification by the Department of the Federal Attorney General, Philip Ruddock, that its funding will be cut at the end of this year. As the last surviving branch of the DICWC, this decision will bring an end to the existence of the Watch Committees around Australia.

The decision to cut its funding comes despite many of the issues and recommendations made by the Royal Commission Into Aboriginal Deaths In Custody remaining outstanding.

"Deaths in custody are still happening at the unacceptable rate of nearly one a month just in WA, with over 40 percent of these being suicide", said Khristo Newall, DICWC manager. "These are tragic and largely preventable deaths and this is an issue which demands attention and action, not a shutting down of services. We wish to express our great disappointment with the Federal Government both for this decision, and their wider failures on many human rights issues."

The formation of the DICWC was one of the recommendations of the Royal Commission. It has been the responsibility of the DICWC to advocate and work for the effective implementation of the recommendations made by the Royal Commission — one of the longest and most expensive Royal Commissions in Australian history. The demise of the WA branch of the DICWC means that there will be no independent agencies specifically dedicated to ensuring that the inquiry’s findings will be monitored and implemented.

Progress has been made on a number of issues arising from the Inquiry and some useful reforms both within police procedures and within the prison system have occurred. However, in Western Australia, the number of deaths in custody has not fallen and neither has the over-representation of Aboriginal people in prisons.

"One of the key issues identified as needing urgent attention by the Royal Commission was the high proportion of Aboriginal people in prison, yet 14 years later, the ratio in WA prisons is higher than ever", Mr Newall said.

The Deaths In Custody Watch Committee has worked tirelessly with those in prison, their families and communities, and with a range of other groups to achieve some genuine and positive reforms.

"We acknowledge the positive steps taken by various governments and their departments on some of these matters over the years. However, the fundamental underlying issues remain unresolved and have been ignored or seen as too difficult by successive governments. Now despite the obvious need for work such as ours to continue we are told to shut down.

"We now call on the State Government and the wider community in WA to demonstrate their support of our work, to work more effectively to address the outstanding issues raised by the Royal Commission, and especially to prevent the further tragic loss of lives in custody", said Mr Newall.


(Provided by DICWC of WA)

The Royal Commission Into Aboriginal Deaths In Custody began in 1987, and continued until the release of its final report in 1991. It followed a spate of violent and untimely deaths in custody, such as that of the 16-year-old boy John Pat in a police cell in Roebourne WA after a fight with five off duty police officers in 1983. There were 339 recommendations made by the Commissioners, many dealing with the custodial issues leading to harm or death, but a large number also addressing wider societal and cultural issues, most of which still remain as issues and challenges faced today.

The DICWC in WA was set up by a Coalition of concerned parties in 1993. This included various Church bodies and representatives, unions, lawyers, politicians, Aboriginal organisations, other NGOs, family members related to people who had died in custody, as well as other prominent individuals such as Judge Hal Jackson; the late Jack Davis; and the late Sir Ronald Wilson.

Its specific aim is to monitor and work to ensure the effective implementation of the Royal Commission Into Aboriginal Deaths In Custody, and during the 1990s it was largely successful in keeping these issues on the agenda, and in helping to realise some specific reforms within the Police Department, the Justice system, and most importantly some change in the culture and attitudes within these systems.

While the Royal Commission was a national inquiry, it recommended Deaths In Custody Watch Committees be set up in each state. The DICWC of WA has focused and worked almost exclusively on WA issues, especially given that this State has some of the worst statistics in regard to these issues. WA continues to incarcerate people at a rate far higher than any other state, and in particular has a huge over-representation of Aboriginal prisoners, with the result that they make up just over 40 percent of deaths in custody.

While funding came from ATSIC (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission) for several years, with its demise the funding reverted to the Federal Attorney General, who has now refused to fund this agency beyond this year. Despite this, it is clear that we work almost solely on these issues within WA, and the State Government should bear some responsibility.

This Gallop Government in WA has made some positive steps in custodial reform, in particular setting up of the Office of the Inspector of Custodial Services. We applaud this and work closely with the Inspector and other agencies. However, it is clear that we have a strong history of grass-roots connections with prisoners, their families and communities. This has given us the ability to provide a unique support and advocacy service, which will be lost if further funding is not made available. We are making approaches to the WA Government, and in light of the newly released Mahoney Report would hope that some funding would be granted to see this service continue its valuable work.

The Deaths In Custody Watch Committee (WA) Inc
Phone: +61 (0)89444-1930

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